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Jazz Comes to the QC This Summer - But Is It Jazz?

by Nicole Fisher

July 23, 2016

For some jazz fans, the fact that Kenny G will headline a festival named for saxophonist supreme, innovator extraordinaire and North Carolina native John Coltrane beggars belief. Yet there it is on High Point's Sixth Annual John Coltrane International Jazz & Blues Festival website—the controversial, ever-changing stylist who took the genre to its highest plane is being honored by a million-selling, Grammy-winning purveyor of smooth jazz. To be fair, the Coltrane Festival must move tickets, its bill is filled out with genuinely inventive performers like Esperanza Spalding and Gregory Porter, and Kenny G is arguably the most popular contemporary jazz artist of all time. (For promoters, festival planners, and—once upon a time—radio programmers, "contemporary" is code for "smooth.") So why the hate for a marquee populated with talented crowd pleasers?

For starters, as noted by PopMatters jazz critic Will Layman in 2008, Mr. G's greatest gift seems to be his ability, through circular breathing, to hold a single note for several minutes while walking among his bedazzled fans. It's is an impressive stunt, but so is Joey “Jaws” Chestnut downing 70 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes to regain his competitive eating title last Fourth of July. As for Spalding and Porter, jazz joins a raft of influences for each performer, but is it accurate to call their R&B-infused music jazz?

The fans' dilemma—determining how much actual jazz can be heard at their local jazz fest—is not confined to High Point. Last April, The Seabreeze Jazz Festival brought a 25,000-plus crowd to a four-day event in Panama City Beach, Florida. Headlining that bill were Doobie Brothers mastermind Michael McDonald, jazz-tinged R&B/pop guitarist Jonathan Butler and smooth jazz stalwart Boney James.

Charlotte's second annual QC Summerfest, advertised as a three-day, "beat the heat" bill of music at the Belk Theater uptown this weekend (July 29-31), seems to draw from a similar well. While McDonald has booked his own stand-alone gig at the Knight Theater in August, both Boney James and Butler are on hand for Summerfest, on days one and three, respectively. Filling out the bill on day two is BWB, a smooth jazz super group comprised of trumpeterRick Braun, saxophonist Kirk Whalum and guitarist Norman Brown.

On one point, this array of smooth jazzers concur—they don't use the term "smooth." Neither does Billboard, preferring "contemporary jazz" to describe the genre. Curiously, the music's practitioners and supporters are not too keen on the word "jazz" either. Boney James, who boasts eight number one albums on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz chart, is quoted on the Blumenthal Performing Arts website to the effect that he has "never thought of (himself) as a ‘jazz’ artist specifically." Similarly, in a positive assessment of Jonathan Butler, Allmusic's Alex Henderson maintains that the South African expatriate doesn't really play jazz, "but his slightly jazz-tinged approach to R&B/pop has earned (Butler) a lot of supporters in the urban contemporary, adult contemporary, quiet storm, and smooth jazz markets."

Truth be told, when radio stations purged the smooth jazz format in 2008-2009 in search of a younger demo, many stars of the genre started courting the R&B audience. Catching BWB on the Holland America Line’s "smooth cruise" up the Hudson in 2013, the New York Times' Nate Chinen noted that the trio "played a snippet of  'Milestones,' by Miles Davis, and then swerved into Michael Jackson’s 'Billie Jean'."

But this falling between the stools—landing briefly in the realm of R&B, fluttering around the perimeter of pop, and flirting ever so lightly with jazz—has always been a feature of smooth jazz, "a music forged by market considerations, less a coherent genre than a commercial format," writes Chinen. Smooth jazz has been marketed as jazz/not jazz John Coltrane and Boney James; both jazz?since 1968, when producer Creed Taylor teamed with hard bop guitarist Wes Montgomery to record slickly produced instrumental versions of pop hits like "California Dreaming" and "When a Man Loves a Woman." Launching the nascent, yet-unnamed genre was another former hard bop guitarist—George Benson—who was influenced by Montgomery. Benson took smooth jazz to the next level when he made a mid-career shift toward shimmering pop and seamless R&B. Benson's 1976 Breezin' album was a smash hit and contemporary jazz in all but name. Chuck Mangione, whose oeuvre was once likened to a 1970s smile button, followed with his 1977 hit "Feels So Good." Players began to realize they could have hits if they simplified their playing and songwriting, and "knew how to dial down the genius level," says contemporary jazz bassist Gerald Veasley, quoted in a 2012 Jazz Times piece by David Adler.

The stage was set for smooth jazz—tunes that were catchy, kind of groovy, and about as threatening as Santo and Johnny's "Sleepwalk"—without that 1959 instrumental's eerily dislocated sense of David Lynchian cool. It remained for radio to calcify the genre. A new wave of easy listening stations emerged in the 1980s. At first they mixed the minimalist New Age ambiance of artists like Paul Winter with fledgling contemporary jazz artists, but by the late 1980s, smooth reigned supreme. As corporate radio embraced smooth jazz, it imposed ever-more narrow playlists. Musical standards that were already "dialed down" now became the bench mark for a new batch of players like The Yellow Jackets and Jeff Lorber, and the genre was further degraded and dumbed-down. As a result, music designed to be uncomplicated and breezy became lifeless, artificial and fussy.

