The siren call of safe sax
Put on your Hawaiian shirt and groove to smooth jazz, the easy-listening music of choice for harried suburbanites everywhere
As an armchair cultural anthropologist, I’m always interested in any ritualistic expression of collective decompression, or “getting down.” Particularly when it involves people you usually associate more with button-down business lifestyles than with unbuttoned, hang-loose partying— although the two have been known to merge.
That fascination goes back to postwar easy-listening music and the popular culture associated with it—the martinis, the backyard barbecues and the limbo parties. Especially the Polynesian craze of the 1950s, when people would decorate their backyards with South Seas tchotchkes, put on a stack of Martin Denny and Les Baxter records, mix some exotic tropical drinks and allow themselves to be transported to another world.
It may not have been an authentic place; the music was an amalgam of easy-listening orchestral stuff mixed with various Hawaiian, Polynesian and oriental clichés, instead of some genuine island music as unearthed by, say, such musical anthropologists as Henry Kaiser or Bob Brozman. Instead, it was a Sunset-magazine fantasy, as played by squares. But it did have a highly developed visual aesthetic to go along with the music, which made it all the more enticing.
During the so-called swing revival of the 1990s, easy-listening exotica found a new audience, which could appreciate the music’s oddball textures and kitsch-tropical trappings through irony-tinted glasses without its grimmer subtext: World War II nostalgia and Cold War arms-race paranoia.
Ah, the good old days of Martin Denny nostalgia. Too bad there isn’t a present-day analogue to such easy-listening nirvana.
Alas, there is.
A blow-dried blond saxophonist named Euge Groove was working himself into a medium-sized groove, if not a huge one. Onstage at the Radisson Hotel’s Guzzetta Grove band shell on a recent pleasant Friday evening, Groove was tooting up a storm at the higher register of what appeared to be a tenor sax, but it sounded somewhere between an alto and Kenny G’s soprano. Behind him was what looked like a band of seasoned pros—a bassist, a drummer, a keyboard guy and a guitarist, laying down a foundation that had more to do with rock and R&B than it did with straight-ahead jazz.
Between songs, Groove, when he wasn’t commenting on what position the songs had hit on the smooth-jazz radio chart, kept asking if people were feeling a Philly groove, which would lead one to believe that the 41-year-old saxophonist might know his way around a cheesesteak, or a Gamble-Huff horn chart, or John Coltrane. But Groove’s hometown of Hagerstown, Md.—slightly southwest of Ravens Rock, Pa., home of Dick Cheney’s bunker—is a lot closer to Baltimore and Washington than it is to Philadelphia. Groove once played on Miami disco group Exposé’s hit ballad “Seasons Change” before hooking up with the Tower of Power horn section. Then he fell into smooth jazz.
Groove was part of a tour called Guitars & Saxes, a smooth-jazz institution that’s been around since the mid-1990s. The idea: Package two guitars and two saxophonists—here, guitarists Marc Antoine and Jeff Golub and saxophonists Groove and Warren Hill—with a backing band, and then tour the country, playing for smooth-jazz enthusiasts.
And there were many on this evening. The open area at the Radisson was packed; a courteously boisterous, multiracial crowd filled chairs arranged in a semicircle arced around the stage. And, behind the rows, several bars appeared to be doing a steady walk-up business. According to the bartenders, though, there was no special smooth-jazz libation, like a cognac or some frou-frou tropical drink. “A lot of vodka drinks,” one mixologist said.
At one point, Groove made a crack about skinny-dipping in the lagoon behind the crowd. “You people aren’t the same Sacramento I remember,” he quipped.
“It’s early,” one woman walking by mumbled to a friend. “Just wait.”
That may have been true, but it would be difficult to imagine these folks getting worked up into a naked bacchanalian frenzy—even if the music did at times resemble a classic porno soundtrack from the 1970s, with its unctuously sensual sax tootings and occasional funk vamps. For one thing, many of the men there looked like they had raided the Hawaiian-shirt and khaki-shorts racks at Patrick James; the effect was not unlike getting dosed with acid and hallucinating some Reagan-era horror movie about hordes of clones invading the Radisson Hotel, with Sacramento Bee columnist R.E. Graswich in the starring role.
The women were less easy to categorize; sure, some of them looked like they’d be pretty adept at piloting a minivan around a suburban mall parking lot, but others were decidedly un-matronly in appearance. “Mm-hmm, it’s all right there,” one leering 20-something guy, in town from Arizona for the Olympic trials, said while hanging on a wrought-iron gate near the pool bar. He laughed approvingly at the steady parade of curvaceous shapes stuffed into capri pants walking by. “Man, they’re all out tonight,” he said, cackling out loud.
