How did Smooth Jazz Evolve? A Deep Dive With Shizuka Shearn

How did Smooth Jazz Evolve? A Deep Dive With Shizuka Shearn


Smooth jazz, we all know what that is.  It’s the unobtrusive, glossily produced music that pipes into grocery stores, dentist offices and shopping malls. Quite often, the word “jazz” for the general public is synonymous with this style and will elicit a gag reflex.  In my lifetime of listening to jazz which has been my entire existence, my general experience has been that if I ask someone if they like jazz, the response is generally no.  This is because their experience has been with an overzealous fan of avant garde music that doesn’t expose the person to the basic recordings of the genre like Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz or recordings that are somewhere in between the straight ahead and avant garde like John Coltrane’s  Impressions: Live At The Village Vanguard or the masterpiece and best known record A Love Supreme.  Instead, that person will have been exposed to very advanced albums for seasoned listeners like Nipples by Peter Brotzmann, John Zorn’s iconic thrash metal/avant garde jazz freakout Naked City or Coltrane’s Om.  The flip side is they might  be exposed to smooth jazz.  Smooth jazz is the Black American Music version of Satie’s Furniture Music, something so mundane it isn’t intended to be noticed at all.  In the Black community in the late 70s and early 80s, the music offered a respite for those when the music got too esoteric for some, a trend I noticed in my own  family and some friends of mine. The danceable rhythms and strong melodic foundation tethered the style to those who already like the earth based foundation of funk and R&B.

Likewise with smooth jazz, the unknowing person who experienced the trauma of being exposed to the least accessible of the avant garde may have been exposed to the reigning champion of the genre, Kenny G; (more on him later) the worst the genre has to offer, Brian Culbertson, early Spyro Gyra, Peter White, alongside other really bad examples: Special EFX’ GRP recordings, Paul Hardcastle, keyboardist Philippe Saisse’s 1988 Windham Hill release, Valerian, the list goes on. Smooth jazz isn’t ALL BAD but there is an interesting history of the music, and it evolved in a very unique way. Between 1976-1983 there was a lot of very good stuff, but then from 1984, something happened… so called R&B and quiet storm radio stations would be integrating this music on their playlists alongside decidedly non jazz artists like Sade, Phil Collins and Steely Dan, and by 1987 the system of  the consulting firm Broadcast Architecture changed the game. Smooth jazz for some, but not all, was a gateway to straight ahead jazz, free jazz and other variants while the style has a devoted following of people who chiefly listen to it.

The genre actually has its precursor in the mid 1960’s and let’s begin with producer Creed Taylor, who worked at Bethlehem, ABC/Impulse, and Verve. While at A&M Records in 1967, most famously he founded CTI Records.  The label began as a subsidiary, but by 1970 became independent and grew to become one of the most important jazz labels in history, and from 1970-74 especially in my view, the records were absolute gold.  After that, there were patches of brilliance, but Taylor had struggled to balance poor business decisions with trying to stay on top of industry trends.

Creed Taylor, Verve, A&M and CTI: Sowing the Seeds

Taylor was born in Virginia, in 1929.  Before embarking on his career as a producer, he was a trumpeter and had played in some ensembles and was a huge fan of the music of Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, and the big bands Upon his graduation from Duke University, Taylor moved to New York, started as a producer at Bethlehem Records and helped bring greater commercial success to popular vocalist Chris Connor in the late 1950’s.  He was instrumental in signing John Coltrane to Impulse in 1961 and being behind the label’s vision of uncompromising Black music, sandwiched between luxurious gate fold glossy jackets with provocative imagery as in Oliver Nelson’s Blues In The Abstract Truth or searching, with A Love Supreme.  Following his exit from Impulse in 1961, Taylor became producer for Verve Records.  It was here that artists like Stan Getz, Astrud Gilberto and Walter Wanderley wooed audiences into the bossa nova craze and organist Jimmy Smith, who signed on in 1962 (later completing four albums for  his Blue Note contract the following year) became a household name with his albums featuring big band backing from arrangers Oliver Nelson, Billy Byers and Claus Ogerman.  The real precedent for smooth jazz took effect when guitarist Wes Montgomery joined Verve from Riverside and cut the albums Bumpin’ , and Goin Out Of My Head with a crack rhythm section and featuring Don Sebesky’s arrangements.Vox’s excellent and concise video on the genre  discussed this album but what they failed to mention was in these recordings from 1965 and 1966, there is still a fair bit of improvisational room for Wes, but starting with A Day In The Life, Down Here On The Ground and Road Song from 1967 and 1968 respectively on A&M/CTI, the groundwork for what was smooth jazz was truly laid.  Wes is backed by a string section, and accompaniment from no less than Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Grady Tate or Ed Shaughnessy on drums, but they are purely in session musician mode.  The guitarist floats above the melodies with his signature octaves, and that is a defining feature of smooth jazz: the melody.  There is improvisation in many smooth jazz tunes, but it is relatively brief, the rhythm section plays it relatively straight, and the solo content is melodically driven.  By the mid 1980’s however, the improvisatory content would shrink considerably.

