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Listener: Agitated Fans Lose Smooth Jazz

Born in focus groups conducted in windowless conference rooms, named by a radio station consultant, derided by critics, smooth jazz vanished from Washington's FM radio dial as the month began. It was 14 years old.

Actually, it was a listener who uttered the phrase that a consultant used to sum up this fusion of instrumental music styles. At a focus group held in Chicago by Broadcast Architecture, the firm that first sold radio stations on the new format in the early 1990s, a woman who was asked to describe the songs being tested blurted out "smooth jazz."

What she was describing was a jazzlike sound without the jazz essential of improvisation, a melody-driven, generally instrumental set of songs played primarily on instruments used in jazz. But even that fungible definition fell apart as smooth jazz spread to about 200 radio stations, including Washington's WJZW (105.9 FM), which switched to a 1960s-heavy rock oldies format. In recent years, smooth jazz came to mean not only saxmen Kenny G and Dave Koz but even singers Norah Jones, India.Arie and Sting.

Despite hoots and catcalls from fans of straight-ahead jazz and yawns from pop and rock lovers, smooth jazz was a rare kind of success -- a genre of music created not so much by the artists and the record industry as by radio programmers who identified a style, found an audience and inspired musicians to make the product.

As far back as the 1970s, the jazz fusion movement's lighter hits, from artists such as Bob James, George Benson and Spyro Gyra, won airplay not only on the handful of jazz stations around the country but on light rock and easy-listening stations. Chuck Mangione's "Feels So Good" from 1977 was probably the first smooth jazz hit, even if the genre didn't yet exist.

It wasn't until 1987, when a Los Angeles station became the first major outlet to devote itself to the music of David Sanborn, the Rippingtons and Al Jarreau, that a financial incentive developed for instrumentalists to write and record music that would serve as the aural wallpaper that this new format sought.

Radio programmers looking for a way to serve office workers and stressed-out commuters built a recipe including ingredients from fusion jazz, light R&B, pop balladeers and a few straight-jazz artists who followed guitarist Benson's lead toward less intellectually challenging, more melodic numbers.

From the start, critics hated the stuff, dismissing it as the elevator music of the '90s. Michael Berube, a cultural critic at Penn State University, defined the genre as "a form of musical waterskiing over the groove." But smooth jazz stations generally did well, winning an audience that was unusual for radio -- racially mixed, crossing boundaries of age, geography and income level.

It took until 2000 before the Grammy Awards added a pop instrumental album category to recognize smooth jazz stars, and the format's artists could never get away from having to defend themselves against the idea that they had sold out.

"I play songs people want to hear," saxophonist Kenny G told the Denver Post in a typical defense. "Critics don't bother me because I know I have integrity. . . . The jazz purists should be looking at me and saying 'thank you.' I've brought people into buying instrumental music. Maybe they'll open up and find an old Sonny Rollins or Charlie Parker record after that."

Other artists tried a different tack, denying that they fit the label. "We're not smooth jazz," trumpeter Chris Botti told the Boston Globe, even as he acknowledged that his music was not about "playing in a little tiny club and it sounds like a math test," but rather "playing big venues and it's pleasing."

The format was all about pleasant melodies, whether it's Kenny G's songful instrumentals or the soft vocals of an Anita Baker or Sade. For a good chunk of the '90s, the major force propelling CD sales of the music was the Weather Channel, which used smooth jazz as the background sound during its local weathercasts.

But smooth jazz has hit rough waters. New York City's CD101.9, for many years the nation's most popular smooth jazz station, died last month, replaced by a rock format. Philadelphia's smooth jazz outlet switched to a rhythmic hits format featuring everything from Alicia Keys and Beyonce to Frankie Valli and Bon Jovi.

In Washington, WJZW's ratings had remained steady at the bottom of the market's top 10 stations -- a bit up over the past couple of years, but not enough to satisfy executives looking for a more profitable format.

