Change of Hart
By Christopher Hess
FEBRUARY 23, 1998: Smooth jazz is the work of the devil. It is a ravenous creature, born of something real and pure, that now seeks to devour its progenitor - a beautiful, graceful animal that unwittingly crapped out a spore, which somehow, through bizarre genetic experimentation no doubt performed in a marketing boardroom in Pasadena, replicated its DNA. This twisted progeny mutated and mutated again, and in a dark spasm of punctuated equilibrium, assumed the form of the monster it is today. Ever hungry, the beast keeps growing. "New Adult Contemporary" (also called "Urban Contemporary" in another particularly meaningless example of ad copy) is more a radio format than a music. It's a format that grows by the minute, expanding over the course of a few short years from a handful of stations in huge markets like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles to chase hot on the heels of the wildly successful AAA format (like our own KGSR) and have a pronounced presence in every major market. Today, there are well over 80 NAC stations in the US, and that number is rising. Fast.
"Smooth jazz" is, first and foremost, grossly misnamed. Technically speaking, it's not jazz at all. It embodies none of the elements that make jazz jazz. Improvisation, the heart of traditional jazz, is mostly non-existent with the exception of the same obligatory solo of any pop song. Syncopation and rubato modifications are also absent, though token elements of them may be used to give a song a "jazzy" feel.
Arrangements, as they apply to "smooth jazz," are closer to R&B and pop music, the main instrument creating more of a lyrical line than any sort of improvised melody. What lyricism and melody do exist within the form is usually built around the sounds of electric instruments; plucked and funky electric bass lines replace the fat (not phat) notes of the upright or double-bass, synthesizers and effects-laden keyboards fill the space usually reserved for piano, and drums are much more regularly timed and - horror of horrors - even programmed.
When speaking of "smooth jazz," names like Kenny G. and Yanni jump to mind and fill the mouth with a sinister bile. The genre does have its luminaries, artists worthy of respect for their compositions and technical expertise - musicians like Pat Metheny and David Sanborn - but for the most part, this is flaccid, easy-listening, mid-tempo music with a very short life span. Traditional jazz and "smooth jazz" enjoy separate existences on different frequencies and in different CD collections. Therefore, when the two come together in the close quarters of a single album, eyebrows will raise.
"I made the record kind of eclectic on purpose," says Pamela Hart, slowly beginning an explanation that she seemed prepared to make. "I didn't want to be labeled. I don't mind being labeled a jazz singer - that's what [the album] will be filed under - but a lot of the tunes are borderline, mostly for marketing purposes. I had to put a little commercialism in it to get airplay, because everything is smooth jazz these days. To get a foot in the door, I put some of that smooth jazz, that kind of pop jazz, on the CD."
Hart is guardedly excited about May I Come In?, her self-released debut that's due out in time for the South by Southwest music conference, during which the local singer will have a showcase. It's a huge step for any musician to offer the public their first completed work representing his or her artistic ability and aesthetic vision. Once it's out there, once people start listening to it, a musical persona begins to form in the public mind, and that becomes identity.
Not that Hart doesn't already have a local identity. She has lived and performed in Austin for about 12 years, building a reputation as a compelling voice of traditional jazz. Her first gigs were indicative of the road she would follow. "When I started singing, doing some stuff for U.T., they had this Cotton Club review and I did a Billie Holiday thing," remembers Hart. "I was stuck on Billie Holiday for years."
Smiling at the recollection of her youthful devotion to Lady Day, Hart also lists Ella Fitzgerald and Nancy Wilson as foundation influences and performers who shaped her future. Moving to Texas in 1982 and later attending Southwest Texas University in San Marcos in pursuit of her MBA (which she received in '91), Hart decided to devote herself to singing. "I was gonna give myself two years to get serious," she recalls. "I thought I was serious at the time, but I didn't know enough about this business to be serious. I didn't know what it took."
Her first effort produced a four-song demo tape that, though far behind her now in vocal ability, showed the essence of Hart the jazz singer. On it, the power of her voice is readily apparent, so much so that it proved a driving force in the development of jazz vocalists in Austin - a community united in part through one of Hart's pet projects, the "Women in Jazz" concert series. Produced by Hart and her husband Kevin starting in 1994 - in cooperation with the Harold McMillan's DiverseArts group - the showcase of local jazz singers is an annual reminder of the wealth of talent Austin boasts in this field.
