TSJR’s Take (editorial)

Traditional vs. Smooth Jazz: Is There Room for Both?

Throughout the past two decades or more, a heated debate among jazz fans has permeated the musical landscape about the traditional jazz (or straight-ahead jazz, whichever your preferred label) and smooth jazz genres. Purists in the traditional jazz realm have remained unyielding in their argument that there is only one kind of jazz—traditional. That’s it. That’s all.

While the more straight-ahead or mainstream (aka traditional) jazz fan base remains steadfast in their “Straight, No Chaser” (to borrow from a Thelonious Monk 1967 album and title-track standard) notion that lends itself to a virtual “I like my coffee Black—no sugar, no cream mentality,” the more contemporary or smooth jazz aficionados conversely prefer their jazz coffee with the above ingredients—and a lot more. In other words, the more mixed the ingredients, the tastier the jazz brew.

But let’s start with the “I Like My Coffee Black” traditional jazz crew.

Traditional jazz essentially is different depending upon whom is defining it. From King Oliver; Louis Armstrong; Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton; Charlie Christian; Duke Ellington; Count Basie; Benny Goodman; Ella Fitzgerald, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey; Jack Teagarden to more bop-oriented stalwarts such as Charlie Parker; Thelonious Monk; Bud Powell; Charles Mingus; Mary Lou Williams; Chet Baker; Dizzy Gillespie; Sonny Rollins; Miles Davis; John Coltrane; Sarah Vaughan; Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans; The Marsalis Family. The list is infinite.

Smooth jazz, something which has been discussed at great length on sundry jazz message boards, is a term that has been regarded as having been created by focus groups or radio programmers—it’s been debated that it isn’t exactly a particular genre. It has been billed as contemporary jazz by some or instrumental pop by others whom dismiss it as Muzak or elevator music.

The practitioners of the derisively labeled “elevator music” in the smooth/contemporary/progressive jazz brew run the gamut from George Benson; Herbie Hancock (‘70s to current styles); Grover Washington Jr., David Sanborn; Gerald Albright; Stanley Clarke; Marcus Miller; Patrice Rushen; Omar Hakim; to Marion Meadows; Nick Colionne; Boney James; Norman Brown; Jessy J; Rick Braun; Candy Dulfer; Earl Klugh; Richard Elliot; Regina Carter; and Mindi Abair. The list is infinite once and yet again.

As you juxtapose these two extensive lists and scrutinize the discographies of the aforementioned jazz brew makers, you will find that some of them have displayed their artistic acumen in both brews.

Miles Davis, characteristically known as one who never wanted to stay in the same artistic space, demonstrated this (no coincidence but speaking of brews, one of his groundbreaking CDs, as we know, was aptly called Bitches Brew). His 1959 top-selling, breakthrough album Kind of Blue, found him in an acoustic setting. On his Bitches Brew album in 1970, he showed his love for electronic instruments as he didn’t want to repeat the same style that he played 11 years earlier.

Herbie Hancock, a former Davis employee, followed suit. In his quest to push the artistic envelope, the keyboard virtuoso produced such beautiful acoustic records in the ‘60s such as Speak Like a Child and Maiden Voyage. By the time the freewheeling ‘70s arrived, Hancock, an electrical engineer major in college and noted lover of a mélange of gizmos and gadgets to this day, realized that people would dance to his funky 1973 Head Hunters album. He was ecstatic about reaching the people and continued to perform music (and does so today, along with his earlier mainstream traditional approach) that is more groove-based and R&B-laced.

With the sterling examples of Hancock and Davis (and let’s not forget Gerald Albright’s, from the smooth jazz brew, bold and adventurous 1991 Live at Birdland West—which put him in a more traditional setting on such classic tunes as “Impressions” and “Georgia on My Mind”), they have shown us something quite obvious: there is indubitably room for both genres.

Musicians shouldn’t be placed in categories and accused of “selling out” because they want to play different styles of music. Whether you’re in the traditional jazz brew or the contemporary/smooth jazz brew, the taste for both styles can be just as inviting to one’s palate in one brew as it is in the other brew. The fans will find you and embrace you either way when they appreciate what you do. You might even find some new tasters, aka fans, along the way.

Maybe another flavor might be concocted in the process. Relax. Have a “Straight, No Chaser”-I’ll-take-my-coffee-black break the next time you stream some traditional jazz tunes on your phone or computer or drop a needle on a record or slide a CD into a disc player.

Or maybe add a little “Cream and Sugar” (to borrow from the 2005 hit by the late, great guitarist Jeff Golub) to the contempo/smooth brew, too. After all, variety is not only the spice of life, but it’s the spice of jazz and music in general, too. Try them both. “There’s room for all,” as the soul music pioneer Curtis Mayfield’s (a non-jazzer but a prolific musician/composer) 1965 classic tune “People Get Ready” notes. – Liz Goodwin