The albums from CTI featured the striking photography of Pete Turner, glossy gatefold jackets designed by Bob Ciano, and the sound of Rudy Van Gelder, all of whom would be integral parts of CTI once the label flew on its own.  No surprise that Taylor, upon signing George Benson in 1968, tried to duplicate the success he had with Montgery, but it was Benson’s CTI albums beginning with Beyond The Blue Horizonin 1971 and ending with Good King Bad in 1976, was Benson truly burgeoning as both the jazz and pop superstar he’d become.

When Taylor signed jazz superstars, Freddie Hubbard,Stanley Turrentine, George Benson, and Hubert Laws to the newly independent CTI, all would make initial recordings with small groups in 1970, but feature them around larger ensembles once their initial albums proved successful to help bring them to a larger audience.  Hubbard’s first two records for the label, the landmark jazz-funk classics Red Clay and  Straight Life were small group efforts with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Ron Carter and Lenny White (Red Clay) and Jack DeJohnette (Straight Life) bridging the hard bop and modal bridges that the trumpeter explored at Blue Note, Atlantic and MPS in the sixties.  “Red Clay” is unforgettable as a contrafact on the changes of Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny”. Carter’s great bassline and White’s double time groove paving the way for muscular solos, while “Straight Life” was a 17 minute modal jam, Hancock particularly hypnotic with an African influenced Rhodes ostinato that runs throughout. The definitive of the tune for me,  was played by the CTI All Stars on the album The California Concert with the track first being released on a complete edition 2 CD set of the concert in 2010.

By 1972 when Hubbard’s classic, Grammy winning First Light was released (which the late trumpeter called his favorite), the winds of change for what would become smooth jazz would manifest on this album.  The music employed an all star group including Hubert Laws, Richard Wyands, George Benson, Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette was recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s Englewood Cliffs, NJ studio first, then a string, wind and horn section arranged and conducted by Don Sebesky would be overdubbed at a separate session at Van Gelder’s studio.  Taylor applied this approach to all large ensemble dates in this timeframe, and the result would be an airiness that would float behind the main ensembles.  What separates albums like First Light, by Milt Jackson and Salt Song by Stanley Turrentine, from the full blown smooth jazz later in the decade and into the 80’s  is  a premium on serious improvisation, charged rhythm section interaction (take Billy Cobham’s passionate drum dialogue with Freddie Hubbard and Herbie Hancock on “For Someone I Love” as an example) and interesting harmonies.  The classic CTI approach is still debated long after the label ceased to exist by hardcore fans on internet forums.

Taylor  had smash albums with saxophonist Grover Washington Jr.on CTI’s sister label KUDU.  1971’s Inner City Blues, 1973’s Soul Box, and 1975’s Mister Magic, all with arrangements by Bob James was the absolute star seller, which established Washington as a major voice on the saxophone. He’d go to even greater pop and R&B stardom with 1980’s Winelight featuring the hit “Just The Two Of Us”.   Washington, from Buffalo, New York, paid his dues in the organ group scene, most notably with Charles Earland. When Washington recorded Inner City Blues, he was already familiar to CTI/KUDU listeners, appearing on albums by organist Johnny Hammond, and it was clear from the jump he was adept at straight ahead, R&B, soul and funk, and he imbued EVERYTHING he played with feeling. By the late mid to late 70’s Taylor recorded  discofied  albums from  Esther Phillips, drummer Idris Muhammad, Hank Crawford on KUDU, producer/keyboardist/arranger Dave Matthews on CTI and by the early 80’s because of financial issues, CTI was no more.  Sony attempted American CD reissue campaigns in the late 80’s, late 90’s, early and mid 00’s but they fell flat.  Creed Taylor resurrected CTI in the 90’s for new music featuring Dizzy Gillespie, Jim Hall, Donald Harrison smooth foray The Power of Cool but it did not last long.  The hunger for CTI remains in Japan where reissue programs have been sustained for decades.

