"Bridging the Gap": Creed Taylor, Grover Washington Jr., and the Crossover Roots of Smooth Jazz

Article excerpt

"As jazz, his music is not very interesting. He is a capable but rather anonymous sounding player with an undistinguished sound on the tenor, occasional intonation problems on the soprano, and a determinedly low-keyed approach.... and at present the saxophonist is the best-selling artist on Taylor's CTI label."

--New York Times, February 13, 1977

Despite the fact that it commands a large portion of the jazz marketplace, smooth jazz has become the "elephant in the room" in jazz studies--its absence from contemporary jazz scholarship is made all the more conspicuous by its ubiquity in contemporary society. With a few exceptions, there has been little discussion of its history, characteristics, or reception within the discipline. What notice it has received has come mainly from the popular press, and even there it is often dismissed as being too commercial to be substantial. Throughout its development, various terms have been used to describe this music, many of which betray its apparent lack of legitimacy: jazz-pop, light jazz, jazz-lite, or just crossover. The latter term in particular references the style's self-conscious positioning within the music market, and highlights its intent to appeal to both jazz and mainstream (i.e., non-jazz) listeners alike. As the opening quote illustrates, this commercialism often stands in direct contrast to the critical reception of the music, and continues to undermine musicians' attempts to establish the music as a serious musical genre with respect to jazz and popular music criticism. For example, in 1977, New York Times critic Robert Palmer quips: "The best way to listen to jazz pop is to forget that many jazz fans consider it a failed art music" (Palmer 1977).

Following recent developments in jazz and black music research, I argue that giving preference to historical narratives that favor Eurocentric ideas of autonomy and unity over sociological, popular, or even commercial concerns serves only to undermine the richness and complexity of the jazz idioms as a whole (Ake 2002; 2007; DeVeaux 1997; Ramsey 2003). This article is not meant as an apology for what has traditionally been a marginalized style within the discipline; rather, I hope to lend my voice to the growing chorus of recent jazz scholarship that aims to open up a space for the discussion of crossover genres, such as smooth jazz, and to reimagine a jazz history that includes such varied expressions of the jazz experience.

Toward a Definition of Smooth Jazz

Like other designations in jazz, the term smooth jazz is slippery and contested. The phrase is itself an arbitrary industry buzzword: the product of record label executives, marketing firms, and focus groups. With the radio and recording industries at a loss as to how to market this increasingly popular genre in the early 1990s, California-based consulting firm Broadcast Architecture was brought in to organize a focus group in order to address the problem of "branding" this musical trend. As Frank Cody, the consultant in charge of the group, explains in a recent Boston Globe interview: "It was actually a listener [who put the words together].... At that moment, light bulbs went off over everybody's heads" (Rodman 2006). Despite the relative novelty of the moniker, similar and related terms have been in use since the mid-1970s as a means of separating this music--a cleanly produced amalgam of R&B, funk, soul, and jazz--from the more high-brow jazz-rock efforts of groups like Weather Report, Return to Forever, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters. In the popular press, terms such as crossover, pop-jazz, and jazz-lite stood against labels like jazz-rock, jazz-fusion, or just fusion as a means of separating the two subgenres as early as 1974. The early 1990s radio-led efforts to label this music, coupled with Billboard's creation of its smooth and fusion-inspired Contemporary Jazz chart around the same time, represent the final step in smooth jazz's development as a commercially viable (if not artistically acceptable) jazz style. …