1987-1992 era Smooth Jazz, with new age and vocals
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By Mike Stern
As a new employee at Musicland in 1986, one of the first significant artists that I hadn’t previously encountered was George Winston, who, along with the rest of the artists on the Windham Hill label, were selling a lot of product.
According to AccuRadio’ s Smooth Jazz programmer Rick O’Dell, the Windham Hill artists like Shadowfax and Scott Cossou, along with contemporary jazz performers like David Sanborn, Grover Washington Jr. and Kenny G were the front end of a movement that at the time was known as New Adult Contemporary, “that's how it was packaged and sold--as a mainly instrumental alternative to the Adult Contemporary format.” At that time Adult Contemporary radio stations were the standard for in-office listening, dominating dentist waiting rooms and any place else people wanted inoffensive, soothing music.
The breakthrough at radio for New Adult Contemporary came from the west coast with stations like KTWV in Los Angeles, known as “The Wave” and KKSF in San Francisco which O’Dell says featured a 50/50 blend of contemporary jazz and new age sounds. It was a revelation for fans of these artists, who had never been heard on broadcast radio before.
For O’Dell, the birth of a new radio format created opportunity. A graduate of the University of Illinois, he was the first Smooth Jazz personality in Chicago hosting “The Sunday Lite Brunch” on the popular WCLR in early 1987 before moving to the city’s first and only full-time New Adult Contemporary station WNUA in 1989.
It was at WNUA, during a focus group that the name "Smooth Jazz" was born. “Our researchers liked to ask participants to describe the music in their own words,” explains O’Dell. “A woman in one of these sessions said she thought the music sounded like ‘smooth jazz.’ The phrase clicked immediately and was put into the station’s marketing. Within a couple of years, nearly all of the stations that had been New Adult Contemporary began to call themselves Smooth Jazz.”
On radio, the Smooth Jazz format had a good run from the early days in the late 1980’s to until late in 2000’s. Much of the popularity during those years was driven by the artists being approachable. O’Dell says, “Smooth jazz performers have always been very accessible. Before and after concert meet-and-greets are common. And, since the advent of social media, most artists actively correspond and communicate with their fans.”
Toward the end of the 2000’s Smooth Jazz stations began to fall out of favor on the radio. But O’Dell says the fanbase and the music have not disappeared, “The music isn't being played on conventional radio anymore, for the most part, but it's flourishing online through outlets such as AccuRadio. Online listening provides options for customizing listening preferences in ways traditional radio never could.”
Today, now 10 years since Smooth Jazz moved off the FM band, O’Dell says the music continues with a mixture of veteran acts like Dave Koz, Euge Groove, Boney James, Paul Hardcastle, Mindi Abair, young lions like Jeff Ryan, Julian Vaughn, Adam Hawley, new twentysomething acts like Nicholas Cole and Vincent Ingala and even a vision of the future in 14-year-old Justin-Lee Schultz.
Anyone just discovering Smooth Jazz can benefit from O’Dell’s years of experience starting with the roots of the format on the AccuRadio channel Smooth Jazz: In The Beginning. Aficionados can dig deeper with channels dedicated to Brass, Guitar and Piano-oriented titles or hear the latest on the New Smooth Jazz and Best of 2020 channels.
We don't want to play to an empty room.Yes, I'm still listening!