Smooth jazz: There's no "there" there

The other night, I was sitting in a pub with a cold beer in my fist, thinking about music and trying to ignore the general hubbub, when a young fellow walked over to my table and asked if my name is Harris. I pled guilty.

He said, "Aren't you a musician or something?"

"Used to be, a long time ago," I replied. "Nowadays, I mostly listen to music and write about it."

"What do you listen to most?" he asked.

"Jazz," I said. He perked up.

"Man," he said, "isn't that Kenny G about the best you've ever heard?"

My heart sank. Not wanting to discourage anyone from listening to anything that gives him pleasure -- and not wanting to start an argument, for he was fairly large and fairly tipsy -- I made a noncommittal remark about how Kenny G certainly has pleased a lot of people, and my new acquaintance wandered off, happy to have his opinion validated by a retired musician/working scribe.

But he set me to thinking about the phenomenon known as "smooth jazz," in which Kenny G certainly is an important figure. And I decided that the ease with which I had pleased that tavern chap's opinion of his own opinion might be a symptom of the trouble with smooth jazz. As Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland, California, "There's no 'there' there."

In 1976, the fine guitarist, George Benson, had a smash hit with an album called "Breezin'". The title cut and a remake of "On Broadway," the old Drifters tune, seemed to pop up on the radio with the same frequency of "Ode To Billy Joe" back in 1967. There is not an offensive note in the entire recording. Not a single clinker. Not one flat guitar string. Not a bit of soul. Not a morsel of funk.

Benson has played with some of the greats -- Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Jack McDuff -- and, in 1975, he had put out "Good King Bad," a sleeper album that isn't as well known as it should be, and which shows you what he can do when he isn't trying to be a pop star.

I'm happy for Benson's success, because I think he is a very great talent, but there's a little musicianly voice in me that wants to quote Frank Zappa to him: "Shut up and play yer guitar!"

In 1977, Chuck Mangione hauled his flugelhorn into the limelight with "Feels So Good," and the cycle repeated itself. Mangione, like Benson, has some authentic jazz credentials, including stints with Wynton Kelly, Kai Winding, Maynard Ferguson, Art Blakey and Woody Herman. He's a talented composer, arranger and player. But his popularity, like Benson's, rests upon the loose sand of music without meat. I haven't heard a word about him since.

The cycle kept cycling until now, a full generation later, there are millions of young people walking about, claiming to be jazz fans, who have never heard jazz. These are the same people who might ask, "Oh, you mean Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?"

There are dozens of artists who, though they are obviously talented and know their axes, can't fill me up with the musical nutrition I require for a happy life: David Benoit, Spyro Gyra, Ronnie Cuber, Grover Washington -- even the great Stanley Turrentine seems to have stumbled onto some brief racetrack that requires only a set of slicks for the short-haul drag races that characterize the pop charts.

By contrast, the jazz that will carry you through anything is equipped with a set of studded snow tires and wrapped with chains, so that, over the long haul, you won't be stranded.

Last week on SkyJazz's "All Request" program, Lyle Bishop played a live version of "Yesterdays," a selection by the great tenor sax player, Coleman Hawkins. Near the end of one of Bean's long and lyrical explorations of that lovely ballad, his reed goes out of control and he hits one of the biggest clams I've ever heard by a master. Still, that one sour squeak carries more feeling than I can hear in all of "Breezin'" or "Feels So Good."

And it proves to novice listeners that ballads aren't ruled out of the big jazz tent simply because they are ballads. All one has to do is listen to Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight" or Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life," two of the most beautiful songs ever written, to discover that.

Which leads me to the conclusion that smooth jazz is not jazz at all. Jazz is the thing with studs. It gets down into the mud and rock of living and is something quite more precious than mere entertainment. It might be frantic or it might be calm. But it will be solid, not wispy. It can be romantic without being cloying -- challenging without belligerence, cerebral but with a point. Open your ears and hear it. If you do, you'll walk away changed.