Smooth Jazz Makes Philly Comeback, Proves It’s Immortal
Do you have a place in your heart that’s been empty for five years, one that can only be filled by Dave Koz, David Sanborn and Kenny G? If so, this is your lucky week.
That’s because that much-maligned yet very resilient musical genre, Smooth Jazz, has mounted a comeback, at least here in Philadelphia. The Inquirer reported over the weekend that WJJZ, the Smooth Jazz channel that had gone dark in 2008, was coming back, and the music began playing again on Monday. Michael Tozzi, the station’s longtime programming director and on-air personality, has returned to the fold as well.
It won’t exactly be easy to find, however. Once making its home on such prominent but revolving-door local radio frequencies as 106.1 and 97.5 FM, the new Smooth Jazz is now airing on 1480-AM—which formerly used an “urban oldies” format—as well as on WJJZ.com. If you’re one of the few who has an HD Radio and knows how to use it, the frequency can also be heard on 106.1 HD2.
Known for smooth-talking DJs, and downtempo melodies with lots and lots of saxophone and not many lyrics, Smooth Jazz’s roots can be traced back to jazz itself, as well as its close cousin jazz fusion. You may think of “Smooth Jazz” as instrumental, sax-heavy covers of pop songs that you might hear in your dentist’s office, and that’s largely what the genre has become today. But that’s also what helped give it its start: Genre pioneer, guitarist Wes Montgomery recorded a series of albums in the late ’60s that consisted largely of covers of Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel songs, helping to kick off the Smooth Jazz era.
“Smooth Jazz,” much like “adult contemporary,” has long been a radio format first and a musical genre second and indeed, its rise and fall has in many ways mirrored that of commercial radio itself. Its growth in popularity in the 1990s and early 2000s coincided with that of Clear Channel and other radio corporations, and its decline came in the new millennium, when Clear Channel began shuttering Smooth Jazz stations. At this point, the genre is almost completely absent from the dial in most major U.S. cities.
According to the strikingly long and detailed Wikipedia page, the decline of Smooth Jazz has been attributed to several factors, from recalculations in the way radio ratings are tabulated to an aging core audience to a lack of viable new music and an over-reliance on those instrumental versions of pop hits.
Much like television, commercial radio has more competition from elsewhere than ever before, whether it’s satellite radio, iPods, and music streaming services like Pandora, Spotify, and the new one Apple announced earlier this week. Therefore, they’ve had to turn to content that’s either unique, or extremely cheap to produce. That’s why every city, Philly included, now has about three stations each of sports talk and conservative political talk, as well as the almost-no-DJs-required Jack FM format (called Ben FM in Philly.)
One place the music has stayed popular? The Weather Channel, which still plays the music throughout the day and has even released multiple Smooth Jazz compilation albums:
And sure, the music has often been mocked. I’ve done some mocking myself. But not to the point where it’s come around to the point where it’s cool to like it. If there’s been an ironic hipster embrace of Smooth Jazz, I haven’t heard about it.
But perhaps the genre’s return in Philly can be the catalyst for just that. Might Smooth Jazz be up for a critical reappraisal, or at least an earned re-discovery? Philly has produced giants of soul, rock and rap—could the next great Smooth Jazz artist be sitting in a bedroom somewhere in Philadelphia?
Smooth Jazz fans in recent years have had to make do with finding their music on the web, satellite radio, albums and even the Weather Channel. There’s no reason to think they won’t find it on the AM dial.