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What song was the beginning of smooth jazz?


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My vote is with “Feels So Good” by Chuck Mangione. Which actually kind of slaps if you listen to that band, especially Grant Geissman’s guitar solo. 

Stephen Fortner

Principal, Fortner Media

Senior Editor, Music Player Network

Former Editor in Chief, Keyboard Magazine

Digital Piano Consultant, Piano Buyer Magazine

 

Industry affiliations: Antares, Arturia, Giles Communications, MS Media, Polyverse

 

 

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John Klemmer, Touch, or George Benson's Breezin', might be considered as well - both predate Feels So Good, but only by a year or so.

 

Early on, seems like it was a "kinder, gentler" or more accessible response to fusion.

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Feel So Good is the one that instantly popped into my head when I saw the question too. It may not have been the first ever of that style, but I think it was at least the first that had mainstream major commercial success.

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I guess "first" is going to be debatable - chronologically first recorded, for first to be a big hit, or first to...?

 

Depends what criteria are our ground rules, as it seems the whole migration from jazz fusion to the CTI sound to smooth jazz happened before the genre label was coined, wasn't it?

 

Anyway, not really sure...it went back to the mid'70's if I recall, but I wasn't a huge listener of it at the time. My high school GF's older brother was a bit CTI / Bob James / Earl Klugh dude, and I remember seeing a lot of those album covers in his collection. But I'm no expert on the dates.

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Also, predating FSG by decades is Herb Alpert. He was a kingpin of making jazz structures and world motifs user-friendly to - let’s put it bluntly - white heartland America. A popularizer and mainstreamer in the way Bob Ross was for painting. 

Stephen Fortner

Principal, Fortner Media

Senior Editor, Music Player Network

Former Editor in Chief, Keyboard Magazine

Digital Piano Consultant, Piano Buyer Magazine

 

Industry affiliations: Antares, Arturia, Giles Communications, MS Media, Polyverse

 

 

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As already mentioned, George Benson's "Breezin'" and Grover Washington Jr.'s "Mister Magic" started the Smooth Jazz movement. 😎

 

 

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Not sure of the exact timelines, as I was too young (born in '66) but my older sister was way into WRVR, a NYC station playing lots of 'smooth jazz' before that genre label existed.  That station was active in the mid 70s.  She had a pretty extensive collection of 70s R&B jazz -- George Benson, Spyrogyra, Hubert Laws, Kevin Eubanks, Hubert Laws ...   I'm pretty sure this was going on way before 'Feels So Good".

Mills Dude -- Lefty Hack
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41 minutes ago, Mills Dude said:

Not sure of the exact timelines, as I was too young (born in '66) but my older sister was way into WRVR, a NYC station playing lots of 'smooth jazz' before that genre label existed.  That station was active in the mid 70s.  She had a pretty extensive collection of 70s R&B jazz -- George Benson, Spyrogyra, Hubert Laws, Kevin Eubanks, Hubert Laws ...   I'm pretty sure this was going on way before 'Feels So Good".

 

I'm old(er) so might have a tiny bit more to say about this. I listened extensively to WRVR and as far as I know it was a straight-ahead jazz station. The DJ I listened to was a guy named Ed Beach, and he would do shows concentrating on one particular musician, always announcing the recording dates and personnel along with other tidbits - iow, a real "jazz dj" who educated as well as entertained. I don't remember hearing any "smooth jazz" on this station, not as I (and I venture to say, others) define it: an invented radio format comprised of instrumental r&b music aimed at an older African-American audience. What most people on this thread are calling "smooth jazz" simply isn't. Jazz players playing pop music, using rock rhythms and "boogaloo" beats predated the smooth jazz phenomenon by many years. It seems to me that most people here think of "smooth" only as an adjective that describes any kind of jazz that doesn't use a straight-ahead swing feel. Again, the term "smooth jazz" refers to a radio format, and wasn't explicitely labeled this until the mid-to-late 1980s. I remember when Kenny G's "Songbird" happened, somewhere around 1987. That, I believe, was the beginning of the true rise of this radio format. Before that there was the "Wave" and "Quiet Storm" radio. Kenny got it happening in a big way – Songbird was on the "Duotones" record which went gold, something quite impressive for a record of instrumental music.

