Why satisfy the purists when the masses already adore you? It’s a refrain that countless mainstream music acts have uttered as they’ve watched their long-time, underground fans crumple in disgust as their newer, poppier sound hits the airwaves and the Internet. Sometimes a band gets too big for its genre. Recently, Green Day did it to punk, Coldplay did it to guitar-oriented Brit-pop, and Kenny G did it to jazz. The artists themselves would simply say they just defy categorization and transcend genres. Purists, music geeks and hardcore fans would call it something else: totally selling out.
And if there is one genre you don’t want to sell out in, it’s jazz. Traditional jazz evokes memories of improvisational kings — John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis —whose work didn’t need to fit the format of the three-minute, radio-friendly pop song, or even sound the same every time it was played. Traditional jazz is different; the music is alive and constantly evolving — within the same song. It’s this freewheeling, improvisation style that has given jazz its time-honored reputation as a challenging, intellectual music genre.
So what happens to jazz when there is no improvisation? Smooth jazz. If that name conjures up images of bland, doodling waves of coma-inducing, pop-laden meanderings on FM radio or while on hold with AT&T, well, that’s not far off. But in reality, the much-maligned genre has made jazz accessible and fun, by expanding its pop sensibility and fusing itself to R&B, world beats or ’80s power pop.
It’s also a hit formula for festivals, including the Camarillo Art and Jazz Festival, which organizers hope will draw large audiences (purists, casual jazz fans and more) with eclectic sounds and agreeable beats in a more than pleasant atmosphere.
The Camarillo festival, which boasts a lineup of jazz, smooth jazz, and pop artists (and some that blend all three), is a testament to the complimentary nature of the different styles. They all certainly combine to create an enjoyable experience.
But the question remains: Is smooth jazz really jazz? Of course not. “Purists don’t think smooth jazz is really jazz at all,” explained entertainment chairman of the Camarillo festival, Roy Villa. “Smooth jazz is an attempt to present jazz to a broader base of people. Many songs are remakes of prior pop songs.” The genre was borne out of the emergence of adult contemporary music, a distillation of soft rock, melodic pop and easy-listening material tailor-made for people who used to listen to rock ’n’ roll, but now just want something easy on the ears.
Mike Nordskog, publisher of Wine and Jazz magazine put it simply: “I was a Led Zeppelin, Queen, Steppenwolf kind of guy . . . [but] I began to appreciate the live performance aspect of the [smooth jazz] genre. It’s very relaxing. Life being so hectic, these guys are making nice, relaxing, melodic stuff.” It may fill a niche, but doesn’t it diminish what traditional jazz musicians do?
“Improvisation is 80 percent of straightaway [traditional] jazz,” says Villa. “But straightaway jazz may be losing popularity.” This makes more sense. Because the genre-hopping modern music scene is fractured, niche-driven and condensed into poorer quality Mp3 torrents, it doesn’t leave much room for lengthy live or recorded improvising. Music listeners are much more likely to listen to a mash-up remixe that combines the choruses of 10 songs into a four-minute rush, than an extended jazz rumination without a repetitive hook.
But smooth jazz’s pop aspirations aren’t so bad. After all, there’s a reason why the growing legion of casual fans continues to buy CDs and attend festivals: the music can actually be very good — even Kenny G’s. “Most musicians make fun of Kenny G, but you know what? He’s world-renowned,” observed Nordskog. “He’s putting out music that strikes a chord with a lot of people. Because it’s simple, mellow, [accessible] music, does that make it bad? No.”
An even better example is adult contemporary darling Diana Krall. She’s a crossover performer who is, at the very least, respected in the traditional jazz world — but her sound is still very much “smooth.” She’s one artist, of the many surfacing, who has found a way to create jazz music with a pop flair that captures the heart of the mainstream while still winning over even the staunchest purists.
Jessy J, featured artist in the Camarillo Jazz and Art Festival, may have similar intentions. The emerging saxophonist/singer has struck a tenuous balance with both traditional and contemporary jazz. She professes love for both. And with her impressive live performances and vocal prowess, she’s captured a loyal following. “Improvisation is the backbone to jazz,” she maintains. “[But] music is music. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing a harmonica or organ, as long as you’re engaging others and making people feel good.”
Honestly, she makes a good point — even if some snobbish music critics would roll over in their graves. It’s not style, or even originality, that ultimately determines the quality of live music. It’s the stellar performance of a well-crafted song that endures.
So give smooth jazz fans a break and those “sellouts” a chance. You might even find yourself humming along.
The Camarillo Arts & Jazz Festival’s “Jazz Under the Stars” will be held on Aug. 29, at the PV Outdoor Performance Center, 2222 E. Ventura Blvd. in Old Town Camarillo. Live music will be performed on three stages throughout the day. Up and comer Jessy J will perform at 6:30 p.m. followed by Grammy award-winning artist Peabo Bryson at 8:15 p.m. For more information, visit: www.camarilloartandjazz.com.