The Death and Resurrection of Barbaric Music

Saturday, October 23, 2010
Posted in category Zeitgeist

Somehow I missed the death and the funeral. But apparently, smooth jazz passed away in its sleep almost two years ago and it was pronounced dead on the scene. Where was I? Says one critic on PopMatters:

I come to bury smooth jazz, not to praise it. The evil that radio formats do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their gimmicky call letters. So let it be with smooth jazz.

In recent months, the continual format shuffle that is inevitable in corporate-controlled radio cast a shadow over a previously successful corner of the “jazz” world. In February and March of 2008, “smooth jazz” stations in New York and Washington, DC shifted formats to rock, leaving two of the nation’s largest radio markets free of Kenny G, Chris Botti, Dave Koz, and Spyro Gyra.

Dentists in the two most powerful cities in America are panicking.

The author of the piece, Will Layman, offers up perhaps the best definition, ever, of smooth jazz, outside of a technical explanation:

Smooth Jazz, then, can be understood as an embrace of clean edges, a rejection of the analog sensibility that sits at the root of all the great American music, whether Delta blues, improvised jazz, or rebellious rock ‘n’ roll. Smooth Jazz sought to be pleasant and shining and sweet and easy. Like soul music without the sex, like jazz without a pulse of urgency, like rock without the essential roll, Smooth Jazz was an answer without a question.

At one point during this obituary, Layman even refers to smooth jazz as a “soprano saxophone note held for 45 minutes.”

Smooth jazz triggers a strange sense of nausea in me. It is one of two types of music I can’t listen to for more than five minutes without enduring seasick-type swells running through me, bringing on an unsavory headache. I’ve been in offices and hairstyling shops where this lifeless format is blaring over the ceiling speakers, subjecting unsuspecting listeners to acute melancholy and a quasi-vegetative state. I was sure that my hometown, Detroit, still had its smooth jazz station, so I checked, and it looks like there’s still a pulse over at the HD 98.7 FM. We can’t seem to manufacture cars that you want to buy, but we can deliver music to fall asleep to while driving your Honda.

I have noted that, typically, the only folks who like smooth jazz are those people who never really cared about music in the first place. Smooth jazz is a generic utterance coming from otherwise good instruments that fills the dead air but doesn’t make its listeners think too hard about the music – it’s passion, purpose, or message. If traditional jazz is chicken soup for the soul, then smooth jazz is waterboarding for the senses.

Now I count myself as a mega-fan of jazz – everything from the early jazz musicians and swing to the vocalists, modern innovators, and instrumentalists. I occasionally enjoy a sooty, hole-in-the-wall jazz club with a full docket of great, raw music. I especially love 50s and 60s Blue Note jazz. This book, Blue Note: The Album Cover Art, is one of my favorite books that I bought about 20 years ago, shortly after it was published. Blue Note cover art was almost as good as the music. Good jazz music is an immensely personal experience while smooth jazz is a soulless experience, akin to a saxophone in a perpetual coma.

The other format that gives me vigorous nausea is Muzak, also called elevator or piped music. My father, who had no interest in any kind of music except Guy Lombardo on the New Year’s holiday, used to play that stuff in the car just to break the silence. When you are a child or teenager making the long haul to the summer home Up North (that’s what we call it here in Michigan) in Dad’s pickup truck, and you are subjected to 5 straight hours of 1) driving under the speed limit 2) Muzak, and 3) cigar smoking – cheap cigars – with the windows up, you become a green-around-the-gills captive to a situation you cannot alter because you are severely lacking in position power. I remember hearing many of my favorite songs being tortured at the hands of Muzak’s audio architects. I owe much of my current resilience to surviving those satanic moments in Dad’s ’75 Chevy.

What’s fitting is that Muzak was founded during the Great Depression by George Owen Squier, a two-star General and graduate of West Point. At the time, some research studies were executed, apparently, by Moe, Larry, and Curly, which showed Muzak was a functional music that reduced workplace absenteeism and early departures. Further studies revealed that Muzak spurred cows to give more milk and chickens to lay more eggs. The World War II workforce was wired for Muzak, and accordingly, as the stories go, production skyrocketed. So that’s what happened to the Big Three automakers in Detroit? They turned off the Muzak?

The great novelist and essayist, Vladimir Nabokov, described Muzak as being “abominably offensive,” and in Smithsonian magazine he referred to Muzak as “a stupefyingly bland, toxically pervasive form of unregulated air pollution, about as calming as the drone of a garbage compactor.”

