If we want to speak about a truly American musical form which has deep roots, we can always talk about jazz. Rooted in spirituals, work songs and other early basic musical forms, jazz has progressed through numerous variations such as Dixieland, Chicago, mainstream, West Coast, Bebop, avant-garde and more recently, what is called contemporary or “smooth” jazz. Smooth jazz, as a sub-genre, developed from jazz fusion and pop music. However, in recent years, fewer radio stations are playing the format, mainly due to their concentration on short limited playlists which have alienated listeners. However, recording sales, live concert attendance and growing offerings on the internet have resulted in continuing strong fan support. Sirius satellite radio has a smooth jazz channel “Watercolors,” which commands a sizeable listenership. As a radio DJ, I hosted a contemporary jazz music program for some years and I’m acutely aware that the jazz audience, while not as large as that for some other types of music, is a very loyal and discerning lot.
In general, a smooth jazz tune is a down tempo (90 – 105 BPM), layering a lead instrument – (most often a soprano or tenor sax, guitar) over a programmed rhythmic background. An appealing quality to fans is that artists tend to play in a style which allows main melodies to be easily recognizable. Also, true to the jazz form, smooth jazz incorporates improvisation, but does so in a more laid-back fashion, eschewing meandering and the often extended riffs heard in other jazz forms.
Smooth jazz can be traced to the late 1960s when record producer Creed Taylor and legendary guitarist Wes Montgomery recorded a trio of groundbreaking albums – “A Day in the Life” and “Down Here” (1967) and “Road Song” (1968). In these albums, Montgomery played instrumental versions of popular songs such as “Eleanor Rigby,” “I Say a Little Prayer” and “Scarborough Fair.” Playing instrumentals of pop hits was nothing new, but these recordings were a departure as they contained little complex improvisation and were aimed squarely at the pop music audience. Notably, it was from these highly commercially successful albums that Taylor and Montgomery founded CTI Records for which many established jazz performers recorded.
As a DJ, you may contend that you don’t play jazz except for a rare specialized occasion. Perhaps, but modern jazz may be one the most under-utilized musical forms available to us. How can we, as working DJs, effectively utilize this contemporary music in our events? For years, I’ve played it during dinner and cocktail hours, mixing vocals with the instrumentals while guests were enjoying their food and conversing. By its nature, contemporary jazz can add a hip, light, upbeat and even festive atmosphere while still allowing guests to chat and interact with one another. It also fits nicely with trade shows or other events where light upbeat music helps create a convivial atmosphere.
To get started adding smooth jazz to your music library, I suggest first seeking out compilation albums, of which there are many. (Even the Weather Chanel released such albums – “The Weather Chanel Presents, The Best of Smooth Jazz” Volume I, and the following year, Volume II) Some of the most popular instrumental artists include Kenny G, Dave Koz, Jeff Lorber, Pieces of a Dream, Chick Corea, Najee, Fat Burger, Russ Freeman and The Rippingtons, Rick Braun and others. However, you’ll also want to include vocalists who are associated with the genre – Maysa (often heard with the British band, Incognito), Sade, Al Jarreau, George Benson, Anita Baker, Regina Belle, Brenda Russell and others. (Click this link for a more extensive listing of instrumentalists, vocalists, composers and even DJs.)
On a personal note, smooth jazz has long been my “chill out” music when I want to just relax, set my concerns aside and, perhaps, enjoy a cool adult beverage. When adding smooth jazz sets to your repertoire, I suggest it be mixed with compatible vocals, and even some pop tracks. By doing so, you can lend a classy musical element to your events which guests will both enjoy and appreciate.