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Stations Spotlight: Smooth Jazz

Smooth jazz is a commercially oriented, crossover jazz which came to prominence in the 1980s, displacing the more venturesome jazz fusion from which it emerged. … During the mid-1970s in the United States, it was known as “smooth radio”, and was not termed “smooth jazz” until the 1980s.

Smooth jazz, when the history books are written, will go down as a much-maligned genre. That’s unfortunate because many of the key practitioners of smooth jazz are supremely gifted instrumentalists whose talent and virtuosity deserve wider recognition.

Given how inherently smooth it is, it’s strange that it should provoke such extreme reactions, but the truth is that it does – especially in ardent jazz fans, the bona fide purists who look down on the likes of Kenny G, George Howard, and Bob James and many more.

But the prevailing animosity towards smooth jazz is mystifying because, sonically, there’s nothing intrinsically irritating or upsetting about the music. Far from being as abrasive or challenging as other, more extreme forms of jazz, it’s apolitical, rarely subversive, and always exceedingly polite.

Though smooth jazz has some fierce and vociferous detractors, during the peak of its popularity – between the late 80s and early 00s – it attracted a huge audience in America, where it became a highly influential radio format and helped the aforementioned artists sell truckloads of albums.

What is smooth jazz?

For those wondering about the history of smooth jazz, its roots can be traced back to the early 60s. At that time, bebop-influenced jazz had been marginalized by the ascendancy of pop and rock; to remain current, some jazz musicians – guided by record companies and producers looking to stay in the game – began recording instrumental covers of hit tunes of the day. This coincided with the advent of easy listening music and the arrival of the ultra smooth bossa nova sound from Brazil, brought by Antônio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto, and Astrud Gilberto.

Bossa nova’s harmonic sophistication drew inspiration from jazz and it was no surprise that musicians such as saxophonist Stan Getz – one of the leading figures of the West Coast “cool school” of jazz – were drawn to its irresistible beat. When Getz released the album Jazz Samba with guitarist Charlie Byrd, in 1963, it spawned the US hit single “Desafinado” and set in motion a bossa nova wave that ushered in an age of cool, mellow, jazz-infused moods and grooves. For listeners who refused to be seduced by the likes of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, jazz became an antidote to rock; as the latter got progressively louder and more rambunctious, the former became softer and smoother.


Boney James

Kenny G

Jeff Sipe Trio

George Benson

Nelson Rangell

Ronny Jordan

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