Smooth jazz became as "a kind of easy-listening contemporary R&B," writes Layman. "It rarely used swing rhythms, instead favoring a light funk groove. The leader (usually sax players or guitarists) played basic pentatonic melodies and improvised solos somewhat in the manner of jazz musicians, but highly conventional. There would often be background vocals—as if the Raylettes made a gig without Brother Ray."

Clearly, Layman doesn't like smooth jazz, but somebody still does—the audience cultivated by contemporary jazz radio, corralled into the genre’s increasingly narrow confines and then unceremoniously dumped due to a nationwide purge of the format from the airwaves. Today, the genre’s fans are a niche audience, albeit a well-off one, willing to plunk down $39.50 to $69.50 to see Boney James at QC Summerfest, and $8,600 for a weeklong smooth jazz cruise. They’re “orphans from R&B radio that used to play stuff like L.T.D., Kool & the Gang and Earth, Wind & Fire,” said jazz fusion keyboardist Jeff Lorber to Jazz Times’ Adler. “Our audience is basically an older affluent audience,’ said BWB’s Rick Braun, speaking to Chinen in 2013.

Lorber and Braun’s anecdotal assessments are backed up by data. In 2009, the Jazz Arts Group of Columbus, Ohio launched the Jazz Audience Initiative to study the audience for all jazz, but they focused on large-scale presenters in 19 American cities, the kind of agencies promoting smooth jazz events like Seabreeze and Summerfest, in venues like the Blumenthal.

The study uncovered an aging demographic, writes Patrick Jarenwattananon for National Public Radio’s A Blog Supreme. The big-ticket jazz fan—one likely to attend a smooth jazz show—“are middle-aged, predominantly male, and very well educated. On average, only 17 percent are under age 45, and 80 percent are white.” Those numbers concern promoters, who increasingly rely on large smooth jazz events to balance the books. Jarenwattananon writes that there is a sliver of hope in a rival study, but it is razor thin. “In contrast, the 2008 National Endowment of the Arts Survey of Public Participation in the Arts indicates that the median age of jazz concertgoers was 46, or in other words, about 50 percent of jazz audiences were under age 46.”

Though smooth jazz may be the predominant listening choice for this aging demographic, it is not the only one. Almost as popular at Seabreeze, Summerfest and the like, are "big band" ensembles which pump out lovingly reconstructed pastiches of jazz experimentation's past. This is a school first spearheaded in the 1980s by classicists like trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. The Marsalis school has glommed on to the explorations of 60 years ago— the fluid, free-flowing rush of hard bop, exemplified by Horace Silver, Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and others—and frozen them in amber, lacquering a once living form to put it on display as a museum piece. To be fair, Marsalis is an inspired bandleader who has done much to support younger jazz musicians, but by funneling them into a carefully curated and ossified version of hard bop, he's doing players and fans no favors.

Kamasi Washington, an inheritor of Coltrane and jazz legacyAny way you slice it— the "contemporary" light groove of Boney James or the fussy classicism of Marsalis and friends—the health of mainstream jazz, of which smooth jazz is a predominant component, lies with old white guys.

This is curious, given the near constant infiltration of jazz into the genre most popular with younger—and more diverse—listeners, mainstream hip-hop, since the early 1990s. Digable Planets sampled the work of Don Cherry, Herbie Hancock, Arts Blakey and others on their 1993 debut Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space), and Miles Davis’ posthumously released 1992 album Doo-Bop relied heavily on hip-hop beats and the contributions of producer Easy Moe Bee. The hip-hop jazz torch burns brightly on Kendrick Lamar’s critical smash from last year, To Pimp a Butterfly, and a key collaborator on that album, progressive jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington, landed at number three on the jazz charts with his sprawling three-disc magnum opus, The Epic. Washington, who packed The Chop Shop last summer, can range from vertiginous free jazz to soothing R&B. There’s a through-line from Esperanza Spalding to artists like Washington, but festival promoters have to be willing to take that step toward a more diverse and youth-friendly bill.

Concurrent with the rise of hip-hop jazz is another idiom popular with younger, more adventurous listeners—Chicago's diverse free music scene, embodied and influenced by player/bandleaders like saxophonist/clarinetist Ken Vandermark and drummer Hamid Drake. Influenced by the repetitive punk-jazz grooves of Miles Davis' unjustly reviled 1972 release On the Corner and the percussive machine gun assault of Peter Brötzmann, the windy city's fluid free music movement is a braided stream whose varied tributaries include—but are not limited to—turntabalism's whiplash switchbacks, the off-center retro futurism of Stereolab and the avant-garde indie rock and musique concrete of Jim O'Rourke. Indeed, Chicago stalwarts like Trio Red Space and Rob Mazurek's Black Cube São Paulo have drawn solid crowds as part of the McColl Center's ongoing New Frequency Series, suggesting to many listeners that Chicago free music—and not Marsalis-style reverence or milquetoast jazz pop—may be the true progeny of hard bop.

Perhaps jazz fans, promoters, players and commentators should be less concerned with either praising or burying smooth jazz and focus instead on moving forward. If they can embrace the restless, ever-changing experimentation that has always been the lifeblood of jazz regardless of style or idiom—the challenging, sometimes messy explorations and trial balloons raised by the likes of Kamasi Washington and Chicago's free music scene—they might be surprised and delighted by what they find.

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Tags: jazz, pop music, John Coltrane, Billboard, Contemporary jazz, saxophone, Boney James, Kenny G, Jonathan Butler, R&B, Miles Davis, New York Times, George Benson, A Blog Supreme

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