On The Misnomer of Smooth Jazz

Special thanks to Rob DeBoer of Four80East for this great post: What’s in a name? Embrace the hyphen.

You know, when I first got into smooth jazz at 15, I had no idea that the term “smooth jazz” was considered to be almost a dirty word, as far as genres of  music are concerned. I still hear everything from, “it’s elevator music” to “who would want to listen to some guy on the sax wailing away?” and as far as misconceptions are concerned, there’s plenty.

In conversation with a client/friend of mine, who is a celebrated vocalist – and not just within the jazz world, far as that – and while on this very topic, I found myself saying, “It’s not smooth – you have your bossa nova influences, your rock fusion, your traditional, your New Age-influenced, your pop and R&B. What part of this constitutes ‘smooth’?”

This is what we call a Eureka moment. I had one right there.

The genre that had its name effectively become a sneer has the mother of all misnomers for its name. Smooth jazz is not “smooth”. For every variant of Kenny G, you find five horn players whose style is anything but baby-making soundtrack (pardon the expression, but it’s a pretty suitable description for the mis-perception). – I mean, hell, look at Boney James and Euge Groove, both heavily R&B’d. For every track that does make a person want to vomit with sappiness, there’s no less than twenty that sound absolutely nothing like you’d expect them to sound (Four80East, Down to the Bone, Spyro Gyra). There’s entirely, entirely too much variety in the genre to call it “smooth” or to just compartmentalize it into a comfortable box. FCC has been trying to shoehorn it into a box and pack it away, as evidenced by the reformats of multiple radio stations, but instead we have a slew of online radio stations, and Watercolors on Sirius XM. And none of those radio stations play only “smooth” jazz. The variety is there, and with the ventures of new faces onto the scene all the time, it’s still improving.

So what’s in a name?

Honestly, the only thing that’s in a name is perception, and it has been shown, time and again, with every new release that an artist puts out, that the perception is erroneous.

What one person calls this genre is up to the person, because there’s no two perceptions that are exactly alike. Smooth jazz is so much more than just smooth, and how about we just call it what it is: great music. It’s original, it’s not remanufactured, it’s not created via a “reality” show – it’s just music, and it’s great. And, for whatever reasons you can muster up, there’s not much exposure for it. Let’s just keep its name at great music, whatever the “hyphen-jazz” genre it may be dubbed as in the presses.

K.G.

ETA: A great read by Shannon West of SmoothViews on this subject: http://www.smoothviews.com/archives/perspectives/perspectivesMar10.htm

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9 thoughts on “On The Misnomer of Smooth Jazz

  1. I personally like the term Contemporary Jazz, which seperates it from Traditional / Straight Ahead Jazz, but does not just include a single sub-genre. When I started Smooth Jazz Spot, I used Smooth Jazz in the name, as that’s what I was used to hearing the music called. However, as long as I enjoy the music (I’m not a big fan of Traditional /Straight Ahead Jazz), I really don’t care what it’s called.

    1. I still use “smooth jazz” in conversation, and use it as an opportunity to get people to discuss the genre a bit. The sound of shattering preconceptions is always music to my soul.

  2. You knew it was my break time, didn’t you? ;D
    Euge Groove…as funky as he can be, even in a ballad. Boney James…soulfully sensual. Paul Taylor…Sensual and cool. None of these fit in an elevator. If I heard it in an elevator, I would be dancing.
    Gerald Albright and Kirk Whalum…Soulful Sax with a nod to tradition. Mindi Abair and Jeff Golub ROCK and Blues! Peter White and Marc Antoine master the guitar effortlessly, and mesmerize ME, for one. They don’t just do covers, they have original material that WORKS!
    Our “Smooth Jazz” station, KYOT, has dropped the title as of last week. Only time will tell if they will drop the music that THEY pigeonholed and labeled as well.
    I like straight-ahead jazz, but I want to be excited, to dance, to be affected in a way that only contemporary jazz affects ME. I like knowing where my beat is.
    The more the “jazz purists” beat down contemporary jazz artists, the more it looks like sour grapes to me. If Dizzy Gillespie moves you the way that Euge moves me, then we should BOTH be happy that their music is out there to enjoy. And if THEY both move us, that’s cool too! They are not mutually exclusive, folks!
    Get over the labels, enjoy the music, while we have it, because it’s looking bleak to me. No one will win, and is that what we REALLY want?

    1. A-freakin’-MEN, Lory! And yes, I had a feeling. LOL.

      And you know, even though CD 101.9 is digital and not as easily accessible as it was on plain terrestrial, you would not believe the demand for jazz in NY, whether it’s Dave Brubeck (packed house!!!) or Brian Culbertson (even more packed house!!!). It’s here. There’s no need to pigeonhole it, but to embrace it and make it work. It’s just a matter of making the suits at FCC get that.

  3. I think it’s time to “cut bait” on the term Smooth Jazz because it does not represent the music, it alienates potential fans who haven’t experienced the real thing live, and it was the name of a radio format syndicated by a consultant-not a genre of music. Before BA we called it Adult Alternative – my feeling is Instrumental Oriented Adult Alternative – a mouthful for on-air but not for labeling a genre. It opens up a lot of doors that the concepts of “smooth” and “jazz” limit. I wrote more on this in these two pieces. “Whats In A Name” – http://www.smoothviews.com/archives/perspectives/perspectivesMar10.htm and one for the industry -ttp://www.allthatjazzinc.com/index_files/page0098.html

    1. Shannon – agreed completely, and thanks much for the reading!

      Also, shoot me an e-mail? (k.gilraine at gmail)

  4. I think it’s time to “cut bait” on the term Smooth Jazz because it does not represent the music, it alienates potential fans who haven’t experienced the real thing live, and it was the name of a radio format syndicated by a consultant-not a genre of music. Before BA we called it Adult Alternative – my feeling is Instrumental Oriented Adult Alternative – a mouthful for on-air but not for labeling a genre. It opens up a lot of doors that the concepts of “smooth” and “jazz” limit. I wrote more on this in these two pieces. “Whats In A Name” – http://www.smoothviews.com/archives/perspectives/perspectivesMar10.htm and one for the industry -ttp://www.allthatjazzinc.com/index_files/page0098.html

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