"Bridging the Gap": Creed Taylor, Grover Washington Jr., and the Crossover Roots of Smooth Jazz
Carson, Charles D., Black Music Research Journal
"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.
While efforts of the aforementioned fusion artists have generally been lauded--if only in retrospect and only in terms of their recently redefined positions within the grand developmental narrative of jazz history--the work of their smooth jazz counterparts continues to be dismissed as trite and artistically compromised. However, I would argue that the work of these early smooth jazz artists was not without precedent. The crossover impulse from which smooth jazz draws its impetus can be traced back to the rhythm-and-blues work of artists like Louis Jordan and "Big Jay" McNeely--and perhaps even further back to the music of James P. Johnson and the like--artists whose works often went to great pains to exploit the points of contact between blues, jazz, and popular music. It is telling that these artists were similarly criticized--by critics and musicians alike--for their decidedly commercial take on the jazz and blues idioms. In general, jazz scholarship and criticism has been reluctant to address such crossover figures and their music. Only recently have scholars begun to reevaluate these performers in light of their relationship (or lack thereof) to the jazz canon (Ake 2002, 42-61; Ramsey 2003, 62-67).
Generally speaking, smooth jazz blends jazz instrumentation, pop production techniques, and an R&B aesthetic into a style that foregrounds the instrumental soloist similar to the manner in which the vocalist is featured in popular music. In fact, the repertoire for this style consists not of jazz works, but also includes covers of popular contemporary R&B songs. Consequently, less emphasis is placed on the value of improvisation than in straight-ahead jazz. While more traditional jazz solos use the form and harmonic structure of a work as a starting point for real-time recomposition, what often takes place in many smooth jazz solos is perhaps more akin to embellishment. Especially in the case of R&B covers, where "recognizing the tune" is important, the soloist often plays the "tune" straight the first time (as in mainstream jazz), and during subsequent verses only adds a number of characteristic ornaments and gestures.
Moreover, the production processes …
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Publication information: Article title: "Bridging the Gap": Creed Taylor, Grover Washington Jr., and the Crossover Roots of Smooth Jazz. Contributors: Carson, Charles D. - Author. Journal title: Black Music Research Journal. Volume: 28. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 2008. Page number: 1+. © 2008 Center For Black Music Research. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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