"I've come to realize lately how important [the "Women in Jazz" concert series] is to the singers here, and how many more singers there are that I didn't even know about," says Hart seriously. "Since we've gotten a website (http://members.aol.com/hartbeat07/pamhart.htm), we get hits from people all over the country. Some of them have [women in jazz] showcases - Seattle, New York. I've been getting press kits from all over the country, and I have to tell you this: I have not received any press kits or recordings that come close to the quality of artists that we have in Austin. These are CDs, well-produced stuff, but they still don't come close to the ladies we have here."
The focus of the "Women in Jazz" concerts is traditional jazz, using mostly acoustic instrumentation and working through a varied and extensive catalog of standard tunes and originals in each performance. It has become the definitive forum for the upper echelons of traditional jazz vocalists in Austin. Hart's leading role in these shows has helped establish her as one of the pre-eminent performers among the elite, and her astonishing range and the purity of her tone in both interpretation of standards and delivery of original songs has made her live performances a standard to live up to.
It is this range and purity of tone that Hart hopes carries over onto May I Come In?, helping lift the smooth jazz on the CD above the limits of the genre. Unfortunately, the step between the two types of music is not a lateral one. Where mainstream, traditional jazz aims at the heights of artistic ability and expresses real emotions through slight nuances - a half-step here, a quick slide there - smooth jazz presents emotions in the bigger picture, like in a Whitney Houston song. Only in the expression of the broader melody are the parts important. The distinction here is that, like pop, this emotion is disposable; indeed it must be, or who would need another hit single every week?
That is the question currently facing those at the helm of smooth jazz's proliferation. Keith Zimmerman, the Jazz and Smooth Jazz Editor at Gavin, sees this question as fundamental in pushing smooth jazz to greater commercial success. "Smooth jazz has yet to prove itself as a record buying genre," says Zimmerman. "The audience is largely passive adults with kids and a mortgage who don't necessarily buy records. The ratings are spectacular. We're just waiting for the retail gate to catch up."
If all goes as planned, May I Come In? will sell enough copies through local stores and at shows to make back Hart's investment, at which time she will shop it to labels in hopes of slipping through that retail gate. And it seems that gate has already inched open even if Gavin's Zimmerman says sales haven't yet caught up to ratings.
Mark Elliott, of Dallas-based traditional jazz label Leaning House Jazz, sees the disparity between album sales of traditional jazz and smooth jazz as proof of the latter's commercial potential. Last year, Leaning House put out Austin pianist Fred Sanders' debut CD, East of Vilbig. The album is as straight-ahead jazz as it gets, and it recently reached Number 15 on the Gavin charts for mainstream jazz.
"It's frustrating," says Elliott. "A traditional jazz title like Fred's album, getting airplay in 61 markets and hitting 15 on the charts, will be lucky to sell 5,000-6,000 copies. Superstars in mainstream jazz sell 10,000-20,000, and that's great - that's unbelievable. A successful smooth title, however, one recommended by Broadcast Architecture [a radio consulting firm with a strong grasp on NAC playlists across the country] by a new artist no one has ever heard of, can sell 30,000 based on airplay alone - often around 50,000. And that's not even a particularly good record."
In the traditional jazz market, new releases by saxmen like Joe Henderson and Kenny Garrett are sold side by side with Coltrane, Dolphy, Getz, and scores of legendary players who, in all likelihood, still get as much radio airplay as Henderson and Garret, both of whom continue to record and tour to great acclaim while Coltrane, Dolphy, and Getz are dead. Traditional jazz exists on the radio only through block programming on public radio stations like KUT. Jazz music is an ongoing historical document, and as such the classic lives alongside the modern for as long as people pay attention.
If there is any confusion in tracking the radio-to-sales relation of smooth jazz, it's because of the glut of crossover acts that blur the lines between pop, R&B, adult contemporary, and smooth jazz. Veterans like Anita Baker and Al Jarreau are well-represented on smooth jazz stations, while Barry White and Luther Vandross are popping up more and more, and when the smooth stuff contains vocals it can sound a lot like popular R&B. Hart herself reaches into this territory; witness the full-throated groove of "Catch Yourself." A station with this kind of crossover appeal can play music that exists on the periphery of its demographic boundaries and still be accepted. And with a mix of songs with and without vocals, they can play all of it.
