When Kenny G Was an Urban Artist: How the Smooth Jazz/Urban AC Coalition Formed And Foundered

In the wake of last week’s defection of yet another high-profile Smooth Jazz station, WJZW Washington, D.C., one thinks again of the paradox of that format in heavily African-American markets. Sharing an audience and music with Urban AC — lots of R&B vocals, including some that may be jazzy but are hardly Jazz — helped Smooth Jazz become more than a niche player in many of those markets. Even in a market like Washington with two entrenched Urban ACs, there were enough African-American quarter-hours to go around.
Even when the format was doing well, however, many Smooth Jazz program directors were publicly unhappy with seeing Smooth Jazz list toward Urban AC — no matter how much better those vocals tested than the format-specific instrumentals. Over the last year, there’s been a lot written about PDs wanting to steer the format toward Triple-A, new pop music, more instrumentals, or anywhere else besides those Al Green and Boyz II Men oldies.
Without knowing the exact thinking behind any recent change at an individual station, it’s easy to see the perception of PPM as unkind to Urban AC as hastening the process. PPM’s effect on Smooth Jazz is still hard to parse. KHJZ Houston is currently within its share range of the last two years – neither huge nor falling off the face of the earth. WJJZ Philadelphia has been slow to get traction since PPM, but is on a new frequency that only recently moved entirely into the market. But if an owner or GM isn’t committed to an older audience or a significantly African-American audience, the specter of a dwindling audience certainly doesn’t help.
That discussion has been playing out in public for a while now. What hasn’t been discussed is how the current coalition took shape–something that happened more than 20 years ago. And it also stems from the relationship between Urban, Urban AC, and Smooth Jazz.
In the early ’80s, of course, there was no Smooth Jazz or Urban AC. There were a handful of commercial Jazz stations, but Jazz/R&B fusion had been a regular part of mainstream R&B radio at least since Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” and Ramsey Lewis/Earth Wind & Fire’s “Sun Goddess” a decade earlier. Jazz producers and superstars such as Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Al Jarreau, George Benson and George Duke had evolved into R&B hitmakers. Many of the artist/producers familiar to Smooth Jazz fans now – Paul Hardcastle, Najee, even Kenny G — were regular chart presences, heard not just on the “Quiet Storm” that every station had, but also right between the Prince, Midnight Starr, and Patti Labelle records.
Urban radio at that time, of course, included a lot of disparate music. You could hear Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock & Roll” on the early WRKS (Kiss 98.7) New York and through the mid-’80s, Cyndi Lauper and even REO Speedwagon managed R&B chart records. In the years between the first WKTU New York and the launch of WQHT (Hot 103.5), R&B radio was also the starting point for Madonna, Expose, or any other dance artist.
In the late ’80s, that all changed. “Churban” stations forced Urban to focus on its younger end and tamp down its eclecticism. Dance artists had a format of their own in Rhythmic Top 40, as well as a growing foothold at Mainstream Top 40. And the growth of Smooth Jazz eventually siphoned Jeff Lorber, Kenny G, and similar artists and gave them another format to concentrate on. Those artists stopped making music for Urban radio because they no longer had to and, besides, their place next to “Push It” and “Parents Just Don’t Understand” was no longer assured.
The breakthrough Urban AC station, WVAZ (V103) Chicago, was only 18 months behind KTWV Los Angeles, but by the time Urban AC kicked in, the Jazz/Urban connection was already starting to dissolve, even though an occasional Jazz current will still get worked to Urban AC. The music that drove Urban AC was the ’70s slow-jam music that now represents such an issue for Smooth Jazz outlets.
In other words, one of the reasons that it hasn’t been so easy for Smooth Jazz stations to merely segue from Al Green and Marvin Gaye to Mary J. Blige and Alicia Keys (as many Urban ACs have) is that the audience coalition that grew up with both Jazz and R&B as contemporary music was disrupted more than 20 years ago. If you remember “Sexual Healing” and “Sweet Baby” as of a piece, you are almost certainly 45-plus.
That coalition could have conceivably been reinvigorated in the early ’90s when Jazz became the sample of choice for east coast hip-hop for a year or two. But the music being sampled wasn’t the music that Smooth Jazz was playing. It was older jazz that didn’t lend itself to the Smooth Jazz format. The biggest records of that era (“Rebirth Of Slick,” “They Reminisce Over You”) don’t really have a home at any format at the moment, and only the poppiest distillation of that movement, US3’s “Cantaloop,” endures at Smooth Jazz radio.
One irony here is that if Smooth Jazz were willing to show the Urban AC audience a little more appreciation is that there’s actually more opportunity to serve them now. Urban AC radio is both newer these days (the biggest ’70s titles endure but fewer are being passed down through the generations) and increasingly ruled by talk shows, Tom Joyner and Steve Harvey in the mornings, Michael Baisden and Wendy Williams in afternoons. If you want to hear older music, or music period, there are fewer choices.
Again, the goal here is not to second guess any individual decision. Oldies in Washington, D.C., made a lot of sense, too, and involved an entirely unserved audience. Ideally, however, Oldies wouldn’t have displaced a station that did one of the better jobs of making Smooth Jazz a true coalition format in a crowded market. The coalitions that drive any adult format are often 20 years in the making – they aren’t that easily split up and reassembled and Smooth Jazz’s issues today help prove that.
The other opportunity to form a coalition comes when today’s music is powerful enough to transcend the music that many different people grew up with–which means both starting over and claiming ownership of music that could belong not just to one other format (Urban AC) but in the case of today’s emerging adult music, multiple others.
For my colleague Tom Webster’s thoughts on Smooth Jazz, a format that he was heavily involve with for many years, please click here.

