Saturday, February 19, 2005

(Is) All That Jazz?

I love music, particularly instrumentals, though I'm not a hard-core Jazz fan. When I'm working on the computer, or driving, or just chilling, I enjoy listening to soft, peaceful, unobtrusive music.

I've fallen in love with a fairly recent style of music called "Smooth Jazz". This sub-genre is usually characterised by cool rhythm-and-bluesy style melodies emanating most frequently from a deftly handled saxophone or piano. I was initiated into that sweet other-world by the dulcet sounds of two late saxophonists; Grover Washington and George Howard. I found their music perfectly attuned to my sensibilities.

I've lately learned that those who do consider themselves Jazz aficionados are often inclined to look down on Smooth Jazz. These purist tend to cleave to the legends of the form, like Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, et al. They insist that radical departures from the works of those pioneers fall short of qualifying as Jazz.

Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary defines Jazz as "American music developed especially from ragtime and blues and characterized by propulsive syncopated rhythms, polyphonic ensemble playing, varying degrees of improvisation, and often deliberate distortions of pitch and timbre." I have no musical education so I'd be hard-pressed to translate some of those terms, but certainly one of the key components of Jazz is it's improvisation, which one would imagine must lend itself to expansion and change.

Oddly enough, few music styles have given rise to as many spin-offs and permutations as Jazz. lists several categories of Jazz on it's music pages, including:

* Acid Jazz
* Avant Garde & Free Jazz
* Bebop Jazz
* Brazilian Jazz
* Cool Jazz
* Jazz Fusion
* Jazz Jam Bands
* Latin Jazz
* Modern Postbebop
* New Orleans Jazz
* Smooth Jazz
* Soul-Jazz & Boogaloo
* Swing Jazz
* Traditional Jazz & Ragtime
* Indie Jazz

My preferences run along the likes of Eric Marienthal, Boney James, Joe Sample, David Sanborn, Dave Koz, Paul Taylor and Kirk Whalum, to name a few. I enjoy this music and I have no reluctance to calling it Jazz.

But I do have a problem with one form of "Smooth Jazz".

Now, far be it from me to take on the mantle of a music elitist, I'm more of a live and let listen kind of guy. However, there is a huge entertainment conglomerate, Clear Channel Communications Inc. which is foisting upon the unsuspecting American public a fraud of enormous proportions.

This company owns hundreds of radio stations across the country, with over a dozen devoted to what it calls "Smooth Jazz". These "Smooth Jazz" stations stretch from KYOT-FM in Phoenix, AZ. to WJCD-FM in Norfolk, VA., from WRLX-FM in West Palm Beach, FL. to WDSJ-FM in Greenville, OH. Each of Clear Channel's "Smooth Jazz" stations is vigorously promoted, with give-aways, contests, community activities, all aimed at convincing a gullible public of it's good intentions.

The chicanery is based on what this conglomerate is trying to feed it's listeners under the heading of Jazz. The playlist for each of those stations is almost identical and includes artists such as Bonnie Raitt, Marvin Gaye, Genesis, Michael Mcdonald, Stevie Wonder, Hall & Oates, George Michaels & Wham and Michael Bolton.

Don't misunderstand, I'm not disparaging the singers; they are quite talented and some are even among my favorite vocalists, but they are to Jazz what chimps are to chickens; same group, different class. And I feel that by mixing genres and labeling them as one, they spread confusion among the masses.

I worry that some poor youngster, unschooled in the rich history of music, when hearing the word 'Jazz', will conjure up the sound of Michael McDonald's lifeless, listless, lackadaisical cover of Smokey Robinson's "Tracks of My Tears".

That would bring a tear to my eye.