Although the term “muzak” came from a cross of “music” and “kodak,” it can’t be overlooked that it sounds more like Prozac. According to a 2004 story in USA Today, Muzak is a much more modern company that is successfully fighting off its elevator music reputation and has re-branded its product as upbeat, edgy, and yeah, even hip. Muzak Holdings LLC filed for bankruptcy protection back in 2009, and it emerged from bankruptcy early this year. If it was ever approaching cadaver status, its carcass was sprinkled with groovy dust and now it claims to be churning out “the universal language.” While smooth jazz is picking out its pallbearers, Muzak claims it is making headway by inspiring a new generation of Muzak hipsters.

Can anything be more degenerate than a Muzak rendition of Michael Jackson’s Bad, Madonna’s Like a Virgin, or, god forbid, the Star Wars Imperial March?

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23 Responses to The Death and Resurrection of Barbaric Music

  1. Charlie says:

    October 23rd, 2010 at 8:37 pm

    Life is too short to listen to crappy music.

  2. Iluvatar says:

    October 24th, 2010 at 11:51 am

    Even though I like Willie Nelson (lyrics and voice), what takes me over the cliff is butt-stoopid country (My mama had one foot).

    Forays into Jazz are minor being a late-60′s rocker and prog collector.

    But Jazz Fusion (Passport, Return To Forever, Pat Methany, Jean Luc Ponty (“Cosmic Messenger”), etc.) makes my spirit soar.

    The 1 album of Spyra Gyra I have is called “Alternating Currents”; title track was kickin’ but I wasn’t impressed w/ the rest.

    I agree w/ Charlie, life is too short; my kids got to listen to Emerson Lake & Palmer’s first 3 albums and Marillion on those long drives back to OH to visit grandmere.

    Music Appreciation 101 (lol)…

  3. Deb S. says:

    October 24th, 2010 at 11:53 am

    I have been in the habit of filing artists (wrongly) under Smooth Jazz in my brain for years, so the classification doesn’t cause me much heartburn, though uh, Kenny G. does? :D But I love Vollenweider and Metheny, and they’re filed SJ in my head. Time for a new file system, maybe. lol

  4. clark says:

    October 24th, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    “Can anything be more degenerate than a Muzak rendition of Michael Jackson’s Bad, Madonna’s Like a Virgin, or, god forbid, the Star Wars Imperial March?”

    I nominate the whistle that plays over Walmart’s store wide speakers in my town. I think it’s the whistle tune the low prices cartoon icon used to sing in their commercials, it’s as maddening as certain toys children play with too much, kazoos and such. Over and over and over again.

  5. M. Terry says:

    October 24th, 2010 at 4:00 pm

    At least one can usually ignore so called “smooth jazz.” The crap that began as “rap” then was renamed “hip-hop” typically irritates the bejeezus outta me. Gives me a violent streak I thought I lost a long time ago.

    Funny thing – many of the old and recent jazz greats happen to be black musicians. Now we’ve learned that “rap” is part of their “culture.”

    The first “rap” tune I ever heard was performed by Deborah Harry. It was pretty good, and catchy.

    Now any idiot – from mullet man in the beat up pickup to the streaked fauxhawk punk in the prius – can fill the trunk with subwoofers and play their abysmal “hip hop” so loud that you can hear it inside an earthquake shelter. And having blown speakers while listening to that shit is apparently mandatory. I’m just guessing here, but it appears that most of these people couldn’t learn their ABC’s, but they have the lyrics to this crap memorized. The nod their heads and rap along. There’s another benefit to tinted windows – most of the time at least I can’t see them mimicking the performance. At least they don’t do air guitar, since it’s mostly noise. Or those popular 70′s tunes sampled and redone as hip hop. This new hip hop sensation saves the “artist” from actually having to learn how to play an instrument or read music.

    I’ll tolerate the Dilbert type driving the Pacer, listening to his “new age” drivel – way before I’ll tolerate having my world rocked by mega-decibel hip hop blaring fucktards. Besides, the new agey stuff may put me to sleep, but hip hop makes me consider shooting up the offending car.

    New Age Jazz – 1.

    Hip hop – 0.

  6. Iluvatar says:

    October 24th, 2010 at 10:03 pm

    I think I have dumped enough good/alternative music to listen to – along prof lines (but not always! Black Sabbath – 1st album – harmonica!!) – Sorry gents – listening to “Unitopia” “The Garden” rigth now and it is @ a point where it is going nuclear! Plus, I have to eat – oooops here comes the finale – gotta GO!!!!!

    Back again!

    But I have to agree w/ M Terrry here – rap & hip-hop don’t do it for me…

  7. Dave K says:

    October 25th, 2010 at 11:50 am

    98.7 in Detroit was smooth jazz for many years. It changed formats to hip hop/R&B/pop/wrap within the past year. I don’t think there is any jazz station in Detroit, except maybe NPR at times (just guessing).

