Home / Jazz Workshop: The ’90s and “Smooth Jazz”

Jazz Workshop: The ’90s and “Smooth Jazz”

Please Share...Print this pageTweet about this on TwitterShare on Facebook0Share on Google+0Pin on Pinterest0Share on Tumblr0Share on StumbleUpon0Share on Reddit0Email this to someone

It's terribly reductive, and unfair, to try to boil every decade in jazz history to one overarching development.

It's also entirely useful – and a damn sight more accurate than its simplicity would suggest. Granted, there's rarely been a movement in music that didn't continue to live and grow for several decades after its birth, but any fool knows how it works: Music and its times both define each other, and the only way they can consistently do so is with progress, staying firmly new and present. An era is influenced by what happened before it, but can only consist of what evolves within it.

The short version then, since World War II: the '40s brought Parker, and with him bebop. The '50s? Hard bop. The '60s? the avant-garde. The '70s? The loft-jazz movement. The '80s? Marsalis, the Young Lions, and the Jazz Wars.

Though I know it's premature (not to mention dangerous to my credibility) to try to characterize the 2000s. It might certainly be reasonable, though, to note that the decade has witnessed what appears, at long last, to be a reconciliation between the previously incompatible worlds of acoustic jazz and digital electronics.

"But hey!" You say. "What about the '90s?"

Ah! What about the '90s, indeed.

Critics and historians alike tend to discuss the '80s and '90s together, as if they were collectively one era. Ostensibly it's because they're still such recent history, but I don't buy it. The plain truth is that the '90s are so hard to characterize as an era unto themselves that it's just easier to treat them as a continuation of the '80s. In fact, those that don't treat them as such are usually the ones who outright admit confundity at trying to come up with a better characterization.

Can it really be true? Can the decade that brought us Bill Clinton, Bosnia, Snoop Doggy Dogg, The Simpsons, grunge rock, and oh yes, the Internet, REALLY cease to have definition when it comes to jazz? Surely we can find something in the music that clearly epitomizes the 1990s?

I've looked at a number of aspects over the past few weeks or so. The bottoming out of its commercial fortunes (in terms of record sales)? The influx of Klezmer, via Don Byron, Uri Caine, and John Zorn's Masada? Fusion with hip-hop? The opening of Jazz at Lincoln Center under Wynton Marsalis? The rise of the indisputable leader of the progressive faction, Dave Douglas? That one might be close, but no cigar. I've even tried dividing the '80s/'90s tie-in, and saying "the '80s were the rise of the Lions, the '90s were when the war really started." Didn't work.

There is one indisputably major happening in the '90s, though, that jazz of the future is going to have to deal with–has already started dealing with, in fact. Many of you jazzheads out there are going to truly, truly hate me for going here, but it would be dishonest not to.

Perhaps the hallmark development of jazz in the 1990s was the ascendancy of "smooth jazz."

No, I'm not talking about the pop fluff of Kenny G and Chuck Mangione. What I'm getting at is the soul and funk-based, polished but groove-heavy stuff that has a station in every market. Your George Benson, your Grover Washington, your Joe Sample, your David Sanborn, your Rippingtons, and even your Keiko Matsui. Lest we forget, even the late great Michael Brecker spent some time working in that medium, or at least its ancestor, when he worked with his brother Randy and with Mike Manieri.

Nor am I saying that this all got started in the '90s. Lord knows it can be traced back to the hard bop of Art Blakey, Horace Silver, and Jimmy Smith, and probably began to evolve in earnest with the soul-jazz movement in the '60s, stuff like Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder" and the early work of the Jazz Crusaders. Benson and Washington made their made their names in the '70s, and the Crusaders peaked then; Sanborn's peak was in the '80s.