Bob James, CTI Records and the Founding of Tappan Zee

Bob James is the grandfather of smooth jazz, and has also been the backbone of hip hop for many years.  James was born in Marshall, Missouri, and in 1963 after being discovered by Quincy Jones, recorded the incredible avant garde album Bold Conceptions with a bizarre musique concrete version of Bill Evans’ “Nardis” which must be heard to be believe.  If all one knows is James’ solo work from 1974 on, it is hardly identifiable.  He went on to record another avant garde masterpiece, Explosions in 1965 for ESP before settling in on composing music for the stage.  He would be hired by Creed Taylor as one of CTI’s staff arrangers in 1971, and the arrangements he provided for organist Johnny Hammond’s Wild Horses Rock Steady, Grover Washington’s Soul Box, Power of Soul by Idris Muhammad, and Stanley Turrentine’s Don’t Mess With Mister T. showcased a very talented artist with knack for providing backgrounds in line with the pop climate, but also some spikier, more dissonant passages.  It would be three years before James recorded his leader debut One, in 1974 which I’ve written about at length.

One balanced his signature, a penchant for poppish almost romantic melody, (check out the Pachebel’s Canon in D variation “In The Garden”) with sweeping arrangements reminiscent of his classical roots with adventure.  “Valley Of The Shadows” begins with some eerie, creepy mellotron sounds of a choir and dissonant strings are placed underneath the solos from Grover Washington, Jr and James himself.  The adaptation of Mussorgsky’s “A Night On Bald Mountain opts for flair as Steve Gadd’s ripping 9/8 is the backdrop.  It is the cover “Feel Like Making Love” by Roberta Flack (James played on the original with the rhythm section of Gary King and Muhammad) that really establishes the proto smooth connection, soaring strings, and Idris Muhammad’s relaxed backbeat are emblematic of the style.  “Nautilus” the final track and deepest album cut, became a hip hop classic being sampled more than 350 times. “Westchester Lady” from Three endures as a smooth jazz classic and is one of his most enduring tracks.

It really wasn’t until James founded his own Tappan Zee label in 1977, that his reputation as a smooth jazz legend really took off.  His third album on Tappan Zee, Touchdown, it’s memorable gatefold cover featuring a football spanning the entire jacket really made him.  He brought along many of the same players used on CTI, and utilized lush production.  Touchdown, though an album I like very much and grew up with, epitomizes the criticism in the jazz community that many have with the keyboardist, and I agree.  The criticism is that James tends to go for extreme cheese, his albums dealing in whatever was hip commercially at the time.  The melodies can be overly sunny, take the melody of “Touchdown” as David Sanborn enters on the second A section.  It’s almost as if the listener is hearing a piece of library production music, or something used in a retro commercial.  The big single “Angela” (Theme From Taxi” especially with the recorder intro which is in a baroque style,  is twee but for me once Eric Gale’s guitar solo and James’ Rhodes’ solos kick in it saves things. Touchdown is an album of well played jazz-funk, but it’s the kind of album you put on for no purpose other than to decompress.  By 1980’s H and the opening track “Snowbird Fantasy” the sappiness is too hard to ignore.  When he recorded his first duo album with guitarist Earl Klugh One On One in the previous year, from the glittering keyboard textures on “Kari”, the analogy I made to Satie’s furniture music is apropos.  One On One, though a genre classic with terrific players and playing, is an album that’s just kind of there, in the background, fitting the definition of furniture music.  1983’s Foxie is much the same formula, except “Ludwig” with it’s synthesized snippets of Beethoven’s best known works is an ear grabber. The use of early digital sequenced (Perhaps Fairlight CMI?) and arpeggiated synths dates things in the worst way.  Even the great bassist and composer’s Marcus Miller’s “Zebra Man” is a piece of funk milquetoast and David Sanborn on soprano doesn’t get much room to flex his gorgeous tone and stretch out. Also this album, dating from 1983 is where a massive change in the sound of smooth jazz took place.  Rather than any edge, the music had any challenging corners shaved off.  The social implication of the music began to be light background to get people through their workday and the rise of CD101.9 in New York City and the WAVE 94.7  on the West Coast only reinforced this.  Albums like Bob James and David Sanborn’s Double Vision, George Benson’s Warner Brothers albums and albums on GRP Records became de rigueur. Besides producing new music on his own and for more than 25 years with the smooth jazz super group Fourplay, James has licensed his entire catalog for sampling, an unprecedented move in jazz as he is one of the music’s most sampled artists.

(c) 2022, Shizuka Shearn for New York Jazz Workshop, LLC

Part 2 of this piece, due to Google’s dislike of cross posting, will be posted on my own new Medium blog which also features New York Jazz Workshop content.  The second half will explore some of the biggest names and industry forces in the genre’s development including Grover Washington, Jr. George Benson, GRP Records, Kenny G. and the business firm Broadcast Architecture which in 1987 changed how smooth jazz would be disseminated from the mid 80’s to the late 90’s.

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