The Enabler 

A tribute to the godfather of smooth jazz inspires mixed feelings of admiration and rage.

Yeah, smooth jazz is an easy target -- banal, bland, innocuous, seemingly inoffensive drivel a mere half-step above elevator music on the evolutionary chain. But that doesn't mean it isn't dangerous. Smooth jazz is a parasite, quietly boring a space in your brain, sapping your strength until you lack the energy to cross the room and turn the dial. And soon enough you have the musical taste of a Stepford Wife.

Saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., who passed away from a heart attack in 1999, is irrefutably the principal influence on a great many modern-day smooth sax players, including the roundly loathed Kenny G. Is it fair, then, to hold him accountable for this generation's fall from jazz grace? Should Black Sabbath be held responsible for the onslaught of '80s hair metal bands? Should Lance Armstrong answer for the abundance of middle-aged men brazenly wearing form-fitting Lycra spandex bike shorts in public?

Well, maybe.

The Buffalo-born Washington began his solo career in the early '70s, a halcyon time before smooth jazz covered your radio dial like kudzu covers the South. Without radio play, the now-burgeoning market for smooth-jazz record sales didn't exist, either. But Grover, along with a few other hornmen like David Sanborn and Ronnie Laws, changed the marketplace with funk-based, pop-leaning, radio-friendly tunes, and soon young musicians across the country could fantasize about sax-based employment.

"He's very influential," alto and soprano player Paul Taylor says. "Probably one of the greatest influences for me musically. When he came out, he came out in such a way, with his sound and his tunes, that caught my attention. It caught a lot of people's attention. I was a very impressionable young little musician, and when he came out he just set a trend and a style, like a trailblazer for the modern sound that we have now."

Funny thing about that. Jazz is arguably America's only indigenous artform -- what began in New Orleans as Dixieland evolved through big band, swing, bebop, post-bop, cool, and West Coast jazz before Miles Davis led us into the land of fusion with Bitches Brew. And that put jazz on commercial radio. Tracks didn't register on a Billboard chart, mind you, but they could still be safely played after Santana's "Black Magic Woman" by free-form album-rock DJs weary of "In-a-Gadda-da-Vida," yet still in need of the occasional bathroom break.

But Washington bypassed fusion's acid-rock foundations in favor of a tuneful but far tamer funk/soul flavor, and voilà: a modern jazz sound. His tracks were catchy, long, and permissive of full-band improvisation. Even more radio airplay -- and not just the bathroom-break variety -- followed. Before long, Grover's jazz was the only radio jazz left. Call contemporary jazz Grover Washington's playground, as well as the portal into the now-reviled "smooth" variety. A portal into the unadventurous, the inhibited, the soulless. The last stop on the great jazz train that rode for nearly a century.

An example: 2004 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Newport, the most famous jazz festival in the world. Nearly every jazz musician of note has performed on its stage. To celebrate, a three-disc set of festival highlights was released.

The most recent performance included was from 1976.

Now jazz waits at the depot, stagnant and stationary, waiting for someone, anyone, to take it in a new direction. But will a full-blown tribute dedicated to Grover Washington highlight his innovation, or merely the malaise that set in immediately afterward? Head to Concord this weekend and find out. To pay homage to Washington and his music, the quartet of Paul Taylor, fellow saxmen Richard Elliott and Gerald Albright, and keyboardist and musical director Jeff Lorber have whiled away 2004 touring the country as Groovin' for Grover.

"A promoter in Cleveland had the idea of getting some horn players together and dedicating the evening to Grover," the multi-instrumental Albright says. "It was an experiment. It was kind of a shot in the dark kind of thing. It had never really been done in this fashion before, so all of us were taking a chance, but at the same time we were very excited about doing Grover's music. I mean, that's a no-brainer. He had quite a fan base. And so we did this one performance in Cleveland, and it was a sold-out show."

Out of that successful one-night stand emerged a CD (To Grover, with Love) and a tour that has transported the four-piece to festivals and crowded concert halls across the country and back again, flaunting original works in addition to Grover's greatest hits. After all, the goal here is interpretation, rather than mere emulation.

"Grover's already developed his fingerprint of how he approaches his music," Albright says, "and I think the best way for us to do it justice is to put our own fingerprint on his music. Paul, Richard, and myself carve our own sound. We have our own approach to our respective horns, our own school of playing. I think the audience wants to hear how we individually would interpret Grover's music, and how Grover's music affects us within our playing."

Albright began playing the sax at age nine. The first jazz album he ever bought was Washington's 1979 release Reed Seeds. "The thing that really attracted me to Grover was the fact that he had great facility on his horn," he says. "He had a great sound, yet he was very soulful with it. And coming from a household where I was listening to James Brown and the Philly International Sound and the Motown Sound, Grover seemed to springboard from that into the jazz improvisation that we heard him do over the years. And that immediately just kind of reeled me in musically. And I would play along with the records and imitate his sound until I decided a little later to try to develop my own sound."

Taylor caught the sax bug even earlier, at age seven, as a member of the Denver Youth Musicians. Like Albright, he'd hide out in his bedroom blowing along to a Grover record. "The bell of the saxophone comes out at a certain angle," he says. "And you get up next to a wall, and the sound bounces right back in your ears, right back in your face, so you can hear your tone. It's kind of enjoyable to play against the wall, because you hear your sound right there. And I did that many times with Grover's music on."

But is all this influence ultimately responsible for good or crushing, soul-snatching evil? Unfortunately, however pure his intentions, Grover may be best remembered for ushering in the Smooth Jazz Era, which strives for noncombative accessibility at all costs. