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Smooth Jazz: Gentle Into That Good Night?

Kenny G, who epitomizes what people love and hate about smooth jazz, says: "I play songs people want to hear."
Kenny G, who epitomizes what people love and hate about smooth jazz, says: "I play songs people want to hear." (By Jim Cooper -- The Washington Post)
By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 9, 2008

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.

It took until 2000 before the Grammy Awards added a pop instrumental album category to recognize smooth jazz stars, and the format's artists could never get away from having to defend themselves against the idea that they had sold out.

"I play songs people want to hear," saxophonist Kenny G told the Denver Post in a typical defense. "Critics don't bother me because I know I have integrity. . . . The jazz purists should be looking at me and saying 'thank you.' I've brought people into buying instrumental music. Maybe they'll open up and find an old Sonny Rollins or Charlie Parker record after that."

Other artists tried a different tack, denying that they fit the label. "We're not smooth jazz," trumpeter Chris Botti told the Boston Globe, even as he acknowledged that his music was not about "playing in a little tiny club and it sounds like a math test," but rather "playing big venues and it's pleasing."

The format was all about pleasant melodies, whether it's Kenny G's songful instrumentals or the soft vocals of an Anita Baker or Sade. For a good chunk of the '90s, the major force propelling CD sales of the music was the Weather Channel, which used smooth jazz as the background sound during its local weathercasts.

But smooth jazz has hit rough waters. New York City's CD101.9, for many years the nation's most popular smooth jazz station, died last month, replaced by a rock format. Philadelphia's smooth jazz outlet switched to a rhythmic hits format featuring everything from Alicia Keys and Beyonc¿ to Frankie Valli and Bon Jovi.

In Washington, WJZW's ratings had remained steady at the bottom of the market's top 10 stations -- a bit up over the past couple of years, but not enough to satisfy executives looking for a more profitable format.

In cities where the format is still thriving, such as Chicago, more adventuresome programmers are mixing some more traditional jazz into the playlist. Pianist and DJ Ramsey Lewis, who hosts a syndicated show heard on many smooth jazz stations, now blends some Oscar Peterson and Bud Powell in with the format's R&B and light jazz regulars.

In markets where radio companies killed off smooth jazz because of drooping ratings, listeners have often demanded a return of the music. That has happened in Milwaukee, Philadelphia and already in Washington, where both WASH (97.1 FM) and WJZW have announced plans to include smooth jazz on one of their HD channels, which require the purchase of a digital radio. Both satellite radio services, XM and Sirius, also have smooth jazz channels.

That may not be enough to calm the legions of agitated fans who have been calling the offices of WJZW's owner, Citadel Broadcasting, but in the radio industry, listeners' desire for relaxing background music is not a priority these days. With sales of advertising spots in sharp decline, programmers and advertisers alike are looking for listeners who will be paying close attention, and that means music that's front and center, not light and breezy.

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