By Michele Kadison
The music you head when you tune in to Smooth Jazz internet radio takes its roots from standard jazz music, with the addition of pop, funk, and R&B influences. One of the trademarks of this new jazz offshoot is down-tempo melodies that incorporate electric guitar and (mostly) soprano saxophone. Smooth Jazz artists are solid jazz musicians exploring an alternative sound that does not require ardent listening, like that of conventional jazz. Whether it remains in the background or is the focus of the listener, Smooth Jazz internet radio creates a calm, romantic atmosphere that appeals to many mature music lovers.
Smooth Jazz: The Early Days
Smooth Jazz was born in the late 1960s when Creed Taylor, a producer working with the famed guitarist Wes Montgomery, released three records containing instrumental versions of various well-known pop songs. As founder of CTI Records, he signed many great artists to his label, including Freddie Hubbard, Chet Baker, Stanley Turrentine, and George Benson. The music contained beautiful string arrangements and emphasized the importance of melody, which went down very easily with both pop and jazz audiences.
In the 1970s, Smooth Jazz took hold as a radio format, finding its way to what was then called the “Beautiful Music” stations. One could hear the music on radio programs that aired during the weekends or at nights in cities like Atlanta, Miami, and San Antonio. New York’s station, WRVR FM, soon began playing the format full time as demand for artists such as Pat Metheny and George Benson heightened. With Russ Davis in Atlanta, “Sunday Morning Jazz” in Miami, “Lights Out San Diego” with Art Good, Breezin’ 100.7 in Milwaukee, and Los Angeles’ “The Wave” with Frank Cody, the Smooth Jazz that’s now on internet radio began to reach a wider audience. Artists like Grover Washington Jr, Spryo Gyra, Larry Carlton, George Benson, Chuck Mangione, Sergio Mendes, David Sanborn, Bob James, Joe Sample, Tom Scott, and Dave and Don Grusin began getting tremendous airplay, and soprano saxophonist Kenny G became the veritable poster boy for the form.
In the In late 80s “Smooth Jazz” became an official household name after the research firm Cody/Leach confirmed its viability.
Smooth Jazz: The Evolution
As music evolved and radio stations began to play more cross-over artists, Smooth Jazz’s popularity waned a bit. This drove musicians to create more collaborative work, with Bob James, Nathan East, and Dave Koz finding creative liaisons with other established artists. Groups like Pieces of a Dream, Acoustic Alchemy, and Fourplay emerged and female singers like Joyce Cooling, Sade, Pamela Williams, Anita Baker, and Regina Belle began getting more play on Smooth Jazz stations.
Many of Smooth Jazz’s well known musicians became cross-over artists themselves, with Dave Koz, Boney James, Bobby Perry, the Urban Jazz Coalition, Wayman Tisdale, Michael Ligton, Boggy Ricketts, Ken Navarro, Peter White, Brian Bromberg, and David Lanz landing on Urban Contemporary playlists. Smooth Jazz began to find new alliances with electronic music, creating a “chill” sound and expanding the possibility of airplay for both genres.
“The Quiet Storm” became a term that implied a fusion of Smooth Jazz and soft R&B music. Launched in 1998 out of WGDR in Plainfield, Vermont, host Skeeter Sanders stretched the genre farther afield as audiences showed appreciation for the easy, romantic sounds that worked well especially for the over 30 crowd.
Smooth Jazz: Mainstream
Smooth Jazz proved itself to be a successful radio format, growing from a new age type genre to a substantial category of its own. Popular in the United States for its melodic revival of standards, as well as in Europe and Eastern Asia where it is often played in late night cafes and bars, the music has been embraced for its relaxing and romantic effect.
In addition to being played on on-air radio stations throughout the country, this smooth and sassy music found its way into satellite radio when Broadcast Architecture launched its Smooth Jazz Network after the demise of its precursor, Jones Radio Networks. With famous musicians doubling as on-air hosts, artists such as Kenny G, Norman Brown, Dave Koz, Paul Hardcastle, Ramsey Lewis, and Brian Culbertson, more and more listeners began to tune in. Saxophone player Dave Koz is currently one of the most listened to Smooth Jazz hosts in the United States, as well as Ramsey Lewis who has an over 1.5 million listenership weekly. Other popular weekly shows are Art Good’s “Jazztrax” and the Smooth Jazz Top 20 Countdown with Allen Kepler.
Smooth Jazz Internet Radio: The Current Phenomenon
Challenges face the Smooth Jazz format as listeners become restless with instrumental covers. Due to so many cross-over stations, it is incumbent upon artists interested in maintaining the Smooth Jazz style to come up with new musical ideas. Many Smooth Jazz stations are moving farther away from the jazz roots that were the basis of the form, adding vocalists like Beyonce and Aretha Franklin to their play lists. As a result, many classic Smooth Jazz radio stations are now calling themselves Smooth Adult Contemporary. That being said, there are many new artists on the scene who are bringing a new vitality to Smooth Jazz and reigniting the interest of the listening public. Patrick Yandall, Freddie Fox, Jackiem Joyner, Ty Causey, Peter Belasco, Will Downing, Anton Fig, Nick Colionne, and Joyce Cooling are some of the names that are keeping Smooth Jazz internet radio fans coming back for more.