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I also listened to WRVR growing up, but my memory is different.  I recall it as a mix of straight-ahead and fusion/smooth/whatever.  In fact, I also think that it may have gradually moved away from straight-ahead in the late 1970s.  I remember preferring WBGO for this reason, though that station was never exclusively jazz (and the signal wasn't as strong).

 

Of course, these labels are all just inventions.  But I do find the history of musical trends to be a very interesting topic.  It's fun to contemplate "who was first" with a particular style, but more realistically I think the truth is that there are usually groups of people moving in a particular direction around the same time.

 

I singled out "Mister Magic" because it's the earliest, well-known tune I could think of that might fall in the label of smooth jazz, however defined.  But I suspect that there were many similar, perhaps earlier tunes that were not recorded by musicians associated with jazz.  I wasn't listening to much "funk" or "soul" back then, but wouldn't be surprised if there were tunes recorded by "funk artists" that were pretty similar to Mister Magic. 

 

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1 hour ago, cedar said:

"Mister Magic" by Grover Washington Jr" I think came out earlier than Breezin.   And Spyro Gyro was around in 1974.

 

I was going to say "Morning Dance"; the album went platinum, as did "Feels So Good", I believe.  May not have been first, but these were definitely on the list of records that put SJ on the map -- and on Top 40 radio.

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It's just semantics. Again, I take the term "smooth jazz" to explicitely mean the name given to a particular radio format. Not jazz musicians playing pop or rock, which happened starting in the early 1960s. That's a different discussion (which I believe we kinda had, recently iirc).

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35 minutes ago, Reezekeys said:

 

I'm old(er) so might have a tiny bit more to say about this. I listened extensively to WRVR and as far as I know it was a straight-ahead jazz station ....

Yeah, @Reezekeys, sorry I never heard that station so I could be way off.  I was listening the 'PLJ like all the other teenagers of that vintage.  But my sister, who is now passed on, used to tell me she listened to all that kind of stuff on WRVR.  Maybe they made a shift towards the end of their run,  I think that station stopped in the early 80s.   Other artists in her wheelhouse were -- David Sanborn, Gato Barbieri, Jeff Lorber, etc.   Whatever the genre was called to me it's all pretty much what came to be called smooth jazz.   Definitely distinct from Chick/RTF, Mahavishnu, Weather Report, etc.  

 

I always like to joke that Miles Davis, changed the face of jazz many times, but the last change brought the scourge of 'Smooth Jazz', although I think Miles did it with a lot of class (I kid, don't kill me, Miles is my idol and my second son is named after him).  I remember that NY area station, CD 101.9 (mid to late 80s), was definitely calling themselves 'smooth jazz' and distinctly remember Miles doing a TV commercial for that station. 

 

For those mid-80's fusion acts, its must have been tough with a lot of pressure from the record companies to make something marketable.  I was big into Mike Stern then, but those records he put out in that period were tough listens.  Such a big disconnect seeing some of these artists live vs. their recordings.  Also a big fan of Scofield, I remember catching @Reezekeyswith his band a few times in NYC, once at the Bottom Line and another at Fat Tuesdays (Hearing Dennis Chambers for the first time was an awakening).  Definitely not 'smooth'  but I imagine he was dealing with pressure to commercialize.

Mills Dude -- Lefty Hack
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If you go by radio airplay or popularity, George Benson “Breezin’” was 1976 vs “Morning Dance” or “Feels So Good” a little later.

 

If you’re looking at Mangione, his earliest albums are great examples of jazz-pop crossovers that could be considered smooth jazz. Here in Rochester, Chuck is revered. Every big band, including mine, plays early Mangione. I went to the sold out 40th anniversary concert of the “Friends & Love” live album on Memorial Day weekend 2010. Tony Levin & Steve Gadd reprised their places in the rhythm section. They’re in this clip from 1970.

