I probably should comment on this “smooth jazz” fixation
I’ll admit that I can be kind of a goof. I’ve been like that since I was a little kid, where I would find some mysterious element of humor in one certain topic, humor that completely eluded everyone else, and then I would beat it into the ground like a Rodney Dangerfield punchline. Like when I was in the fourth grade, and I spent months walking around, talking in a Charlie Chan accent and prefacing everything with “O Great Buddha,” and drawing Buddha pictures on everything. (Which may have been prescience or something, because when someone today asks me to put an “-ist” on my religious or philosophic beliefs, I say I’m Buddhist.)
Anyway, this behavior still comes up for me, and I’m old — well, let’s just say I’m way past the fourth grade. As I understand it now, it’s a manifestation of Asperger’s syndrome rearing its head. I’ll grab onto something the way a dog bites a rope or a rag, and I’ll just hang onto it and wring it for every stupid little drop of whatever it was that attracted me in the first place.
I say this to preface why I’ve posted so many smooth jazz videos on Facebook lately. You see, there’s something that just makes me laugh about the whole genre. It cracks me up, the way that some people laugh at toothless hillbillies with banjoes, or American Idol rejects. I can’t stop myself, really. To me, it really is funny, even if most of the rest of the world doesn’t get the joke. I bust up at the thought of blow-dried musicians tooting on saxophones over canned grooves, on albums with big cartoon cats on the covers doing the same. Having been to some smooth jazz shows, I crack up at the audience, which takes the Bob Dobbs ’50s square presentation and mutates it with dashes of spicy food, good wine, surreptitious lines of coke and maybe a little bit of good old pornographic fun.
So anyway, when a guy named Michael asked me if I was really into the smooth jazz I was posting on my Facebook page, I had to stop and think. Part of me, the critic in me, laughs at the genre and thinks it outright sucks, and wonders who in their right minds would even get off on tuneage so aggressively crappy and lame. But part of me laughs at the cartoon picture in my head of newscasters having sex while listening to the smooth jazz — of course, proceeding gingerly to avoid mussing their perfectly coiffed hair. And the idea of businesspeople digging it as a soundtrack to picking each other up in singles bars, or relaxing on the deck at some golf resort or yacht club, well, I just laugh at the imaginary pickup lines — kinda like the stinker Bill O’Reilly laid down, as quoted in the transcripts of the phone messages he left for producer Andrea Mackris that fattened her bottom line. “Just a tease business,” O’Reilly cooed while describing his hand on a loofah, or maybe it was a falafel, working her erect nipples in the shower as he finessed himself into a wine-enhanced tumescent froth, presumably to a smooth-jazz soundtrack. Now, Bill-O’s a self-confessed breast man, while I tend to be more of a gluteus maximus aficionado. But I digress.
Years ago, in one of the monthly columns I wrote for Tower Records Pulse! magazine, I went off on smooth jazz, calling it “business jazz,” or “bizjazz” for short. The magazine, like the chain, is long gone, but someone liked it enough to post it online here. That was 1996. In 2004, I wrote about the subject again for the Sacramento News & Review. Obsessed? Kinda. Why?
Well, smooth jazz, or business jazz, or bizjazz or NBA jazz or 818 jazz or whatever you want to call it, is a self-contained aesthetic universe. It’s like the world of country music, except a lot funnier and a lot less widely reported. One could make the statement that smooth jazz is more diverse than country, both in the people who play it and the people who listen to it, but country actually has some diversity today. Nevertheless, from a critical standpoint, country these days, or what passes for it, sucks as badly as smooth jazz ever did, and maybe more. I mean, does smooth jazz have any Taylor Swift figure whom everyone in and around the genre hails as a major artist and a genius, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary? No.
Au contraire, most of the bizjazz “cats” can really play. Trouble is, no self-respecting businessman or woman wants to go sit in a hotel grove and listen to a bunch of guys in dashikis try to blow holes in the space-time continuum looking for that lost chord one of them once heard on John Coltrane’s Ascension. They’d rather sip fruity drinks, hit on each other and listen to some light grooves that fire up their libidos on a Friday night. And musicians, preferring gigging to starvation, figured that one out. Over the years, I’ve met quite a few people who made a living playing this partially improvisational version of instrumental rhythm and blues, and I’d have to say the depths of their musical knowledge surprised me. So did they sell out? Well, I’m not trying to be the next Ornette Coleman, or even Leonard Feather, so I won’t make that judgment call. I used to, all the time. Growing older has mellowed me. Somewhat.
What smooth jazz also does have going for it is a bizarre cachet, or at least it seems that way to me, an entire aesthetic framework of clothing and design and upscale aspirations. Which may not be so cool in our current economic climate, but hipsters — especially those fauxhemian types whose life experience has never taken them to an all-ramen diet in a coldwater flat with big cockroaches and insane neighbors — thrive on irony, and what could be more ironic than rocking, nay, jazzing a smooth jazz lifestyle?
There was a time when there were a lot of recordings in the genre being issued, and I would imagine that a good percentage of the people who loaded up on smooth-jazz product have unloaded those collections to Goodwill or the Salvation Army. So it is a genre that lies in wait for the so-called hipster cognoscenti to discover it, the way similar hipsters thrifted their way into “lounge music” parties in the 1990s.
What they’ll get is not just skanky soprano sax bleats and keyboard sounds that are the musical equivalent of the cheese and noodle layers in lasagna, not to mention rhythm tracks that bring The Weather Channel and various elevator experiences to mind, but a way of dress, a way of unwinding after a hard day at the office putting the screws to the hoi polloi, and a soundtrack to some pretty squinky courtship rituals. I mean, what’s the difference between smooth jazz and, oh, the music you hear on bad porno flicks? Not that I’ve ever watched any porn, mind you, gosh darn it, harumph, uh, what were we on about?
Oh. Bizjazz. Well, I figured that I’d better explain all those “FB Hipster Alert” posts I’d been making, before anyone thought I’d gone completely crinkly. So here you go, Michael and anyone else who was wondering. Blame it on autism, or just a very malformed sense of humor. Or blame it on The Weather Channel. —Jackson Griffith