Jazz for Drive Time

By Masland, Tom; Chang, Yahlin | Newsweek, May 20, 1996 | Go to article overview

Jazz for Drive Time


Masland, Tom, Chang, Yahlin, Newsweek


LAST MONTH SAXOPHONIST GARY Bartz made a jazz record the old way. After a couple of afternoons rehearsing his band, he spent three days in the studio with them blowing long, cathartic solos that invoked the spirit of John Coltrane. It's the kind of record jazz critics will love. College and public radio stations will probably play it heavily for a few weeks--and Bartz will be lucky to sell 15,000 copies. Across town, another saxophonist, David Sanborn, was making an instrumental record the new way. He had a month of studio time. When the record comes out, Sanborn's vibrant, bluesy solos will reach another audience: the millions of radio listeners who tune in to commercial FM stations that play what they call "smooth jazz." The disc could well go gold. And jazz critics will ignore it.

Who made the better record? It's impossible to say; some listeners like to be challenged, others just want to zone out. What is clear is that the chasm between the two approaches is widening. While the kind of jazz that celebrates Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane relies increasingly on support from foundations and universities, a new breed of instrumentalists has broken through to the mainstream using the slick production values and simpler harmonies of contemporary pop. The proof is the rise of smooth jazz, a mix of instrumentals and creamy pop vocals by singers like Anita Baker and Sade. It's the fastest-growing format in radio. About 70 commercial FM stations in cities large and small have made the switch, with more coming on board every month. The station that came up with the formula in 1987, Los Angeles's "The Wave" (KTWV), has become the city's most popular English-language station among listeners 25 to 52. That's the jackpot: baby boomers.

The jazz world disdains smooth jazz. "A hooker in an evening gown," pianist Ellis Marsalis, patriarch of jazz's ruling family, told a reporter. "It's a war," says Bob Parlocha, music director of the nonprofit jazz station KJAZ in San Francisco. And a holy war at that. "Jazz feels like a religion to us," he says. Some call it a zero-sum game, with every dollar spent on pop jazz a loss to the real masters. But the most accomplished jazz artists tend to be philosophical about the hard facts: someone like Kenny G., to jazz cognoscenti the epitome of instrumental schlock, sells millions of records every time out. "When we go our way, we're saying we don't care if we make a lot of money," says Bartz. He hopes the new prominence of jazz lite will draw in some converts. "Maybe somebody will hear Kenny G. and like the soprano and go get a Coltrane record," he says.

Smooth Moves

Smooth jazz is by far the fastest-growing radio format in recent
years. … 

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