By this time, Groove had been joined onstage by Hill, a Canadian saxophonist who, according to his biography, grew up in Toronto, rocking out on guitar to Led Zeppelin, Rush, the Who and the Rolling Stones. Then, his musical life changed forever, to quote his bio: “Hill was introduced to the music of David Sanborn, Michael Brecker, Grover Washington Jr., Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. ‘Once I heard this music, there was no turning back. I retired my childhood dreams of becoming a rock star, strapped a saxophone around my neck and it’s been there ever since.’”
Hill, on alto, and Groove had launched into “Feelin’ Alright,” the classic-rock standard penned by Dave Mason when he was a member of Traffic in the late 1960s. Though the package said “jazz,” the staging, the presentation and the material were lifted right out of the classic-rock playbook.
So, what is “smooth jazz,” anyway? An oxymoron, some insist. Jazz, according to people who obsess about the genre’s purity, can be played only by an ensemble functioning as a democracy, with every member improvising to lift the consensual musical creation off the ground. Dixieland fans might disagree with that definition. As one now-deceased public-radio DJ told me years ago: “The only style of music you can legitimately call ‘jazz’ is Chicago-style Dixieland,” he angrily insisted. “That other crap ain’t nothin’ but noise.”
Smooth jazz, as a genre, probably dates back to pop-jazz records from the 1960s—the groove-heavy organ combos of Jimmy Smith, the rounded-tone jazz guitar records of Wes Montgomery, and the infectious horn-driven singles of Cannonball Adderley and Hugh Masekela. On a parallel track, soul instrumental bands developed—among them, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, the Young-Holt Unlimited and the funkier Meters from New Orleans.
By the 1970s, a group once known as the Jazz Crusaders, which shortened its name to the Crusaders, had been polishing a less improvisation-heavy and more refined style of studio jazz. One of its members, Wayne Henderson, became a record producer who helped define the emerging pop-jazz sound; other members—Joe Sample, Wilton Felder and Stix Hooper—started showing up on records by the musically ambitious pop group Steely Dan, as that band’s sound got increasingly more complex and jazzy. Many of the older smooth-jazz artists—Sanborn, Larry Carlton and the Brecker Brothers—did some of their best work on those Steely Dan records.
Also during the 1970s, record producer Creed Taylor had developed an aesthetic built around producer-driven jazz and glossy, beautifully photographed album covers; his record labels, CTI and Kudu, introduced a number of smooth-jazz icons, including Washington Jr., George Benson and Hubert Laws. And R&B acts also influenced the developing sound, especially Stevie Wonder; Marvin Gaye; and Earth, Wind & Fire, whose founding member Maurice White once played drums in pop-jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis’ trio.
If there was a defining moment in smooth jazz’s evolution, it came when composer and producer Dave Grusin and business partner Larry Rosen formed GRP Records in 1976 as an imprint through Arista Records. GRP later went indie before being acquired by MCA Records, now known as Universal Music; it’s now part of Universal’s Verve Music Group. GRP’s emphasis on pristine digital recordings, then a novelty, along with a predilection for the poppier side of jazz—simple lead lines and boilerplate jazz-funk rhythm tracks—may have infuriated jazz purists, but they won over a new generation of fans who grew up on rock and R&B but didn’t care for where those genres were going. The label had a decent roster in its heyday, too: Carlton, Lewis, David Benoit, Lee Ritenour, George Howard, Acoustic Alchemy, Spyro Gyra and the Rippingtons, along with vocalists Diane Schuur and Patti Austin.
From there, the genre was codified into an adult-contemporary radio format, whose local radio exponent is the Entercom station, Smooth Jazz 94.7 KSSJ. The format, essentially, has replaced Percy Faith and Nelson Riddle with something more urbane—with cool, Venus Flytrap-style smoothness back-announcing the tracks, which range from “quiet storm” R&B vocalists and smooth-rock-associated acts like Sting to new-age flamenco-pop guitar instrumentals and the characteristic tooting saxes.
Unfortunately, all that tooting was a bit much for my date, who’d spent way too much time at the bar during the first set. “These people are stupid,” she slurred to nobody in particular, as a few Hawaiian-shirted business types nervously edged away from her. “This music sucks.” It was a two-sax version of the Beatles’ “Come Together” that sent her around the bend; way too much money-note showboating and what an old jazz fan might call “walking the bar.”
I told her she was wrong, of course, as I ushered her out and past the beckoning oleanders in the parking lot toward the car. For her, it did suck; for the other people there, it was a treasured experience, something they each had spent around $50 to enjoy. It was an updated, live version of suburbanites grooving around the backyard barbecue to Martin Denny, updated with rock dynamics, urgent saxophone flourishes and the cartoon iconography of sax-blowing “jazz cats.” It’s nothing more than the easy-listening buzz of the 21st century.
And a decade from now, today’s yuppie larvae will be young adult scenesters who discover the ironic joys of safe sax. Just wait.