Saturday, June 5, 2010

'Smooth jazz' -- on its way out?

"Contemporary jazz" -- roughly, an amalgam of rock/funk rhythms, pop melodies and jazz improvisation -- first caught my ear as a teenager. I was predisposed to it because, in addition to the pop music I heard in the 1970s, I was reared on a steady diet of jazz thanks to my late jazz-musician father.

So when the then-novel "smooth jazz" radio format began to gain steam in the 1990s, with Pittsburgh getting a station in 1996, I was enthused. Two years later, I began covering it for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and got to meet a number of musicians.

But Pittsburgh lost its station in 1999, and I've heard that the format is dying all over the country.

In retrospect, I think I know what's been happening. It's the natural outgrowth of a change in radio culture over the past few decades -- more about ratings (that is, money) and less about the music. Ironically, I would say that the focus on ratings actually drives them down eventually.

Have you noticed, for example, that fewer and fewer stations have live DJ's who tell you what's playing? That's often because the music is piped in by satellite and isn't locally-produced. More "efficient," perhaps, but less emotional connection to whatever's being played. (Heck, the on-air personalities may not even know what's being played.)

Then, you'll notice the playlists on smooth-jazz stations. The format ignores good music from the past from folks like Chuck Mangione, Spyro Gyra, Tom Scott and Bob James; meanwhile, you'll hear Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Phil Collins and Sting, only the latter two with even a tenuous connection to jazz. Many of these jazz festivals started inviting R&B stars, which turned off the people who really wanted to hear their favorite jazz artists.

Another problem is that the format is pretty much here-today, gone-tomorrow anyway, playing few, if any, classic tunes that stand the test of time -- not even Kenny G has come up with anything that has stuck ("Songbird" notwithstanding). I can't think of any smooth-jazz equivalent to "Chameleon," "Mr. Magic" or "Everybody Loves the Sunshine," which not only audiences know but also musicians can and will play. I have a CD in my car with James' "Westchester Lady"; that tune was recorded nearly 40 years ago and he still plays it live.

So maybe the demise of the format isn't such a bad thing after all. Jim DeCesare, the host of the late, lamented local radio show "Jazzz[sic] Impressions," said in an interview with me some years ago, "They didn't do it right." At one time, about two-thirds of the albums I bought I first heard on his show -- and he always gave background information to the listener, which I ate up.

I think that's what needs to happen today -- more connections to the audiences and less focus on ad dollars. The result should be not only better, more appropriate music but also more money because more people would be listening. I certainly would.

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