Top 50 JAzz Blog

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Sweet, Hot and Smooth@-by Steve Provizer

Sometimes people don't know a good, no, a brilliant idea when it bites' em on the tweet. Alex W. Rodriguez @arodjazz was looking for advice on how to write a "smooth jazz" chapter for his jazz curriculum and I suggested he trace its roots back to the age-old dichotomy between "sweet" and "hot" jazz (Notice the copyright mark on the title-shows what a good idea it is). He didn't bite on it, but I am. It's a potentially juicy area for exploration: Bert Williams-hot or sweet? James Europe wasn't sweet, but could you really call him hot? George Benson: when did it happen?) Of course, it's also an impossibly large question for the likes of me, but Gap-toothed sitemaster Chris would pop me in the chops if I didn't run with it (This is all good insider stuff, by the way, but you're paying big money for access, so why not). In the pop world, there was probably always a definable split between sweet and hot. You had parlor music/popular song (sweet), blues (hot), ragtime/cakewalk/minstrel/vaudeville/black theatre (in-between), marches (more or less sui generis). Then, by the teens, "jazz" (hot). Note the large category not easily defined as either one or the other. No doubt musicians were aware of what their audience wanted (their "demo" we modern hucksters would say) and were fluid as necessary. Sometimes a person sang some folk; sometimes some blues-stands to reason. Vaudeville billed itself as family-friendly, but hot performers came out of there. Did they wait until they left to start being hot? Seems doubtful. With the over-generalized style practiced by a blogger who wants to hold his audience, I mean, given our space limitations, it's not possible to parse what happened before "jazz." It seems more reasonable to tackle the issue of Sweet, Hot and Smooth@ by starting in the late teens, when the word 'jazz' began to stick and denote something pretty specific. Sidebar to researchers: It would be interesting to know the extent to which the use of the label "jazz"was media-driven or a collective decision-spoken or unspoken-on the part of its practitioners. Until that time, we shall struggle ahead, picking up our investigation next time with: "Jazz Cage Match@ Part the First: Fletcher 'Hatchet' Henderson vs. 'Grapplin' Guy Lombardo."


Alex said...

Hi Steve -- glad to have inspired your new train of thought. As a matter of fact, a number of academics have been taking up this issue recently, including David Brackett of McGill University and my thesis advisor, John Howland at Rutgers. Dr. Howland's new (2009) book, "Ellington Uptown: Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson and the Birth of Concert Jazz" deals very well with some of the questions you raise. Dr. Brackett's "Rock, Pop and Soul Reader" is another great resource.
As for the smooth jazz lecture, the age-old art/commerce dichotomy is a thread that winds through the entire course, smooth jazz being but one obvious example of it. I had a good time diggin' on Grover Washington Jr. and Wayman Tisdale for a couple of hours, though.

rob chalfen said...

both JR Europe & Paul Whiteman were expert at mixing a judicious dollop of 'hot' to spice up their society orchestrations; I think the comparison is apt, if not generally made - actually Whiteman's first record is only about a year and a half after Europe's last.

the black players in NO called it ragtime, placing themselves on a continuum with the St Louis professors...(Morton I think considered himself the ideal synthesis between the 'rough' NO style and the smoother Chopinesque St Louis rags, with maybe Turpin's St Louis Rag itself as a prototype) ...anyway after the ODJB recorded, Jass it was and Jazz it remained. They were genius press agents on the subject. the Original Creole Band didn't record and neglected to brand what they did, so never escaped the fatal clutches of their vaudeville matrix. Like most NO bands they did light concert pieces as well as 'hot' ragtime, so you get the spectrum in embryo.

Chris Rich said...

As a linguistics exercise,it is interesting. Hot and sweet might convey flavor...taste.

Smooth is texture. As a market play, the smooth world mainly is of a piece with other post muzak noise for cubicle wretches, especially the women who probably have mildly harrowing stresses in the ugly cubicle continuum.

So they must be soothed...'soft rock'...smooth jazz.

