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How smooth jazz took over the ‘90s

Just hear me out. It’s 1986. Oprah is interviewing sax player Kenneth Gorelick
— known around the world as Kenny G. “It’s like you are talking to, and doing a few other things with this instrument.” “Well I’ve never taken any music lessons so — ” “Amazing!” ” — I don’t really know exactly what I’m doing.” In 1993 he played at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. By 1996 he was starring in golf commercials. “My driver use to be my least-favorite club
in the bag, until I got the Great Big Bertha driver.” “Now it’s my favorite!” And his music was the calming soundtrack of the weather channel. Kenny G had hit his peak. “Tell me that part about Kenny G again” But it wasn’t just Kenny G; smooth jazz,
the style of music he’d come to be the face of, was everywhere. “Smooth jazz, 94.7” “Smooth jazz, 106.5” “Smooth jazz, 98.7” “This is smooth jazz, 106.9” How did that happen? Like, where the hell did smooth jazz come from? Let’s go back to Clinton’s inauguration. Kenny G actually wasn’t the only saxophonist performing. In fact, Will Smith, “This feels great.” The emcee of one of many
inaugural events that day, brought out 10 sax players to serenade the jazz-loving president. “Check this out.” This was like the who’s who of saxophonists, but it’s this guy, standing right next to Kenny G, where this story begins. There’s no question: Kenny G has one idol and
he admits to it. Grover Washington Jr. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, straight jazz
was all but gone from pop radio. The music was becoming more experimental,
and albums like Miles Davis’ “B*tches Brew” established jazz fusion – an eclectic
hybrid of jazz and rock – as the next iteration of the art form. But some jazz artists saw promise in pop music,
and began crossing over by recording instrumental covers of huge pop hits. A shining example of that is jazz guitar virtuoso,
Wes Montgomery’s, 1966 cover of “Goin’ Out of My Head.” That record was produced by Creed Taylor,
who filled out Montgomery’s mellow guitar with strings and woodwinds – instruments that
were more familiar to pop radio listeners. This song sounded more like The Beach Boys’
“Pet Sounds” than it did most jazz records that came out in 1966. And it was a smash hit, because it established a formula
for jazz that the everyday listener could understand. As this Billboard article put it, “The chasm
between jazz and popular music was narrowing.” It was through Creed Taylor’s label, CTI,
that Grover Washington Jr. became a household name. Grover Washington defined crossover jazz in
the ’70s. His fourth album with Taylor was “Mister Magic.” Just looking at the cover, you know you’re
going to listen to songs that are smooth as ****. It really is, in the most simple sense an R&B background, of a fairly slow tempo with fairly slow harmonic change that’s kind of grooving. On top of that is Grover’s saxophone playing
a simple, yet infectious melody. The second he made radio-friendly songs, he
lost a lot of respect from the jazz world, and it was difficult gaining it back. Here’s a quote on the back cover of his
own record that reveals this tension: Apparently a jazz critic went to one of his shows and sat scowling at the bar. By the end of the show, he said, “Cat can play.” Just having that jazz critic admit that he could play the saxophone, was equivalent to a bushel of five-star reviews. Any jazz player will give you a list of things that
they don’t like about it. They don’t like the lack of technical virtuosity. They don’t like the lack of harmonic interest,
but in my opinion what trumps it all is popularity. When you’re dealing with art cliques, popularity
is like poison. If jazz purists were quick to dismiss Grover’s
“Mister Magic,” then they sure as hell were going to roll their eyes at jazz guitarist,
George Benson’s, “Breezin’ ” in 1976. It was the first jazz album to ever go platinum. The title track was originally composed by
soul record producer Bobby Womack and bears a strikingly close resemblance to “Goin’
Out of My Head.” George Benson is one artist that no one could
refute, because he had the chops in straight-ahead jazz. And people were mad in the straight-ahead
jazz industry. To them, he chose success over art. This Downbeat magazine review of George Benson
says it all. “Hearing George Benson on this album is
like watching Marlon Brando in a Three Stooges movie – such is the relationship between the
art and artist.” But, that didn’t really matter to the public. “This Masquerade,” the single off the record,
peaked at number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, and won the Grammy in 1977 for Record of the Year. He does this scat-type singing, where he’s
scatting and he’s playing and the fingers are following his voice. And you couldn’t say that wasn’t jazz in 1976. By the end of the ’70s, dozens of musicians followed Benson and Grover’s breezy sound. Even Taxi, one of the most popular shows to
ever to be on television, used a Bob James pop-jazz recording as their theme song. The problem? Well, radio didn’t know what to call it. This reporter just said “Not Quite Jazz,