 

 

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25 minutes ago, Reezekeys said:

It's just semantics. Again, I take the term "smooth jazz" to explicitely mean the name given to a particular radio format. Not jazz musicians playing pop or rock, which happened starting in the early 1960s. That's a different discussion (which I believe we kinda had, recently iirc).

Yeah, we're retreading that recent fusion discussion.  You're correct about the term,  It was definitely used as a marketable radio format in the mid 80s.

Mills Dude -- Lefty Hack
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1 hour ago, Reezekeys said:

It's just semantics. Again, I take the term "smooth jazz" to explicitely mean the name given to a particular radio format. Not jazz musicians playing pop or rock, which happened starting in the early 1960s. That's a different discussion (which I believe we kinda had, recently iirc).

 

Perfect example.  This was played on the half hour in the Bay Area 1989.    The tack piano solo over changes starting at 2:25 though (David Witham), is extremely tasty.

 

 

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FWIW... Definitions of musical genres for me are often arbitrary and confusing.  In any case, I would timidly vote for Herbie Mann's 1961 version of "Comin' Home Baby" as perhaps an early example of (proto) smooth jazz.  It had originally been recorded by the Dave Bailey Quintet just a few weeks earlier as a more hard-nosed jazz tune with in-your-face horns.  Mann's version of the song with flute was more mellow with a nice danceable Latin-ish groove. It got a fair amount radio play for Mann as well. Of course, Mel Torme added lyrics to the song and had a pretty good hit with it about a year later. 

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The Kenny G Christmas album?

"It doesn't have to be difficult to be cool" - Mitch Towne

 

"A great musician can bring tears to your eyes!!!

So can a auto Mechanic." - Stokes Hunt

 

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If we treat it like we do all other genres, we'd have to reach back farther than the obvious "firsts." I'd say the "sweet" bands of the 30s are probably really the "firsts," and if I had to pick a single progenitor, I would have a hard time not deciding on--I can't believe I'm about to type this--Lawrence Welk. Smooth instrumental jazz with accessible arrangements but improvised solos. Replace the accordion with electric guitar or EP and it's all bell-bottoms all the time.

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29 minutes ago, MathOfInsects said:

If we treat it like we do all other genres, we'd have to reach back farther than the obvious "firsts." I'd say the "sweet" bands of the 30s are probably really the "firsts," and if I had to pick a single progenitor, I would have a hard time not deciding on--I can't believe I'm about to type this--Lawrence Welk. Smooth instrumental jazz with accessible arrangements but improvised solos. Replace the accordion with electric guitar or EP and it's all bell-bottoms all the time.

<whispering>

I always thought of Lawrence Welk as  Denture Cream Pop.      I have to speak quietly a couple friends of mine played in the Lawrence Welk band that continued after Lawrence passed. 

 

<resume normal speech>

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Spyro Gyra kicks ass. 

"It doesn't have to be difficult to be cool" - Mitch Towne

 

"A great musician can bring tears to your eyes!!!

So can a auto Mechanic." - Stokes Hunt

 

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2 hours ago, Mills Dude said:

Also a big fan of Scofield, I remember catching @Reezekeyswith his band a few times in NYC, once at the Bottom Line and another at Fat Tuesdays (Hearing Dennis Chambers for the first time was an awakening).  Definitely not 'smooth'  but I imagine he was dealing with pressure to commercialize.

 

Just to clarify - John was under no pressure to commercialize then. He was recording for a small independent jazz label (Gramavision) and played and recorded what he wanted to. He was very much into having a funky band after his stint with Miles (which had ended not too long before this). I feel very privileged and grateful to have been a part of this band - there were musical moments I won't forget (and upon listening to my playing on some u-tubes from then, a few I would like to forget! 🙂 )

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