With the decline of soul music in the 70s, those scattered soul-jazz 45s we discussed a while back disappeared from the radio too (except when they were taking us up to news time). There was still some jazz on Top 40 radio in the 1970s, but the nature of it changed.
Thirty-nine years ago this month, Deodato’s funk/fusion version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)” began its climb to an eventual spot in the top 10. (I have always been a big fan of it—its electric piano sound helps define 70s cool, and you just don’t hear that anymore.) Jazz fusion made inroads among rock fans who enjoyed the complexity of it—as we’ve mentioned here before, it’s not a particularly daunting leap from prog rock to fusion. But fusion was never going to be a singles medium. Apart from “2001,” Weather Report’s “Birdland” came the closest. In 1985, fusion veteran Jan Hammer would score a #1 hit with “Miami Vice Theme,” but it’s not remotely jazz.
In the mid 1970s, Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra gave a few jazz players the chance to collect a paycheck (including a young sax man named Kenny Gorelick, about whom we’ll have more to say below), but his soloists didn’t improvise, and the feel of the music was always more R&B than jazz. Guitarist George Benson, who’d been making jazz records throughout the 1960s, had to become a singer before his commercial breakthrough with Breezin’ (1976). (That album’s instrumental title song did make the Top 40, however.) Thanks to “Feels So Good” (1978) and “Give It All You Got” (1980), veteran horn player Chuck Mangione was the biggest jazz crossover star of both the 70s and 80s, at least until Kenny G came along.
After his time with the Love Unlimited Orchestra, Kenny G first got noticed with the Jeff Lorber Fusion around the turn of the 1980s. He made three solo albums before the fourth, Duotones (1986), made him a star, thanks to the #4 single “Songbird.” And ever since, if the average person on the street can name a contemporary jazz player at all—which is doubtful—it’s likely they’ll come up with Kenny G pretty quickly. Every time he releases a record, it speeds to the top of the contemporary jazz charts.
But Kenny G’s detractors (and they are many) will tell you that because he doesn’t improvise much, and because he sticks to sweet, lyrical, utterly conventional melodies, he’s not a jazz player anymore. Pat Metheny is one of the most famous G-detractors, inspired to fabulous rhetorical heights by the decision to dub what he called Kenny G’s “lame-ass, jive, pseudo bluesy, out-of-tune, noodling, wimped out, fucked up playing” over the top of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” in 1999.
I remember playing “Songbird,” and another significant instrumental hit, “Silhouette,” on the radio in the late 80s, both of which struck me as inoffensive. But the more Kenny G I heard, the more I found myself annoyed by his tone on the soprano saxophone, which reminds me of this.
With radio formats and record charts so atomized these days, it’s hard to imagine anything remotely like jazz making anything remotely like a broad-based impact on the listening public, as “Songbird” and “Feels So Good” did a generation ago. If there are records or artists I’ve missed discussing here, I trust you’ll let me know.