TSJR’s Take (editorial)

Can We Return to the Smooth Jazz of the ‘80s and ‘90s?

Remember the days of the ‘80s and ‘90s when you could hear artists such as Grover Washington, Jr.; George Benson; Roy Ayers; Patrice Rushen; Kevin Eubanks; David Benoit; Dianne Reeves; George Howard; and Kenny G. on your favorite local radio station? Such music, often labeled “smooth jazz” or “contemporary jazz,” was such a delight to your auditory senses.  Throughout those decades, the record/cassette/cd buying public plunked down hard-earned cash to purchase music from these multi-talented and much beloved musicians and vocalists.

Their music felt special to us. It was as if we had been anticipating its arrival for quite some time and radio programmers finally had gotten the memo, so to speak, that these aforementioned artists’ music had both earned and deserved a place on the airwaves and in the bins of the stores that we frequented. The artists had gained a following, a niche one, that generated festivals; cruises; radio contests and cd giveaways—all of which created a collective sense of euphoria and effervescence among fans.

The effervescence turned into evanescence, however.

There seem to be a plethora of reasons for why this unfortunate shift occurred. While the artists retained their sense of allure and enticement, the response of radio programmers toward the cherished offerings by the artists changed dramatically. Advertising dropped, a younger demographic for the genre was sorely needed, and as a result of these harsh economic realities, programmers were losing money at their respective radio stations nationwide. 

Many would argue that there was still an audience for the music. It was just that programming and marketing research dictated otherwise. By the time the millennium began, those once-popular radio stations that played our favorite artists’ tunes had been replaced by Classic Rock, Country, and Oldies but Goodies genres.

It is for these reasons, though it’s sad to say, that I believe that we really cannot truly return to the “Smooth Jazz” of the ‘80s and ‘90s.  It reminds me of the title of author Thomas Wolfe’s book, “You Can’t Go Home Again.”

Maybe you can go home again, but you just can’t stay. Perhaps a visit would be more expedient, given the changing musical climate.

During the ‘80s and ‘90s, the musical climate felt was fresh, new, and invigorating. Fans responded to hearing music that consisted of a mélange of styles—R&B; funk; and soul. Albums such as Grover Washington Jr.’s “Strawberry Moon” and pianist Rodney Franklin’s “Learning to Love” (among countless others—certainly too numerous to mention here) touched all of us “Smooth/Contemporary Jazz aficionados in a manner that is ineffable. Their music made you feel optimistic about life and the people about whom we love and befriend. It was gentle, yet uplifting, mellow but attention grabbing. 

While it wasn’t traditional jazz by any means, it retained some elements of improvisation that characterized more straight-ahead jazz.  The artists had a distinctive voice and sound. You heard a few notes, and you knew that it was Grover or David Sanborn or George Benson or Earl Klugh or Tom Scott or Joe Sample or Ramsey Lewis or Tom Browne.

Because of the artists’ distinctive voices, you couldn’t wait to get their next album. You knew you were getting quality without imitation. Artists had more time to develop, and I believe that the record companies (of which there are a scant number today) truly worked with the artists and had faith in their talents and myriad gifts.

While the artists of today are quite talented and gifted, they are working with a much different scenario than the artists that preceded them. Much of the modus operandi of the current climate is all about Do It Yourself:  record your own music in your own home studio; self-produce it; self-distribute it; self-promote and market it. Maybe you can hire someone to write a bio or better yet, write your own bio. At the same time, the artist has the unenviable task of not only being creative but also being focused on the business side.

While all of this is great for the artists’ growth and creativity, their originality is often lost.  There’s no time for artist development in this fast-paced we-want-it- yesterday music industry mentality. Music is sampled heavily. You can’t listen to many artists about whom you can say, “Oh, that’s Kirk Whalum or that’s Terri Lyne Carrington!” Most of the artists who are distinctive today are the artists who started making a name for themselves during the ‘80s and ‘90s and reinvented themselves (without losing their core selves) in order to sustain longevity.

Again, this is not to deduct from the hard-working, gifted artists on the scene today such as flautist/flutist Althea Rene, trumpeter Lin Rountree, saxophonist Phillip Doc Martin, and a plethora of others. It’s just that the list of distinctive artists is much shorter than it was in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

The loss of that pervasive musical magic in the smooth/contemporary jazz realm reminds me of the brilliant, nostalgic lyrics penned and sung by one of the most distinctive, creative, unique artists of all time, Mr. Stevie Wonder, on his classic tune “I Wish.” Remember those endearing, heartfelt words: “I Wish Those Days Would Come Back Once More/Why Did Those Days Ever Have to Go? ’Cuz I Love ‘Em So!” — Liz Goodwin