The smooth jazz stereotype is a soft rock or R&B instrumentalist with limited improvisational range, noodling around on a familiar melody or contrived riff atop a bed of programmed drums and keyboards. The assumption among the jazz cognoscenti is that these guys have little sense of jazz history and even less interest in nurturing it or expanding their own palettes. The music itself is often formulaic and soulless.
Saxophonist Marion Meadows, a popular and articulate star of the genre, understands the knock on his brand of music.
“That’s my criticism as well,” he told me in a recent telephone conversation. “I think this is the time that the artists themselves need to take the reins and start to change that. These consultants who consult about music that they don’t know anything about, that’s ridiculous. They never consulted about a Herbie Hancock record or John McLaughlin Mahavishnu Orchestra or Chick Corea; those guys sold hundreds of thousands of records back in those days.
“I’ve always recommended that the smooth jazz artists put together a group for ourselves because we need a voice. They’re making money off what we do. We’re the guys they’re consulting about, and if they’re recommending what songs to play then we should have a say-so in that. It only makes sense.”
Like a surprising number of the performers who’ve found a home on smooth jazz radio, Meadows, who performs Saturday night at the Renaissance Portsmouth Hotel, is actually an accomplished player with deep jazz roots.
“I got a soprano in my senior year in high school,” he said, “but actually I played more tenor in college. I was more of an avant garde player back in those days. You know, you go off to Berkley School of Music, you get deep into Trane, Miles, all those kind of guys. Then all the in-between guys that you get influenced by—for me Sonny Fortune was one of those guys, and Ornette Coleman as well; Julius Hemphill, the Chicago Art Ensemble.”
He made no overtures whatsoever to the contemporary jazz scene of the time.
“I was with a band called the Aboriginal Music Society,” he said. “James Blood Ulmer and David Murray were in that band. I was in Connecticut and I went into New York to ‘shed and get my graduate degree; you can go to any school you want to, but until you hit New York, for jazz that’s the place you’ve got to end up. So I would go down to the city every week and sit in at the Blue Note, and sometimes get my feelings hurt. When you’re playing a bebop tune and you’re not ready, they tell you to get off the stage and come back next week. But it makes you tough!
“As I was playing with this band, I was going home one night in Grand Central Station and I pulled my horn out and started playing. And a guy comes running up to me and says, ‘Man, that’s a beautiful sound.’ He introduced himself as Jay Chattaway. He was the guy that was working with Bob James at the time, and he’d done the music for Star Trek, Maynard Ferguson, Eddie Daniels and quite a few people.”
Chattaway introduced him to James, who signed Meadows to his TappanZee record label.
“I get into the studio, and it’s Steve Gadd on the drums, Eric Gale on guitar, and I’m going ‘oh my God, I’m surrounded by all those CTI guys!’ I’ve had a fun career, but that’s how I found my way into the contemporary jazz side of it. Once I hit there, I just kinda stayed.”
Meadows makes no apologies for his role on the “contemporary jazz side.” In fact, he points out that he and his smooth jazz brethren are simply combining the different types of music they love in order to keep the music alive and relevant:
“My generation grew up listening to Duke Ellington, Cannonball [Adderley], Joe Zawinul, Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Sarah Vaughan. There was so much music that our influences lent themselves to what the contemporary jazz guys were doing. We were carrying the torch for the next generation. I always try to champion that we smooth jazz artists continue to carry that banner and keep the music progressing. Sometimes the genre can get a little washed out with that homogenized kind of thing that they try to do at radio, but that’s just marketing.”
With his most recent Heads Up album, Dressed to Chill, at or near the top of the charts for much of the last year, Meadows hopes to continue making music that connects temporally with the smooth jazz audience, but that also has staying power.
“If you’re trying to have a legacy,” he said, “then you can’t extract the soul from the music so that you can make a dollar. At the end of the day, the records won’t really mean that much. The accolades will come from what you did live and that will never have been recorded. We can’t continue to just be pop instrumental radio guys—it will be no different than Mantovani Does Frank Sinatra.”
copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.