Confessions of a Smooth Jazz Fan

By Felicia D. Pinkney

I’m tired of living a lie. Time to be honest with everyone and myself. So here goes: HI. MY NAME IS FELICIA, AND I AM A SMOOTH-JAZZ FAN. There, I said it. Feels pretty good.

dave koz album cover Actually, I may have let the cat out of the bag a few weeks ago when I got a little too excited at work about the Boney James concert at Bass Hall. By the time I mentioned that Dave Koz was coming to Nokia Theatre, the music snobs around here had sniffed me out.

Classical-music snob: “How many smooth-jazz artists can you name?”

Me: “Uhhhh, lots. There’s Norman Brown, Warren Hill, Joe Sample. I listen to the smooth-jazz station all the time.”

Silence. Noses turn skyward. Eyes begin to roll.

Meanwhile, wheels start churning in boss’s head.

Editor: “I bet there are more people out there like you, Felicia. Pencil yourself in to write ‘Confessions of a Smooth-Jazz Fan.’ ”

And that’s why I’m here today, telling my story in hopes that smooth-jazz fans around the Metroplex will join me in saying it loud:

“I’m a smooth-jazz fan and I’m proud!”

Playing it cool

It’s not that I wanted to keep my smooth groove a secret. But smooth jazz has its share of very vocal detractors. They call it “elevator music” or the “un-jazz.” An acquaintance recently dissed fans of smooth jazz as yuppie suburbanites who drink white wine or merlot. (I do live in the suburbs; but I am sooo over merlot.)

Since then, I’ve sorta kept my smooth-jazz passion on the down-low.

paul hardcastle photo But I’ve been a fan of the genre for roughly 10 years. I was bitten by the smooth-jazz bug when I was living in New Orleans. Yeah, I know it’s the birthplace of Louis Armstrong and Harry Connick Jr., and I like their kind of jazz, too. But one day, on a fateful five-hour drive from New Orleans to my hometown of Shreveport, La., I hit the scan button on my car radio and stopped on a smooth-jazz station. (I think it was playing a Paul Hardcastle tune.)

Since then, I’ve been hooked.

I have called smooth-jazz radio stations, demanding to know the name of an artist so I could buy his or her CD. I have gone to smooth-jazz concerts. I am on smooth-jazz mailing lists. Some of my smooth-jazz CDs are scratched beyond repair. My children know the jingle from the smooth-jazz radio station, Dallas-based KOAI/107.5 FM, “The Oasis,” and they hum along with many of the songs. Even my husband is hooked – well, almost.

‘A great flow’

So what exactly is smooth jazz?

The movement began around 1987 at three U.S. radio stations, one of which was the Oasis.

Kurt Johnson, vice president of programming for Infinity Broadcasting and program director for the Oasis, defines smooth jazz as “music that has a great flow and feel and sets a mood when you listen to it. It has a broader definition than traditional jazz, which tends to be saxophone-driven.”

scott ambushSpyro Gyra bassist Scott Ambush calls it “music that is very soothing and that has a certain tempo, usually a medium tempo. It encompasses more R&B and pop elements than the opposite end of the spectrum, hard jazz. A lot of people like it. I like a lot of it, and a lot of it I don’t.”

While naysayers call the music repetitive or say it’s too laden with soprano sax, one thing’s for sure: It’s got a lot of fans.

According to Arbitron’s October data, nearly 390,000 people tune into the Oasis weekly. The station ranks in the top five among listeners 35 to 64 and in the top 10 among listeners 25 to 54.

But Johnson says the music attracts all kinds of people, from a 28-year-old black man to a 65-year-old white woman. So I fit right in. If you happened upon downtown Fort Worth back in mid-July, you probably saw the sea of about 25,000 people packed into Sundance Square for one of the annual smooth-jazz concerts hosted by the Oasis.

So not everyone is keeping their love of smooth jazz a secret. Plus, other musicians are hip to the jazzy genre. Neal Schon, longtime guitarist for Journey, has released several solo smooth-jazz albums.

So take that, you cynics.

And it’s not all soprano sax. It’s actually quite diverse, which I guess explains why I like it. It includes vocalists ranging from Diana Krall and Sade to Phil Collins and Will Downing; the instrumental flavors of Spyro Gyra, Grover Washington Jr. and Warren Hill; and groups such as Incognito, Spandau Ballet and Art of Noise.

Also, the music is just so darn mellow and, dare I say it – relaxing.

“It’s like a mental vacation,” says Lynn Briggs, midday host on the Oasis.

While I like to get my boogie on every once in a while, at the end of the day, I’m ready to chill. Music helps me do that. Is that so wrong?

“It’s unfortunate,” says Ambush of Spyro Gyra. “The people who make and write the music want it to be bought and heard so they can make more and share it. When it gets relegated to background music, that’s unfortunate for the music. We want people to enjoy it the way it was meant to be enjoyed.”

Be that as it may, I have one really essential reason that I love smooth jazz. When I turn it on in the car, my wound-up preschoolers seem a bit more peaceful. My 4-year-old even gave me a wet thumbs-up recently. “Mommy, I like that song,” she said, referring to Praful’s Sigh.

That’s all the approval I need.

This story was originally published in  the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 2007.