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 Sidelines