In cities where the format is still thriving, such as Chicago, more adventuresome programmers are mixing some more traditional jazz into the playlist. Pianist and DJ Ramsey Lewis, who hosts a syndicated show heard on many smooth jazz stations, now blends some Oscar Peterson and Bud Powell in with the format's R&B and light jazz regulars.

In markets where radio companies killed off smooth jazz because of drooping ratings, listeners have often demanded a return of the music. That has happened in Milwaukee, Philadelphia and already in Washington, where both WASH (97.1 FM) and WJZW have announced plans to include smooth jazz on one of their HD channels, which require the purchase of a digital radio. Both satellite radio services, XM and Sirius, also have smooth jazz channels.

That may not be enough to calm the legions of agitated fans who have been calling the offices of WJZW's owner, Citadel Broadcasting, but in the radio industry, listeners' desire for relaxing background music is not a priority these days. With sales of advertising spots in sharp decline, programmers and advertisers alike are looking for listeners who will be paying close attention, and that means music that's front and center, not light and breezy.

By Marc Fisher |  March 8, 2008; 8:17 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Not sure if you guys were here or remember it, but this has happened before. The previous jazz station in this area was 100.3 (I think) and switched all of sudden to an oldies station. There was even an impromptu protest to get them to change it back, but they didn't.

Posted by: Wash. Listener | March 8, 2008 10:08 AM

Wash Listener is correct. Jazzy 100 suddenly switched to WBIG Oldies 100. Now Oldies 100 is on 100.3 HD-2 and BIG 100.3 FM plays classic rock.

Posted by: Nikki | March 8, 2008 11:01 AM

Q: You're in a room with Hitler, Stalin and Kenny G. You have a gun with two bullets. What do you do?

A: You shoot Kenny G. Twice.

Posted by: ksu499 | March 8, 2008 1:07 PM

Mourning the loss...

Posted by: Ntlekt | March 8, 2008 2:19 PM

D.C. radio now officially sucks. With the loss of smooth jazz, we are stuck with repetitive pop and hip hop, oldies that we've all heard before, public radio that nobody wants to listen too and talk radio that is stuck on stupid. Guess I'll pop in a CD.

Posted by: C-Dog | March 8, 2008 3:28 PM

Good riddance to bad rubbish, to quote Johnny Rotten.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 8, 2008 5:34 PM

Good riddance to bad rubbish, to quote Johnny Rotten.

Posted by: Palookaville | March 8, 2008 5:35 PM

C-dog, I am with you bro.

I mean, I like rock, a little pop (80's music is my thing) but nothing beat the groove and relax of listening 105.9, especially when I driving home from work.

I will miss "sounds of Brazil"....dearly.

Posted by: Obx | March 8, 2008 6:30 PM

fyi i first heard the phrase "smooth jazz" in the blurbs for the old KKGO FM in los angeles in the late 70s. It blew dead bears then and it certainly does now.

While DC radio is certainly as detestable as the people who live there, i have to disagree about public radio no one wants to listen to.

That was killed off once and for all when WETA dumped NPR/BBC for an unlistenable, tired-beyond-belief classical chestnut format very similar to the one they had for years. Since this is supposedly listener supported... who asked for that?

Inasmuch as there is now digital radio barfing out bad music in each and every lamentable style of crap music available, this tragic loss of bad jazz truly qualifies for the "who gives a flying eff" award.

No more whitey-jazz soprano saxophone puh-leez. This station would still be broadcasting if anyone cared about such anachronistic twaddle. Especially the white people who address each other as "bro."

Posted by: Lamb Cannon | March 8, 2008 6:48 PM

With the demise of the "smooth jazz" station, I would strongly encourage former listeners to move down the dial to WPFW 89.3 FM. There is no other station like WPFW in the Wash. metropolitan area and the station has proven it's a winner during these 30 years. WPFW covers the spectrum of straight ahead and avant garde jazz, r & b, gospel, blues,reggae, calypso, world, hip hop and other forms of progressive music. Please give WPFW a try.