What happened in the '90s, though, was that "smooth jazz" grew into its own, pulling elements of all kinds of popular genres. Seventies funk and Philly soul, Motown, soft rock, the innovations of Prince and Thriller-era Michael Jackson, Quiet Storm, R&B, and hip-hop all merged with fusion and acoustic jazz in a slick rhythm-infested stew. It went down safe and easy as you please, yet it still had the carnality and the slinky, ass-swinging feel that's always characterized music much more on the edge.

Not only did this music really develop its own personality during the '90s, but it also became a commercial juggernaut. It's on its way down now, sure, but from about 1994 to about 2002, both white and black middle and upper-class Americans were big fans. At the beginning of the decade, smooth jazz was a commercially viable genre, but the places you were most likely to hear it were on college stations at traditionally African American universities. By decade's end one popular commercial station or the other had changed format to "smooth jazz."

Why does this matter? Well, because commercial music is where the money is, so that's where jazz musicians did session work to make their living! Just as journeymen played on R&B and rock & roll records in the '50s and '60s, they started getting work on "smooth jazz" sessions in the '90s. And whether they like it or not, musicians who regularly play any kind of music will pick up something from it.

So it is that in the new generation of jazz musicians, we're starting to see some serious infiltration of the grooves and harmonies, even some of the textures that have become de rigeur in "smooth jazz." Two recent records come to mind. Kendrick Scott's debut, The Source (World Culture Music), is the most striking. Scott has drummed with the Crusaders, Joe Sample, and David Sanborn, in addition to Kenny Garrett, Dianne Reeves, and Terence Blanchard. All of those influences come to bear on The Source – so much so that Scott can't quite shake free of them – but even though this is an acoustic jazz record of the finest Young Lion form, Scott's apprenticeships in "smooth jazz" blare forth from the mix. "View from Above," the gorgeous opener, is dripping with Sanborn's style.

The other is Robin Eubanks & EB3's Live Vol. 1 (Kindred Rhythm), a record that I've already gone on the record as thinking perhaps the best of '07 so far. Trombonist Eubanks has the ambiguous distinction of being the brother of Tonight Show bandleader Kevin Eubanks, and he also toured with Stevie Wonder in the '80s. Nonetheless, he's the strongest pure-jazz exponent on the record, and one of the most sophisticated and challenging of our day. Orrin Evans, the keyboard player on the record, is unquestionably a jazz player as well, but he plays with a synthesizer that insists on voicings from the "smooth jazz" universe.

I've heard a number of other recent records that are breaking in sounds of "smooth jazz," but these are fairly prominent and are by artists who have a long future and, perhaps, a vast influence coming to them.

I admit right here and now, there's a good chance I'm stretching with this proposal that "smooth jazz" (and yes, I've used it in quotations consistently, both to distinguish it from the term jazz and to support those, including me, who can't bring themselves to identify the form with what I'll snobbily call "real jazz" here) was the major development of the 1990s for the jazz universe.

But I think there's something to it, something that merits further exploration. More to the point, it gives a real definition to jazz in the 1990s, an era that really lacks definition in the jazz department. I'll keep working on a more cogent definition for them in future columns, and see if I can develop something involving this loose "smooth jazz" thesis too.

Powered by

About Michael J. West

  • “I bow to you, O Pico the All-Powerful! :-)”

    Hey, I know my smooth jazz. It’s just one of a long list of dubious distinctions I hold!

  • Michael J. West is getting qutie a kick out of the comment from Kenny G’s assistant.

  • woody and Pico, Kenny G thanks you for kind words and insight into Kenny G’s obvious influence on the genre. You both should be awarded Phd’s.

    Kenny G understands being referred to as “pop fluff” by people so desperate to be cool that they have to show they dislike what is popular in an effort to stand out from the pack. Kenny G knows this comes from an internal sadness, possibly stemming from a young child’s trauma over losing a toy and/or the inability to get women. Kenny G finds it too easy to pick on such a sad sack, so Kenny G has opted not to mock the author’s mock-Izod shirt.

