Exploring the origins of Smooth Jazz

Combining elements of Funk, R&B, Rock, Pop, and yes, Jazz – Smooth Jazz – was wildly popular as a commercial subgenre of jazz. Smooth jazz artists also could be found in adult contemporary radio and is called smooth because of its downtempo melody that carries the song.

First emerging in the 1960s, smooth jazz works well as background music and wasn’t necessarily as complex or innovative as traditional jazz music. Nevertheless, top jazz artists rose to prominence in the late 1980s before peaking in the 1990s and early 2000s. Though smooth, contemporary jazz isn’t as big as it once was – its impact can’t be disputed and many famous jazz artists are considered to be some of the best musicians of modern time.

Smooth Jazz is an outgrowth of fusion, one that emphasizes its polished side. Generally, smooth jazz relies on rhythms and grooves instead of improvisation. There are layers of synthesizers, lite-funk rhythms, lite-funk bass, elastic guitars, and either trumpets, alto, or soprano saxophones. The music isn’t cerebral, like hard bop, nor is it gritty and funky like soul-jazz or groove it is unobtrusive, slick, and highly polished, where the overall sound matters more than the individual parts.

Jazz – the origin of Smooth Jazz
Jazz music was very much a continuation of blues music, except that it took advantage of the instruments of the marching band. The jazz musician was basically “singing” just like the blues singers even though he was playing an instrument instead of using his vocals. The kind of dynamics and of improvisation was identical. The call-and-response structure was replicated in the dialogue between solo instrument and ensemble. Compared with European music, that for centuries had “trained” the voice to sound as perfect as the instruments – jazz music moved in the opposite direction when it trained the instruments to sound as emotional as the human voice of the blues.

Jazz eventually spread to every corner of the world. In fact, jazz was one of the first musical genres to owe its diffusion to a whole new world of communication of information. The birth of jazz music parallels a revolution in music “media”.

The primacy of Improvisation
It is somewhat unfairly claimed that the essence of jazz music is its improvisation. Jazz music is supposed to be the way it is played – not the way it is composed. There is little in jazz music to support this viewpoint. Many jazz musicians chose to compose and not only to improvise. Improvisation on other people’s material was, in fact, more common when the musicians were using “inferior” material. The more sophisticated the music is – the less improvisation there seems to be.

Their improvisation was a way to transform it into great music. Whenever jazz musicians started composing their own material, the role of improvisation changed: it became part of the compositional method. Jazz music explored new ways to use melody, rhythm and harmony and to create “sound”. If one views jazz improvisation as simply a new form of composition, then the jazz musician is less of an improviser and more of a composer of sound.

The dichotomy between jazz music and Euro-centric music is rather blurred. Jazz musicians began to compose their own material because improvising on other people’s material was neither fun nor as rewarding as improvising on one’s own material. Even in its most extreme “free” genre, one can find a kind of jazz “composition”: the set of rules on how to create the sound desired by the “composer”.

The focus on the performer in jazz was real – but perhaps it simply masquerade the rise of a different kind of composer.