  8. Deb S. says:

    October 25th, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    Me too, no rap or hip hop in my files. I suppose I could confess to liking one tune by Dave Koz and Matsui’s stuff is interesting sometimes. But my real love is guitar. Rock guitar. P. Gilbert… J. Satriani… mmmmyum.

  9. Karen De Coster says:

    October 25th, 2010 at 7:04 pm

    Dave – I linked to 98.7, and the website shows ‘smooth jazz Detroit.’

  10. Dave K says:

    October 25th, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    Karen, that is interesting. I though V98 disappeared. It looks like they are still available on High Definition radio and online. With a regular tuner though, 98.7 is not smooth jazz.

    here’s the current broadcast station’s site:

  11. Iluvatar says:

    October 25th, 2010 at 11:53 pm

    You guys STILL insist on listening to radio???

    DUDE! Gave it up in 1978 (part of the “death to disco” craze)!

    Haven’t gone back since.

    Gave up cable in 2007.

    No wish to go back EITHER!@!

    Collect (underline that!) your music and collect your movies. Do the work!

    I am w/ M Terry here – I can can fall asleep listening to EITHER Classical music or smooth jazz, but I VOMIT for rap/hip-hop!

    Crap country just makes me drive the vehicle over the cliff (NOT Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash).

    Late 60′s or early `70′s rock, prog (e.g. King Crimson etc), and Jazz Fusion is where I live (and still grow – i.e., collect).

    Now here is an old fav – from Free (Fire & Water), track = “Fire & Water” & “All Right Now”

    (two of their best), Paul Rogers went on to Bad Company and now I here he is with Queen (huh???????).


    And a final parting thought: dear Paul Kossof (sp?) died not long after due to a drug overdose – and then the band “morphed” into “Bad Company” – heard of them?

    Oh well, sex, drugs & rock & roll…

    PS: Yeah man, I can still sing these 2 songs – including the scats (really big toothy grin here)!!

  12. Iluvatar says:

    October 26th, 2010 at 12:16 am

    One quick follow-up. A telling state of the affairs we live in today:

    Went to a concert at Woftrap, Va (outdoor place – quite nice). Must’a been in `98 or so.

    We were all “Blues” revivalists then.

    Saw a concert that had Johnny Lang in it.

    Guess who was front up?

    Frickin’ Buddy Guy!! (one of the best blues guitarists of the 20th century!!!!)

    Then Lang played. Buddy cooked his ass! Lang was a good-playing tyro compared to the master…

    We were so ashamed. World is upsidedown now… that includes this economy.

    `Member, vote for me in `12!!! /s

  13. Richie says:

    October 26th, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    Karen, as a smooth jazz fan, I must say that I am OFFENDED and I will NEVER read your blog AGAIN!!!!!1

    Seriously, I am a smooth jazz fan; however, it is more of a mood-setting device for me. Many times if I want to just relax and ease my mind, I put it on. It is great background noise. Other times, I have AC/DC, Metallica (God’s favorite band), Queen, or something else going.

    I am not surprised that smooth jazz as a radio format is almost dead. Who the hell drives down the road with smooth jazz cranked up? I enjoy it, but I certainly do not listen to it working out or in my vehicle.

    I have compilation CDs (I still live in the stone ages; no Ipod yet) that I play because radio sucks. I would listen to talk radio, but it is comprised of nothing but right-wing moralists/warmongers.

  14. Iluvatar says:

    October 26th, 2010 at 11:05 pm

    OK, Buddy Guy, 2009 – still kickin’ ass in the blues (does an Eric Clapton tune here):

    11 years later, and the man looks like… well, the MAN! (watch those teeth, Dude!)

  15. Iluvatar says:

    October 26th, 2010 at 11:14 pm


    dated 1998 too!

    Bon nuit tout le monde!

  16. Iluvatar says:

    October 28th, 2010 at 9:32 pm

    Hey guys ——————— OFF TOPIC but related to a prior Post

    the link to Karen’s previous post is here:

    It has to do w/ treating your injuries w/ ice!!!!!!!!

    Here is another link to the ice treatment fallacy, here (repeated): :

    Just wanted to get the info out to y’all in case you don’t back-scan previous posts, that’s all
    Bon Soir Toute!

    Prenez-Soin de Vous!

  17. Iluvatar says:

    October 28th, 2010 at 10:01 pm

    @ Richie:

    DUDE! AC/DC!!?? Like this?:

    “Hell’s Bells”


    My kids STILL rock to these jammers! Actually, my older son just came home from work and “approved” the tune – DUDE!