    Kenny would also request that the author and others refrain from including Kenny G’s name alongside Chuck Mangione as Kenny G is angered that Mangione, hereafter referred to as “that mangy badger,” interfered with on-going contract negotiations to become a recurring character on “King of the Hill.”

  • The above, of course, awards points to Pico. While the major musicians in “smooth jazz” were indeed based on the East Coast, it was on the West Coast where they started becoming a commercial juggernaut, and where the term “smooth jazz” originated.

    I bow to you, O Pico the All-Powerful! 🙂

  • Timekeeper,

    You are right. KIFM actually went to the fulltime “contemporary jazz” format in 1987. Here is the column written by Mark Zegan, the midday man at KIFM. He notes that in 1981, KIFM actually had an adult contemporary format, and that Art Good started playing the commercial jazz stuff on the Lites Out show in ’81…

    However, the moniker of “smooth jazz” wasn’t in industry-wide use until the ’90s. (My research says that “The Wave” in L.A. first used the term when they went to the format in ’89, and that KIFM picked it up in ’91…hence my confusion.) The aforementioned “contemporary jazz” was used (that, in fact, was the term that Art Good used), as were “progressive jazz” (frankly a misnomer), “lite jazz,” and “new adult contemporary.”

    It’s splitting hairs, I know, but the names used in the music industry aren’t as unimportant as we like to think. They help determine how the music is marketed, which determines who buys it, who sells it, what radio stations play it, and how much of it they play.

    All that said, I stand by my assessment that smooth jazz’s coming of age as a genre was in the ’90s. 🙂

  • timekeeper


    KIFM was playing smooth jazz in San Diego well before 1991. In fact, it wasn’t the only player in the market as early as 1987. In September of 1987, KSWV (102.9), switched to “The Wave” format, with the same programming as its sister station KTWV in Los Angeles. As I had just moved to San Diego that month, I was ecstatic about the choice of two similar stations to choose from. By 1991, Lites Out Jazz host Art Good had left KIFM for KSWV when The Wave switched to a DJ-hosted format, and (I think) returned to KIFM, as KSWV went through one of its many format changes.

    From what I have been able to figure out, KIFM has been playing smooth jazz since the early 1980s. Art Good was the station’s PD in 1982, and he was certainly one of the earliest proponents of the format.

  • The Oasis was even calling itself “smooth jazz” station back in ’86, in fact it was the first time I even heard that term. Maybe I just missed the times it was playing r&b? Ah well.

    The other thing I wanted to note was that I had the same thought about Orrin Evans playing smooth jazz-style keyboards when I heard it on Robin Eubanks cd. It took a little getting used to, but it didn’t really diminish the record for me. I too think Live Vol. 1 is an excellent record and an example of where even today there are still meaningful new developments in jazz, even if they’re not quite revolutionary. When someone writes a retrospective of jazz in the aughts, I hope this release gets mentioned.

    Zing, did ya’ misplace your Prozac there, buddy? When you find it, come tell us what you think of this whole ‘smooth jazz’ phenomenon. We are waiting with baited breath ;&)

  • zingzing

    ha! i knew what loft jazz meant! i did! first time i’ve ever felt smart about jazz, which always makes me feel dumb, therefore i don’t like it. poop on jazz. the first part of that was completely serious, which is really sad, and the second part was really sad, but somewhat serious.

    still. i might seriously respond to this, but i’m having a nervous breakdown, so, you know, whatever.

  • Pico,

    This is fun!

    I’ve little to add here, except a note: This website says that The Oasis was an R&B station until 1988. If I were a betting man, I’d bet it was one of those Quiet Storm stations that began mixing in contemporary jazz…

  • 1) Thanks for the clarification, that makes sense. By ’94 I almost completely stopped following smooth jazz, so if it got bigger since then, I wouldn’t have noticed. I just know it was already pretty big by the late eighties.

    2) Nationwide musical trends could start on the east coast or west coast, but we probably agree that they generally don’t start in the middle, i.e., Dallas. You could substitute “west” for “east” in my sentence about that, but my basic point still remains.

