JAZZ: Scott DeVeaux, W.W. Norton & Company


Smooth jazz – smooth jazz is a term that was created in the 1980s to deal with the new kind of fusion. This is during the time when the word fusion, to too many people it sounded like ‘70s and it wasn't the ‘70s anymore. They wanted a new term and so smooth jazz has emerged. There are any number of other variants of it. This is a radio term; this is a way of trying to say we are broadcasting a particular kind of music towards a particular audience, and that audience is not a rock audience but not quite a jazz audience, and we are going to find music that will fit into that particular niche. And of course if someone moves out of that niche there's no problem because it's demographics, there's always going to be someone in that particular category. It is a kind of jazz, it's a kind of jazz that jazz musicians feel quite uncomfortable about. And in fact in my class I have to let people know that Kenny G is part of this class even though people who are in this class and now see themselves as becoming part of jazz culture understand that to be part of jazz culture is to hiss when you hear the name Kenny G.

But smooth jazz is the boundary line between jazz and the overall pop world. And interestingly it started in the 1970s primarily with a new, affluent, middle-class, black audience. People like Grover Washington, Jr., George Benson, Stanley Turrentine - all these people began to realize that for these folks, they wanted to have music that fit their lifestyle, that fit their rhythm and blues tastes and yet had this jazzy element to it, and it just created a whole new genre, that then gets morphed in the ‘80s to being something that has Kenny G as its most visible symbol and a guy who has sold so many albums that it is almost like the rest, more than the rest of the entire jazz world combined. It's rather frightening.

The intriguing thing about smooth jazz for me is that the way people record actually gets at something that I find very difficult to let go of in jazz, which is that jazz musicians are conversing with each other, and I mean musically speaking. When you play something on piano and you hear a drummer, you respond to it. You are putting together a groove in a way that is involving intense musical conversation. And, of course, digital recording technology means that you can just put down a drum track and go home and someone else can come in and put in a rhythmic track – uh, a piano track – and go home, and you can kind of just do this kind of piecing together of recording without having any of the musicians in the studio at the same time. And then ultimately Kenny G comes in and does his stuff on top of it. That kind of recording, as I say, in some ways really, to me, removes one of the important things about jazz, and I have difficulty with it. It's not something that is, that has not already affected jazz in other ways, as well. There are plenty of recordings that you can say have used a lot of editing and other things like that to produce the music, and they do that intelligently in ways that I happen to enjoy, and there are, of course, there's plenty of smooth jazz that actually also, they're real bands and they do work together and they do create a sense of groove; but that, but that is one aspect of, I'd say, modern recording technology that worries me a bit.