But Pretty Stuff.” Enter Broadcast Architecture, a market research
firm tasked with giving this promising radio format a name. “All these radio stations were coming on, doing this format.” “It was like, what do we call it?” “The way we did focus groups is a little different;
we would interview people one person at a time for 30 minutes.” A female radio listener entered the room. “She was saying ‘it’s jazz, but it’s not really jazz and it’s smooth.’ Then she goes, ‘It’s smooth jazz.’ ” “Yeah, that’s what it is.” “It really struck a lightbulb with
everybody that was behind the glass watching.” Turn it on 94.7 – okay. 94.7. “Ninety – four – seven.” That’s it that’s it, sh sh sh sh shhh! “On behalf of all of us at Metropolitan Broadcasting,
welcome to 94.7, The Wave.” What you just heard was the moment one of the first
official smooth jazz stations went on the air. “Within a few months KKSF in San Francisco
launched. WNUA launched. CD101.9 in New York launched.” “It was a tipping point in the format
for sure.” But take a look at how The Wave marketed itself
– only occasionally did they actually play what some would consider jazz music. “We started testing everything from Phil Collins… Even some Hall and Oates tunes.” “You know, vocal tracks that would help glue
it all together.” “Smooth sounds for a rough world.” And make no mistake, Kenny G was at the center
of all of it. “CD101.9, it’s called “Silhouette” and
the artist, of course, Kenny G.” “Kenny G?” “Who likes jazz?” I love jazz. “Kenny G can blow the storm up.” “Ladies and gentleman, Kenny G!” Kenny G was known just as much for his hair
as he was for his saxophone playing. “He was the cool white boy.
He was just a cool guy who played the saxophone.” “And I’m going to go ahead and say it, it’s the money.” “He made so much money doing it.” “And this year’s adult contemporary artist
is… Kenny G!” “I don’t know what to say, I would have never
expected I’d win this thing.” Yes you did, Kenny. This chart shows the rise of smooth jazz radio
starting in 1987 when KTWV went on the air and peaked around 1997, the same year Kenny
G entered the Guinness world records books for holding a note for over 45 minutes…..
wait what?! Some of smooth jazz’s most attentive fans
were the at-work radio listeners of corporate America. “If you take The Wave to work with you and there’s a fax machine in your office, jot down a few songs that you’d like to hear on The Wave and fax them to us.” “We would get hundreds and hundreds of faxes, like within an hour the fax machine starts rolling.” Smooth jazz seemed like it would dominate forever. But then, everything changed. In the early 2000’s Arbitron, the firm that
measures audiences, introduced a new technology, The Purple People Eater — I’m sorry I meant to say the “Portable People Meter.” It’s this little beeper — people believe
it killed smooth jazz. PPM, which is still in use today – is an electronic
beeper that captures audio tones masked in the signal of radio broadcasts. Basically, it picks up
audience listenership automatically. It replaced a decades-long practice of using paper diary entries to measure audiences. “People would write down for a week what they listened to and they would turn it in. Very easy for people to do.” “It went from that to, what we want to ask you to do is wear this on your belt all day and we want you to do this for a year.” But it often didn’t work with smooth jazz. The format’s soft, ambient sound didn’t
allow for the signal to be consistently masked in the music without being discernable to
listeners – if the signal wasn’t embedded, the beeper just couldn’t register it. Polling site Fivethirtyeight tracked the
number of six large-market smooth jazz stations before and after PPM – in each instance they
either changed formats or shutdown entirely. But it might not have been all PPM’s fault “I think it’s a reflection of what our economy did. Our station went off the air when everything crashed.” Smooth jazz radio was music for ordinary,
everyday people trying to get through their day stress-free. It certainly never cared about critics
during its solid 20 year run, and unlike straight-ahead jazz, it didn’t care so
much about challenging the listener either. And it’s why from the 1960s to the ’90s anything written about the music looked like this: But dig deep into smooth jazz’s history
and you’ll find some really exciting music. “There was an album Herbie Hancock did call
the “New Standard.” “Oh man that was good. I’d come off there talking about that.” “I was like, Oh this is what this is why I’m
doing what I’m doing.” Or go even further back to Grover Washington
Jr.’s “Winelight.” “And just listen to it as you’re cooking dinner or something.” “It’s just chill, man. And it’ll give you a feeling for why people fell in love with this music. For such a long time.” Thanks so much for watching my little miniseries on jazz, I hope to tackle so many more stories on this genre of music in future Earworm episodes. Until then, I’ve got a great gift for you, which is a Spotify playlist full of amazing smooth jazz songs that will definitely make you a convert.

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