    3) Yes, it is/was “The Oasis” in Dallas, and I heard it in ’86, some six years before you are stating it got started. San Antonio had a smooth jazz station stating in ’90-’91 but by ’94 it had changed to another format.

    Good discussion, Michael, which is kind of strange for me because I don’t listen to this stuff much anymore. I guess there’s a lot of memories associated with it for a certain period in my life.

  • Pico, a good question.

    1) “Smooth jazz”‘s commercial viability began around 1986 (good memory), but its commercial peak began in 1993-94, plateau’d about 1999-2002, and has been slowly declining ever since.

    2) Most trends start on the West Coast? I suppose that’s true in some arenas, but it hasn’t tended to be true in musical trends, and it’s COMPLETELY untrue for black-targeted musical trends, which have been East Coast-centered since the Harlem Renaissance.

    3) The “smooth jazz” radio format happened in fits and starts. See, back around 1978, there was still such a thing as a for-profit jazz station, but they were in trouble…so they started going for jazz with a wider appeal, playing George Benson records. It got them results. (Particularly NYC and Detroit, cities with large black populations.) The same happened on jazz stations in the ’80s, only it also carried over to Quiet Storm stations; they started playing Kenny G and David Sanborn records. The Wave in L.A. got started in ’89, KIFM in San Diego in ’91, and Oasis 107 in Dallas (the station I assume you’re talking about, Pico) in ’92.

    That was the build-up, though, with the smooth jazz format slowly creeping into only the 10 largest markets in the country. By 1994, however, we had a smooth jazz station in Greensboro, North Carolina (where I was living at the time), and by about 1998 they were everywhere.

  • OK, I’m back…

    First of all, thanks for clearing up what the heck “loft jazz” means, I’ve heard that term before and never understood it until now.

    As for the main topic at hand, I’m curious to know why who picked 1994 as the beginning of smooth jazz’s salad days. I tend to think of smooth jazz’s golden period starting around 1986, instead. That was when Gorelick struck gold with Duotones and it seemed most so-called contemporary jazz records that followed for a long time sounded a lot like it: programmed drums, banks of DX-7’s, rote melodies, little improvising and no stretching out. The sax players who followed especially followed this template.

    It was also the year (or shortly before) that Dallas launched a full-time smooth-jazz station. And since most trends start on the West Coast, I’ll bet smooth jazz radio stations were there by 1985 at the latest. As far as I know, that station is still around (I know it lasted a long time, at the least). So, we know that since the mid-eighties, that smooth jazz was commercially viable enough to sustain full-time programming at radio stations.

    Also, around ’91-’92 I…err, I mean my friend 😉 …attended a Rippingtons concert in San Antonio and there was a good turn out for it, roughly equal to that of a mid-tier act rock band.

    Lastly, I knew a lot of people who were suddenly into this stuff in the late eighties. One who wasn’t all that fond of it called it “sprout jazz”. As in “the same people who listen who listen to this stuff are the same people who put alfalfa sprouts on their cheeseburgers”

    So you’ve got your whack jazz on one end of the specturm and sprout jazz on the other end. So says Pico ;&)

  • Thanks Dr. Jazz. For what it’s worth, I’m not sure how much I agree with this proposition either…but I think there’s something to it.

    As for the ’70s, I see your point but I’m not sure I agree with it, either. (You’ll find that I’ve defended fusion in this column, twice). I love fusion, genuinely, but it’s hard not to feel that the movement was flagellating by mid-decade. Some of its practitioners had a bit of a resurgence in the disco era, but not long afterwards most of them, and the music, moved on. The continuation of fusion in the ’80s that you mention was pretty peripheral.