    Older son does “RUSH” “2112″, younger son does “Black Sabbath” “#1″ (harmonica addict) – or- “”"Paranoid” – this dude rocks very hard (lol!!!!)

    Like this:

    -or this –

    At least all we got is major cussing and bad language!

    We don’t have to watch Ozzie biting the head off a chicken and EATING it@!@!!!!!#@!

    Major Ewwwwwwwwwww! (big-assed grin here!!)

    Bon Nuit!!!

    A Toute A L’Heure!!

  18. Iluvatar says:

    October 29th, 2010 at 10:29 pm

    Oh BTW, My favorite album of Balck Sabbath is their first (by the same name) – I am a total sucker for a kickin’ harmonica.

    My 2nd fav is BS’s 5th album “Sabotage”, reason? It is the 5th song “Thrill Of It All” which I have always found to be epic in a way that I can’t actually articulate in a sensible way – it just grabs me – sorry – couldn’t get a live feed. But here it is:

    PS “Hole In the Sky” had real big impact on me too when I was a young man…

  19. Iluvatar says:

    October 29th, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    I have to agree w/ M Terry, Richie, and Deb S.

    Various types of music have their place & time.

    On a Friday night – hard progressive or hard rock. On a Saturday whilst doing prep cooking chores – same thing but add Jazz Fusion (e.g., Jean Luc Ponty’s “Cosmic Messenger” among others). On a Sunday night, whilst prep’g the weekly salad – I find Shadowfax to be relaxing unless I want to GO FOR IT and do Yes’s “Tales From Topographical Oceans” – track: “The Revealing Science of God” (my most fav of all songs of all time), or listen to the new progressive rock stuff I am collecting (e.g., Pendragon, Spock’s Beard).

    But I always find myself musically available to stuff like Jethro Tull’s “Passion Play”/”Aqualung”; Free’s “Fire & Water”; Spirit’s “12 Dreams of Dr Sardonicus” – or – “Live at La Paloma”.

    It has to fit your mood and your chore/work-out list man!

    There have been times that, after a good Saturday night dinner (screw the dishes Man!), I actually put on “KC and the Sunshine Band” and danced (w/ the kids) to some of their great Funk (they were NOT disco!!!!).

    I am so red in the face…

    Life is a blast- you gotta LIVE it!!

    Peace, brothers…

  20. DogWithoutSlippers says:

    November 2nd, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    When I was a fourteen year old kid, my family lived in a small second story apartment in the middle of a small town, Westbury, NY. Looking down across the street they had a jazz club – The Cork ‘N Bib and on summer evenings I’d lean out the window listening to jazz legends, Oscar Peterson, Sonny Still, Gerry Mulligan, Buddy Miles. One night I dressed up, blazer, white shirt and tie – it was 1959. Got up the courage, walked into the club, and took a table in the back of the showroom. I was the only one sitting there and ordered a 7&7 (only drink I’d heard of at the time) and was entertained by Coleman Hawkins. He came over and spoke to me and gave me an authographed photo. It was my first incursion into the entertainment business and my first love of jazz.

  21. Iluvatar says:

    November 9th, 2010 at 12:35 am

    OK – Last thing – promise!!!!

    Could not resist: Buddy Guy doing “Damn Right I Got The Blues” – have his CD sitting here in my lap (that’s a lie – it’s in the music holder) – now it’s in my lap – published < 2000. This live piece actually is better than than the studio recording.

    I promise, promise, promise NEVER to saturate your site again – honest, honest, honest@!

    Apologies to all, mates!

    I am so ashamed… (really red face – and down-trodden spirit coallescing) – bye

  22. clark says:

    November 10th, 2010 at 11:13 pm

    I didn’t know I liked Jazz,… and too bad Richie isn’t coming back, Will Grigg put up this Metallica playing Jazz video that was pretty good imho.

    I’ll have to get around to listening to some of the links above. I think I’m a bit under exposed when it comes to music outside of 1980′s stuff.

  23. Iluvatar says:

    November 14th, 2010 at 10:39 pm

    @ Richie:


    If it is Queen, then I hope you have the following:

    1) Queen 1: “The Great King Rat”

    2) Queen 2: “From Father to Son”, etc,
    3) Queen 3: Sheer Heart Attack (ALL of their songs), some follow here: (I don’t have the energy do give y’all Queen “Sheer Heart Attack” – but all of those songs ROCK!!!!!
    I live in Queen 1 (Great King Rat) and Q2 (From Father to son) – love their stuff at that time – but – same goes for for the 1st 5 Styx albuns!!!

    Hey, Karen – this was just a response – NOT a post – so that means I am not – did not SPAM your blog site again right? Right???

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