Posted by: the agitator | March 8, 2008 7:33 PM

I wonder how Citadel is going to feel when we don't listen to their station AT ALL! I'm 60 years old, and their programing is even too moldy for me. Hello MIX 107.3.

Posted by: Former Listener | March 9, 2008 2:19 PM

Just curious, does Citadel Broadcasting hold any stock in satellite radio, because I think that's where their pushing everyone.

There are no other options, unless you want to listen to screaming, in your face, rock from past and present; or reggae and salsa?

Are there any stations around that play a Top 40 format?

Posted by: Jack | March 9, 2008 2:20 PM

One solution: Internet radio via iTunes. Here's what you can do:

1. Download iTunes for free at

2. Install. (Works on both Macs and Windows PCs.

3. Launch.

4. Under the "Library" sidebar at the left, click on "Radio".

5. Under the list of types of music, click on the arrow next to "Jazz".

6. Double-click next to any station name to play that station.

7a. (Optional) If you can get your computer near your stereo, get an inexpensive ($8-$20) cable to run from the 1/8-inch sound output jack on your computer to a pair of red and white RCA inputs (auxiliary or CD) on your stereo system.

7a. (Optional) If your computer has WiFi, you can also use Airport Express ( with an inexpensive cable to stream your favorite jazz music to your stereo system. (Works with both Macs and Windows PCs.)

8. (Optional) Enjoy.

Posted by: Internet Radiologist | March 9, 2008 2:42 PM

***Jack, who commented above at 2:20 PM, is the Official 30,000th Comment here on Raw Fisher.
Congrats, Jack, and many thanks for coming along on the big blog.

Posted by: Fisher | March 9, 2008 3:24 PM

The part that makes me wonder about Citadel's logic isn't the switch to 60s rock but the addition of Imus in the Morning. I'm sure that is settling well with a number of listeners who hadn't heard about the switch and wanted to hear some smooth jazz....

Posted by: John | March 9, 2008 8:43 PM

Anyone looking for a superior alternative to 105.9. Try Watercolors on XM radio.

Posted by: Chris | March 10, 2008 2:44 PM

Sad. Great music, but MISERABLE personalities. Bring back the sounds, leave the long winded egos behind.

Posted by: Steve Carlson | March 10, 2008 8:48 PM

Cannon and C-Dog:

WETA is beating all other public radio stations in the market in the ratings.

And WAMU beats all other news-talk stations in the Washington market except WTOP.

What was that about nobody listening to public radio?

Posted by: Mark Jeffries | March 12, 2008 8:19 PM

Correction: Smooth Jazz has NOT been discontinued in MIlwaukee. It has simply moved down the dial to 106.9.

Tell your friends!

PS Very few commercials on the online version!

Posted by: Scott Beddome | March 13, 2008 7:07 PM

Try Guy's Groove on WPFW (89.3-FM). Sunday afternoons from 2 p.m.- 5 p.m.

Posted by: BB | March 15, 2008 10:14 AM

do you think they're going to bring back smooth jazz?

Posted by: jazzlover | March 20, 2008 6:18 PM

do you think they're going to bring back smooth jazz?

Posted by: jazzlover | March 20, 2008 6:18 PM

do you think they're going to bring back smooth jazz?

Posted by: jazzlover | March 20, 2008 6:18 PM

In one month's favorite shampoo,my Land Rover and now my smooth jazz...105.9 FM...What's a middle ager to do? Maybe I'll start my own dynesty of smooth Jazz Syndications....the oldies really stink!!!!!!

Posted by: Linda Sillin | March 25, 2008 2:51 PM

In one month's favorite shampoo,my Land Rover and now my smooth jazz...105.9 FM...What's a middle ager to do? Maybe I'll start my own dynesty of smooth Jazz Syndications....the oldies really stink!!!!!!

Posted by: Linda Sillin | March 25, 2008 2:51 PM

Looking for an alternative, try Baltimore's Smooth Jazz radio station WSMJ 104.3. Enjoy!!

Posted by: tracy shields | April 9, 2008 7:21 AM

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