Not-So-Smooth Sailing

Content to be “smooth” and “contemporary”: saxophonist Boney James. Courtesy Photo.

Smooth Jazz Fest: Boney James
with Charlie Wood
Fri, Feb 9
Laurie Auditorium
(Trinity University)
224-9600 (Ticketmaster)
In the book Jazz: A History of America’s Music, writer and essayist Gerald Early is quoted as saying, “When they study our civilization 2,000 years from now, there will only be three things that Americans will be known for: the Constitution, baseball and jazz music.”

      It’s safe to say that legends such as Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Charlie Parker will be remembered as traditional jazz artists who etched their own unique style into the genre. But like every notable contemporary music genre, jazz has become a source of vitriolic debate over its very definition, whether its part of a continuum that stretches from ragtime to bebop, or whether it also includes a simplified hybrid known as “smooth jazz.” (For those of you who do not know the difference between smooth jazz and traditional jazz, here is a rule of thumb: If the album’s title sounds anything like Sax by the Moonlight, it’s smooth jazz).

While much derided by critics and traditional jazz musicians, smooth jazz continues to flourish in the mainstream, especially with help from radio stations formatted exclusively to play tranquil instrumental music.

“`Smooth jazz` just got more and more popular and so a whole radio format formed around it and they had to call it something because people like labels,” smooth-jazz artist Brian Culbertson told the Boston Globe last July. “So it was like, ‘Hmmm, the music’s kind of smooth sounding and there’s jazz influence — hey, let’s put those two words together.’”

Although it may have seemed as easy as that to some people, traditional jazz aficionados were not (and are still not) interested in sharing a genre classification with music that they see as unchallenging and watered down. In the same Globe article, Billboard director of charts and senior analyst Geoff Mayfield said that during the early 1990s, Billboard created a “Contemporary Jazz” chart to separate smooth-jazz artists from others in the genre.

“The concern was that it would be easy for a `smooth-jazz artist such as` Chuck Mangione or a Spyro Gyra to outsell `traditional artist` Dexter Gordon,” Mayfield said.

And so the split was official and Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” was never uttered in the same breath as Dave Koz’s “Saxophonic.”

Well, that depends on who you ask.

“I like the broad appeal of smooth jazz,” smooth-jazz pianist David Benoit told “It really seems... that you either do one or the other and that’s too bad. Getting into the traditional jazz world, some of them look at a lot of the smooth-jazz guys and look down their noses. I guess I’d like to see people be a little more open-minded.”

One person not willing to accept smooth jazz as anything but a cultural blunder is author Richard Cook. His jazz encyclopedia lists hundreds upon hundreds of jazz musicians of the past century, but does not list contemporary musicians including Benoit or Kenny G. Those few that are listed, including jazz pianists Bob James and Dave Grusin, are described in their biographies with words like “misguided” and “hack work.”

“Most ‘smooth-jazz’ players have very little to do with jazz,” Cook’s book continues. “Their music doesn’t swing and its has almost zero improvisational content. They are essentially instrumental pop musicians.” Cook goes on to list (or blacklist) Nelson Rangell, Norman Brown, and Boney James as the newest faces in the smooth-jazz genre.

Unlike fellow smooth-jazz musician Benoit, saxophonist and two-time Grammy nominee James — who will headline the Smooth Jazz Fest at Trinity University’s Laurie Auditorium on February 9 — would rather not get into the politics of music.

“The whole genre thing is something I try and stay out of,” James, 45, says during a phone interview with the Current, while on tour in Tokyo, Japan. “I definitely don’t feel I’m part of a specific genre.”

That statement, however, conflicts with James’s official biography from his music label, Concord Music Group, Inc., which states that he “blended jazz and R&B — virtually spawning the subgenre known as Urban Jazz.”

“That’s one of those labels that people like to make up when talking about music,” says James, whose latest album, Shine, moved nearly 20,000 copies the week of its release, and currently holds the number-three spot on the Contemporary Jazz Billboard Records chart. “When I think about the music I make I just try and think about it as my music, and hope my records have a unique sound that breaks typical boundaries.”

One thing he can agree on with most naysayers is that the word “jazz” means radically different things to a lot of people.

“For me it refers to improvisation and freedom,” James said. “I definitely feel there are elements of jazz in my music, but there are a lot of different elements — R&B, Latin, hip-hop — mixed in as well, so hopefully it just comes out sounding like me. I think it was Dizzy Gillespie who said there’s only two kinds of music — good and bad.”


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