"Smooth Jazz is moving towards frequency of play, to honing in on one or two tracks from an artist and playing it and playing it," says Zimmerman. "The question is if instrumental music can stand up to the rigors of a Spice Girls kind of rotation... whether we can spoon-feed this audience. That's the big question in the industry. I think it's time to try it, and then see if there's any way to put the energy into it. Now, it's mostly mid-tempo stuff, we need to spice it up a bit."
Forrest Faubion, the Product Marketing Coordinator for Allegro, an independent distribution company that works with smooth jazz and traditional jazz record labels including Leaning House, explains the attraction.
"Smooth jazz programming has gone from a handful of stations to a presence in every major market - over 80 stations - in a hurry. Many mainstream jazz stations are switching over because of commercial pressures. Smooth jazz is a proliferation, like Kenny G with his monster sales. It's nice-sounding. It's not very challenging, as someone like Coltrane is."
Fubion's take on smooth jazz's increasing popularity is nothing if not proactive. Indeed it is a perspective shared by many traditional jazz lovers who are beginning to accept the inevitable spread of the genre. "I think of it as a gateway format to more instrumental music," he says. "People are mixing it up now. It used to be that jazz was a bad word, but now Joe and Jane Public are starting to accept it."
Hart's forthcoming album straddles the line between smooth and traditional jazz, offering four songs whose feel is definitively smooth, a few that are equally traditional, and several that incorporate elements of contemporary jazz and R&B. This diversity can have drastically different effects: It can either win over each market or it can alienate both.
And make no mistake, there are some outstanding tracks on May I Come In?. The rolling measure of John Mills' soprano sax solo on "Second Time Around" is a sublime counter to Hart's dreamy vocals, the phrasings of each constructing a perfect cadence for the song's hopeful swing. Then there's "Though I'm Alone," a heart-shredder nearly on par with Holiday's "Lover Man," and a tune that is most in line with Hart's audience, which, up until now, has known her exclusively as a traditional jazz singer.
"The whole time I was making this CD I had those people in mind, because to me the biggest compliment I could get is for those people to appreciate it rather than the new crowd," explains Hart. "That's my heart, and so people who say I'm a good jazz singer, that would mean much more to me than that they 'enjoyed' the other stuff. I've thought about them thinking that I was selling out. Hopefully, it's not too far over the line and they'll still accept it; like I said there's some stuff on there for them too.
"They will be surprised," she laughs.
Nancy Wilson, Hart's main influence, started out singing traditional jazz early in her career, enlisting the help of influential players like Cannonball Adderly. Later on, after establishing herself as a jazz singer, Wilson went pop, and was very successful in the crossover, landing a number of singles on the charts. Success attained, she went back to jazz, the place where she began.
This path mirrors Hart's vision, the idea of laying a firm groundwork of experience in traditional vocal style and then applying that to a wider, more commercial audience. In addition to seeking out label interest, she also shops songs to specific projects. "The reason I put 'You've Been Hunting My Dreams' on the CD is because I read this great book called The Hand I Fan With," says Hart.
"You've Been Hunting My Dreams" is probably the smoothest of the tunes on May I Come In? The synthesizers are overwhelming and the vocals echoed and layered until Hart is an electronic chorus of herself.
"I know somebody is gonna make a movie out of that book," says Hart. "It's an ATM book - 'After Terry MacMillan' - about this lady who has a relationship with a ghost, and I did this tune so I can market it to her to be used on the soundtrack. We'll see how that goes. It's just perfect for it."
There is a point in every journey where one passes the halfway mark - the point at which it's easier to keep moving forward than it is to turn around and go back. Hart's main influence, Nancy Wilson, went back. She had taken the highway far from home, found what she was looking for, and made her way back. Hart hopes to do the same thing, but as the road grows from a rocky path to a neon-lit superhighway offering all the salvations and comforts of consumer culture, hitting the exit ramp becomes a bit more difficult.
"I'm hoping that it'll be a Herbie Hancock move," says Hart. "He did a lot of commercial music to fund the stuff that he really likes to do. I'm hoping this will get me to the point that I can be the executive producer, or the person who pays for stuff that I really like to do - the more traditional jazz. I enjoy what I did, but I'd rather do the traditional music, and if I need a little of the smooth stuff on the CD coupled with the old to get it out there, I'll do that...
"I felt it was a requirement for what I do. I'm not a pop singer or anything like that. But you have to get heard to be heard."
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