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Saturday, March 08, 2008

Should We Weep or Laugh?

Can't say I'm a fan of the so-called smooth genre, but we have to be careful how we bury genres prematurely

Smooth Jazz: Gentle Into That Good Night?As the Genre Declines, Stations Switch To New Formats in D.C. and Nationwide
By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 9, 2008; M05

Born in focus groups conducted in windowless conference rooms, named by a
radio station consultant, derided by critics, smooth jazz vanished from
Washington's FM radio dial as the month began. It was 14 years old.

Actually, it was a listener who uttered the phrase that a consultant used to
sum up this fusion of instrumental music styles. At a focus group held in
Chicago by Broadcast Architecture, the firm that first sold radio stations
on the new format in the early 1990s, a woman who was asked to describe the
songs being tested blurted out "smooth jazz."

What she was describing was a jazzlike sound without the jazz essential of
improvisation, a melody-driven, generally instrumental set of songs played
primarily on instruments used in jazz. But even that fungible definition
fell apart as smooth jazz spread to about 200 radio stations, including
Washington's WJZW (105.9 FM), which switched to a 1960s-heavy rock oldies
format. In recent years, smooth jazz came to mean not only saxmen Kenny G
and Dave Koz but even singers Norah Jones, India.Arie and Sting.

Despite hoots and catcalls from fans of straight-ahead jazz and yawns from
pop and rock lovers, smooth jazz was a rare kind of success -- a genre of
music created not so much by the artists and the record industry as by radio
programmers who identified a style, found an audience and inspired musicians
to make the product.

As far back as the 1970s, the jazz fusion movement's lighter hits, from
artists such as Bob James, George Benson and Spyro Gyra, won airplay not
only on the handful of jazz stations around the country but on light rock
and easy-listening stations. Chuck Mangione's "Feels So Good" from 1977 was
probably the first smooth jazz hit, even if the genre didn't yet exist.

It wasn't until 1987, when a Los Angeles station became the first major
outlet to devote itself to the music of David Sanborn, the Rippingtons and
Al Jarreau, that a financial incentive developed for instrumentalists to
write and record music that would serve as the aural wallpaper that this new
format sought.

Radio programmers looking for a way to serve office workers and stressed-out
commuters built a recipe including ingredients from fusion jazz, light R&B,
pop balladeers and a few straight-jazz artists who followed guitarist
Benson's lead toward less intellectually challenging, more melodic numbers.

>From the start, critics hated the stuff, dismissing it as the elevator music
of the '90s. Michael B¿rub¿, a cultural critic at Penn State University,
defined the genre as "a form of musical waterskiing over the groove." But
smooth jazz stations generally did well, winning an audience that was
unusual for radio -- racially mixed, crossing boundaries of age, geography
and income level.

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