    By contrast, the loft movement’s ending didn’t change the music – it just didn’t have to be played in lofts anymore. The loft practitioners continued working, building on the ideas they’d used in the ’70s and before, and weaving it firmly into the tapestry of jazz. After all, if the ’90s end of the “jazz war” is Wynton vs. Dave Douglas, the ’80s end is assuredly Wynton vs. David Murray – a survivor of loft jazz.

    I promise I have a column in the works that’ll go into more detail on this…but first there’s gotta be a tribute to our dear departed Max Roach.

  • woody

    really interesting. who says soft jazz music is not popular… yes it is not much popular compared to other kinds of music but it has’nt loosen its popularity..
    thanks to musicians like Kenny g who’ve given life to soft jazz…

  • Interesting perspective. Not sure if I agree – but decent argument. I see the 90s as a time when a true amalgamation of styles existed all at once but that the young lions still reigned over with a pretty firm grip (a mix of lions playing different versions of “real jazz,” as you say). The only young lions of the 80s of any consequence were the Marsalis brothers and a couple others associated with them like Mulgrew Miller, Charnett Moffett and those who came out of Art Blakey’s (University of) The Jazz Messengers – i.e. Donald Harrison and Terence Blanchard, etc. I think the 80s will be remembers as a neo-traditionalist era mixed with the continuation of fusion (though to a lesser degree).

    I know you were going for the short version of the decades thing, but I would have to disagree that the 70’s major contributiuon to jazz wasthe loft scene. It strikes me as insane and a major oversight that you did not characterize the 70s ascendancy of fusion (especially given where you took the argument for the 90s – since the sound of smooth jazz largely has roots in fusion – or at least a less acoustic version of “real jazz”).

    Think of bands like Return to Forever, Mahavishnu, Gateway, The Blackbyrds, Weather Report and electric Miles (though he took most of that decade off). Think electric Herbie – Crossings (1972), Head Hunters (1973) and Thrust (1974). Think Jaco, Chick Corea & Return to Forever Lenny White, Stanley Clarke, Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, Jan Hammer, Jean-Luc Ponty, Tony Williams’ Lifetime, Allan Holdsworth, Carlos Santana’s Lotus, Larry Coryell, The Pat Metheny Group, Soft Machine (in the UK) even seasoned jazz veterans like Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson.

    All these artists had a huge impact not only on the music in general but also on the masses – it make jazz palatable to a lot of people that wouldn’t have gotten what came before it or simply were not paying attention. Also, all these artists, (Lester Bowie, Wadada Leo Smith, Oliver Lake, Anthony Braxton, etc.) though immensely important have virtually no name recognition in general – nor will they resonate with many jazz fans. Only the truly dedicated heads.

    That’s my two cents. Thanks Wikipedia for providing all the great examples of 70s fusion artists I used to demonstrate the impact of that decade on jazz as an art form.

  • Loft jazz was the movement in the ’70s when the more “out” musicians – Lester Bowie, Wadada Leo Smith, Oliver Lake, Anthony Braxton, etc. – couldn’t get work in jazz clubs, so instead they rented big loft apartments and would hold concerts in their living room. In particular, SoHo in NYC was crawling with loft venues. It ended right around the time that Wynton Marsalis’s name started making the rounds.

  • JANK

    Curious. I know what smooth-jazz ala The Rippintons is but what is “loft-jazz”?

  • Thanks Pico and Mark!

    I have to confess that I wasn’t terribly happy with the column; I wrote it reallly quickly and was afraid I hadn’t constructed the argument very well. But your praise – and it’s especially high praise coming from you guys – makes me feel better about it.

    P.S. Ask the Ages 4 Life!

  • wow, really interesting thesis. the idea that smooth jazz has any influence at all outside of it’s own arena is an unusual one…but hey, you do have a point.

    great stuff michael.

  • You didn’t state it outright, but your selection of Sharrock’s Ask The Ages for one of the Amazon albums suggests that it is one of the best jazz records from the nineties.

    And, you are so correct.

    I’ve got a few other thoughts about your interesting and well-written article, but it’s time for bed. Later.