Most TV spots for these radio formats feature some stressed out feminine cubicle soldier waxing ecstatic about how Smooth 108 offers the perfect soporific as she agonizes over landing the Cogswell Cogs account or stews over slights at the water cooler, worries about threats from the paunchy bald manager who can't seem to lift his gaze above her chest and dreams of some carefree luxury life in Aruba with some stand in for Johnny Depp or something.

Smooth has a grim job to do.

Steve Provizer said...

The comparison between smooth and muzak is interesting insofar as the people who record it have all the chops anyone could ask for. I've heard stories about muzak guys who went 20 years without missing a note. And yet...

Chris Rich said...

One of the Sub Pop founders, the musician Amy Denio and Archie Shepp's son all had jobs at Muzak in Seattle, (its home), in the 80s.

I wonder if it was an American application of a Hindemith concept wedded to the aesthetics of Walter Gropius?

We used to call the really crappy fusion, think Spyrogyra, Fuzak.

Maybe that is a progression lineage Hindemith to Muzak to Fuzak to Smooth. If you made a form of death metal into 'smooth metal' for geriatric headbangers sure to appear would it be "Smuth" with an umlaut?

Steve Provizer said...

I think it was Satie who opened up the "ambient music" pandora's box. It makes me cogitate on possible classical crossover influences in early 20th c.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, and I'm curious to learn about previous attempts to borrow jazz's prestige in a more "palatable" form. To my ears, though, "smooth jazz" is much further removed from jazz than any previous "sweet" experiments... I think people, when talking about "smooth jazz," often lump it together with a more general category of "liter" fusion and new age (which sonically grew out of groups like Oregon or Keith's "Koln Concert")--but if you listen to the music itself as it's programmed on most smooth jazz stations, it has much less relation to the main jazz trunk than it does to 90s adult contemporary or "soul" (which is often peppered in as well--stuff like Anita Baker, Phil Collins, etc.), sans vocals. The only jazz-related stuff I hear is usually a 90s funk-groove-style cover of something recognizable like "Take Five" or "Summertime." The main innovation behind the 90s "Smooth Jazz" wave was an evolution of nomenclature (borrowing the word "jazz"), not music.

Chris Rich said...

Hi Mr Carey,

Welcome to the commentariat.Slurping imagined prestige from a pest afflicted idiom is an interesting line of inquiry.

I get the sense it was concocted in El Lay. For example, many crappy 80s era porn vids had sooth jazz sound tracks.

Maybe it's the 'Van Nuys' aesthetic.

When I was a booking agent for a Cambridge gin mill, the Jazz Dragon Lady would inflict crappy Berklee fusion bands on the place, live smooth jazz, and my friend crazy Craig would harass them from the audience by imitating the orgasmic human noises from porn, those non verbal groans and such.

It worked pretty well.

rob chalfen said...

classical crossover, early 20th c division:

Stravinsky quote at the beginning of "The Chant" by Morton's RH Peppers, 1926 - written by Mel Stitzel, pianist of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings ( Morton sat in on one of their sessions, making the first 'mixed' date - the Kings had to tell the label brass he was Cuban!)

Steve Provizer said...

Just a quick response--I suppose there's always been a grey area in the application/coopting of the jazz moniker. As Rob says, a dollop here, a dollop there.

We've created endless subdivisions of musical genres where once there were but a few. At a certain point-one can assume because of some particularly powerful musical or p.r. force-enough energy amasses that something begins to be called 'swing,' "west coast,""punk," "thrash metal," etc. Geography sometimes makes it seem more reasonable- "N.O.,"Kansas City, "territory."

Chris Rich said...

I spent part of last night listening to the Eckstine big band which seems to cover all of the above. Mr. Eckstines voice made the gravity center of it.

"Cottage For Sale" could be a great anthem for the New Depression.

Steve Provizer said...

Willard Robison, composer of Cottage For Sale, led a territory band in the 20's-30's.

rob chalfen said...

Willard Robison was Hoagy's cousin