Tuesday, March 29, 2005
Mister Question Man
Whenever I drive near or in actual cities with the car radio on – and by “actual cities” I mean “places of high population density and at least one ‘jammin’ oldies’ radio station playing Al Green’s ‘Still in Love with You’” – I find myself confronted with a question whose world-historical profundity is masked by its surface simplicity. And because I can contemplate the matter no longer, I’m turning this one over to you, my reasonably faithful and always thought-provoking readers.
Where did “smooth jazz” come from?
Everyone I’ve asked so far says, “it came from Kenny G,” which, however intriguing it may be as a possible horror-movie title, is ahistorical and undialectical and also wrong. Smooth jazz seems to have originated in the mid- to late 1970s; some scholars
blame cite the work of Grover Washington Jr., some refer to Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good,” some point to the ubiquitous David Sanborn, and some insist that the epistemological breakthrough must be credited to George Benson’s Breezin’. All of these suggestions are plausible enough, but they displace the question of structural determinations and musical influences onto a list of “major figures,” and therefore must be rejected by a properly post-neo-Bolshevist theory of the rise of smooth jazz.
The genre overlaps to some degree with that of the “quiet storm” branch of r & b, as I was reminded while driving around Baltimore and finding Heatwave’s “Always and Forever” being played on the local smooth jazz station. But it also has affiliations with both fusion and funk. Fusion is probably the more obvious of the two: it’s just a half-step from Weather Report or Al Di Meola to some of the more musically challenging forms of smooth jazz. And as the example of David Sanborn demonstrates, smooth jazz also has an embassy in the neighbor state ruled by Steely Dan (in fact, some historians attribute Aja to “Steely Dan’s colonization by the forces of smooth jazz”). The connection to funk is probably more controversial, since people tend to like funk enough to want to absolve it of all connection with smoothness and frizzy-haired flutists. And yet for drummers, the link between smooth jazz and funk is pretty clear: unlike most jazz produced between the 20s and the 70s, smooth jazz rhythms are built around the snare and bass drum rather than the ride cymbal and hi-hat. Are they funky? Well, not exactly – remember, they have to serve as wallpaper for the Weather Channel. (Now there’s an article waiting to be written: From Weather Report to the Weather Channel.) They’re kind of like funk with all the blood and vital oils and shouts and “can I take it to the bridge"s drained out. James Brown once said that the difference between funk and disco was that disco stayed on top of a groove whereas funk got down into the groove and deepened it; smooth jazz, perhaps, represents a form of musical waterskiing over the groove. In which case we’d have to add the Love Unlimited Orchestra – and all that that implies – to our list of structural determinants and musical influences. And we’d have to admit that songs like Patrice Rushen’s “Forget Me Nots” – even though they have kickin’ bass lines that make you want to move – are closely related to Jazz That is Smooth as well. Who knows but that we might have to consider the necessity of a comparative genealogy of smooth jazz and the post hoc genre of “jammin’ oldies” itself.
I actually like some small fraction of the stuff, particularly when I’m driving long distances and spacing out. For that matter, I also like Aja, especially “Home at Last.” I think I was the only person I knew in college who enjoyed both Aja and Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. This ideological eclecticism- tantamount- to- incoherence has dogged me to the present day, though at least I am not ahistorical or undialectical about it. Still, if anyone has further suggestions about the origins and affiliations of smooth jazz, now’s the time.