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Smooth Jazz, 9/11, and the American Way

Photo Credit: Stardust by Jean-Michel Basquiat

Anthony Dean-Harris
anthony.deanharris[at]gmail[dot]com / @retronius

As a San Antonian, one of the most exciting times for me comes in September. The temperature drops from the sweltering 100˚F days to more hospitable (barely) 90˚F days. School starts, and with that brings a certain degree of new promise across the town. Most importantly, San Antonio’s annual jazz festival, Jazz’SAlive, is nigh.

Typically, this has always been a cause for great celebration for me. I’ve gone to this festival with my family every year when I was a child. One of the things that made me homesick the most when I went off to college was the thought of missing Jazz’SAlive. Though, before I left for my four year excursion in education, I knew something was up with my beloved jazz festival. The quality of performers was waning. My family grew less and less motivated to go every year. Upon my return to San Antonio, our enthusiasm for the mere notion of the event didn’t meet with our apathy for the acts.

Jazz’SAlive always had a dalliance with smooth jazz, but this was starting to get a little out of hand. This year (specifically this weekend), it has been hard to get excited about the headliners. Saturday night will have former Tonight Show bandleader, Kevin Eubanks. Sunday night will have vibrato enthusiast, Aaron Neville. Many of my colleagues and I are less than delighted about this, but I’m making a point not to make any jokes or disparage this year’s festival too much. I do this for the sake of equality.

It is no secret that we here at Nextbop don’t particularly care for smooth jazz. As far as I know, Seb has always hated it and when I told him my topic for this week, he wanted me to stress that on his behalf. Honestly, I feel that the genre has its time and place and there are folks who I feel show the best of this subset of the genre better than others. Smooth jazz was my first foray into the genre and I still love a great deal of it, at least I’ll admit this when I’m feeling pretty brave. When smooth jazz is played well, I can’t be mad at it being what it is. As [I’ve said before], I listen to music when it’s done well, not specifically for what it is. But I do not at all feel justified for completely disparaging smooth jazz, and I’m not just saying this because my favorite musician is Joe Sample.

What’s even less of a secret here at Nextbop is our fervency for modern mainstream jazz. We like hearing the kind of jazz music that welcomes external influences and the kind of stuff that covers rock tunes or has irregular rhythms or just doesn’t swing like the jazz of the golden era of the 1950s and 60s. There are folks out there who would make the sweeping claim that [this subgenre just isn’t jazz]. We have, time and again, fought to refute these claims and give this subgenre some legitimacy.

So if there are so many like myself who feel that one shouldn’t cast aside an entire subgenre of music because it doesn’t sound exactly like its origin, this same contingent of people should offer that same courtesy to smooth jazz. Shutting down the notion that smooth jazz is a subgenre of quality on face value is the same sort of close-mindedness that we chide in traditionalists.

In addition, does this mean we cast aside the periods of famous musicians careers when they made quality music, even if it was smooth jazz? Do we ignore Miles Davis’ Tutu or Amandla?Joe Sample’s solo career? The collected works of Grover Washington Jr.? Is Pat Metheny deplorable because of his fringe allegiance? Is George Benson any less great?

Whenever I face these questions, I always think back to something Chuck Klosterman [once said], “Culture can't be wrong. That doesn't mean it's always ‘right,’ nor does it mean you always have to agree with it. But culture is never wrong. People can be wrong. Movements can be wrong. But culture--as a whole--cannot be wrong. Culture is just there.” If there is a group of folks who wait with bated breath for the new Brian Culbertson album, I can’t be mad at them. If people continue to sing the praises of Chris Botti (and I actually like Chris Botti, I don’t know why everyone hates him so much), let them do so.

Art is subjective. Art is something in which people like what they’re going to like. We can think what we so choose about folks’ taste, but we certainly cannot force them into liking something or not liking something. It hasn’t worked my entire life with my family and their love of the works of Tyler Perry (the man makes trash work and doesn’t understand the medium of television, period), and trying to convince people to hate something because of detailed reasons why Aeschylus would disapprove may not be a good usage of one’s time.

What’s especially jarring about this kind of exclusivity in regards to taste is how distinctly un-American it all is. America is not about exclusivity; at least its ideals aren’t about that. If you’re reading this and you don’t happen to be American (this includes my partners up North), bear with me. If jazz is an American invention and has among its main principles the idea of democracy (a collective of musicians come together with distinctive style to create as good a work of art as possible in the moment), is not the notion of casting aside different ideas antithetical to the genre (and America) itself? Jazz is a genre that has the freedom to be whatever it wants to be. Musicians have the freedom to explore new ideas and to go in any direction they so choose. Art as a whole has the freedom to do so. And as it relates to this subject, a fandom has the right to choose whatever music it wants to hear.

In conclusion, I’d like to consider how things have been going in America lately. For the past nine years, September hasn’t exactly been a great month for America. We’re always thinking about that one event we say we’ll never forget. In this particularly tense month, there has been a great deal of attention toward the construction of a community center two blocks away from Ground Zero and the appropriateness of burning of Islam’s sacred book. There are people who find both of these acts offensive, but to be frank, both of these things have the right to happen because this is America.

In America, we have the right to build community centers wherever we so choose (so long as the zoning is appropriate). In America, we have the right to express ourselves with protest by burning important symbols. In fact, these actions have more weight because the symbols are important. (Rev. Terry Jones wouldn’t have threatened to burn a Qur’an if it wouldn’t have upset folks; that’s sort of the point. If it didn’t piss you off, he wouldn’t have been doing as he had intended). In America, we have the right to follow the beliefs we so choose and express ourselves as we please. The same notion of freedom that we have in America is the same spirit that lives on in jazz, in all its permutations.

So when I’m heading downtown to Travis Park this weekend, I can’t be too disappointed in who’s performing. I’m just celebrating jazz for being all it can be. Although, I’ll still be cutting out early before Aaron Neville hits the stage. I have my limits.

Anthony Dean-Harris is a contributing writer for [African-American Reflections] and hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on [91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio]. More of his writing can be found at his blog, [In Retrospect] and you can also [follow him on Twitter].