7 replies
  1. Lou Pickney
    Lou Pickney says:

    I never gave much thought to the connection between Smooth Jazz and Urban AC, but the correlation makes sense. I’m curious as to how many markets have both strong Smooth Jazz and Urban AC? Tampa had a successful Smooth Jazz outlet (CBS’ WSJT) but not much as far as Urban AC went. In Nashville there’s no Smooth Jazz, but 92Q is a legacy Urban station that shifted to Urban AC (filling a void) a few years ago.
    And, while I’m no Smooth Jazz or Urban AC fan, I think Cantaloop is a great song.

  2. Shannon West
    Shannon West says:

    Kenny G’s breakthrough hit, “Songbird”, was about as far from urban as you can get. As was the follow up, another lilting soprano sax tune. The thread of instrumental songs crossing over to pop formats (CHR, AC, UAC) swayed as much toward pop/AC as urban even going back to Mangione’s “Feels so Good,” Spyro Gyra’s “Morning Dance” and Alpert’s “Rise.” Then “Songbird,” followed in a few years by Koz’s “You Make Me Smile” – a pop song not urban at all, “Lily Was Here” – rock with almost country guitar and Jim Brickman’s “Angel Eyes” beautiful and about as non-urban as it can get. I was at A/C radio and doing music retail at the time and we were getting so much action on the pop-rock side of the genre – Craig Chaquico, Acoustic Alchemy, etc, and the whole Ottmar Liebert Nouveau Flamenco thing and those spinoffs. Don’t forget, also, that as far as sales and media exposure in the early 90s the other instrumentalist who owned the sales charts was Yanni. Again, as far from urban as you can get.
    This type of music was filtered out of the format in the mid 90s when the dominant consultant singhehandedly eliminated the pop/rock side of the genre from their playlists. Sadly without being nurtured that whole element wilted on the vine and it was one of the strongest threads in bringing pop instrumental music aka Smooth Jazz to an audience that was growing exponentially at the time. Notice that the growth stopped when the focus narrowed and a big fragment of the audience and potential audience was disenfranchised.

  3. Sheldon
    Sheldon says:

    I think there is a connection because here in Dallas we lost or smooth jazz staition 107.5 The Oasis 2 years ago in 2006, but i noticed alot of people finding an alternative to the station by listening to KSOC(94.5 K-Soul) and KRNB(105.7 KR&B) to fill the viod.

    MAXX MYRICK says:

    In response to your article which I really enjoyed. UAC has become younger than it’s original audience because the music of it’s target demographic has changed. As a result NAC has become reluctantly blacker trying to fill the void. Stations like NUA have found themselves competing with UAC formats while trying to not be UAC. In markets where there wasn’t a strong UAC competitor they could get away with it, but elsewhere there just isn’t enough audience to stand on the fence. Time for another format split for us 50 year olds. Peter White and Boney James just doesn’t cut it for us and neither do the young UAC artists. I’m all for a Soul Music format and station that plays the great hits from the late 60’s through the early 80’s, current hits from traditional soul artists with a sprinkle of today’s most soulful young artists and some soulful instrumentals. Much like WVAZ in the 90’s. Worked well for me. Good music is good music but you have to be able to HEAR and FEEL it and all research can do is help verify what you already know, but you have to know. A format with enough of those ingredients will create the loyalty that will generate ratings and revenue provided you market it. It’s the same old story, 1. Find out what they want. 2. Give it to them 3. Tell them that you’re giving it to them.

  5. Enrique Cruz
    Enrique Cruz says:

    You have KJLH Los Angeles to add to the list. In the 90’s they played current R&B(i.e D’Angelo, Mary J. Blige, Brandy, Toni Braxton,etc) some oldies here in there and urban jazz. Times have changed because KJLH is starting play a lot more Hip Hop which does not fit. They play Drake followed by a smooth tune from Will Downing, Lil’ Wayne followed by an unfimilar gospel ballad. I’m hispanic

  6. Enrique Cruz
    Enrique Cruz says:

    I’m continuing my last post. I’m Hispanic in my mid 20’s but I’m a fan of the Urban AC format. KJLH is playing more rap in order to fill the void that KKBT (The Beat) exited LA as a mainstream urban in 2006.


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