An extremely popular genre of music, the concept of ‘smooth’ jazz revolves around the same musical instruments associated with traditional jazz, and strongly reflects the influential elements of rock & roll, funk, rhythm & blues, and pop.

Smooth jazz tracks happen to be ‘downtempo’, characterized by a lead instrument such as saxophone or guitar, with a backdrop consisting of programmed rhythms along with different synth pads or samples. The huge craze for this genre of music can be attributed to the exceptional melody created by smooth jazz musicians using their instruments!

In what sense does smooth jazz differ from traditional jazz?

The basic point of difference between traditional and smooth jazz is rooted in the improvisation technique adopted by the pianist. Smooth jazz is not just about improvisation. In the cases of vocalists, they place tremendous emphasis on lending a unique quality, a remarkable degree of soulfulness to the piece.

jazz band in a club
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

This overwhelming soulfulness is in turn reflected by the instrumentals. Be it an instrumental or a vocal song – the heart-rending melody and the rhythmic pulse are the main driving forces of smooth jazz numbers.

Tracing the Roots of Smooth Jazz

The origin of the term ‘smooth jazz’ can be traced to a number of radio programmers who were working in collaboration with one another for designing a particular format which later rose to popularity as the ‘smooth jazz network’.

The fundamental aim of these programmers was to come up with an innovative radio format which is solely based on instrumental music. This was a deliberate attempt to bridge the gap created by the withdrawal of the ‘Muzak’ stations in the 1980’s.

What are the defining traits of smooth and contemporary jazz?

Smooth jazz is all about depicting the lightest forms of fusion jazz and infusing certain sensational musical elements of the 1970’s, for producing a sweet, soothing effect like never before. Smooth jazz keeps the extent of improvisation limited to extremely subtle alterations of the model figures. It is associated with a light, funky backbeat blended with strains of alluring melodies created by the instruments being played.

man playing jazz music
Image courtesy of Pixabay

By a vast majority, smooth jazz is often regarded as ‘contemporary’ jazz or ‘instrumental pop’. To be more precise, urban jazz or contemporary jazz is to be regarded as a derivative of smooth jazz. It is a new style of music incorporating the key aspects of hip-hop.

Individuals who are fond of tuning into radio stations which play a mix of rhythm & blues and hip hop music, ideally qualify as the target audience of urban jazz. Bobby Perry, Dave Koz, Paul Jackson Jr, and Bonny James are some of the leading performers of urban jazz.

Can the claims of critics be justified on valid grounds?

The opinions of the critics regarding smooth jazz can be pretty bewildering at times. A lot of individuals argue that smooth jazz can never be considered ‘jazz’ in the strict sense of the term.

This claim is far from being acceptable, especially since traditional as well as smooth jazz revolves around the usage of the same major 7th, minor 7th, diminished or altered chords. Just because smooth jazz is marked by the absence of complex harmonies and improvisation techniques, it does not necessarily imply that it cannot be categorized as jazz music.

a band performing
Image Courtesy of Pixabay

The term ‘Jazz music’ is quite broad in the sense that it includes a wide variety of styles, namely Latin jazz, acid jazz, smooth jazz, contemporary jazz and several others. The truth is that most of the hardcore fans of jazz music are fiercely possessive about traditional jazz, and they find it really difficult to accept any sort of variation in the set standards. For them, smooth jazz or contemporary jazz is more of an accompaniment rather than a main course item.

Sales Figures Reveal the Roaring Success of Smooth Jazz

Despite a marvelous deal of commercial success over the years, smooth jazz or urban jazz musicians are frequently subjected to criticism due to their apparent lack of brilliant improvisation techniques or harmonic complexities associated with traditional jazz, in the eyes of many.

However, the reports of a number of statistical analyses suggest that smooth jazz artists tend to outsell the traditional artists. This is primarily due to the fact that smooth jazz artists gain more exposure on account of the radio stations, leading to the expansion of smooth jazz outlets. Isn’t it quite natural that the loyalists find it impossible to imagine life without the spellbinding tunes of Norah Jones, Sting, George Benson, Kenny G, and David Koz?

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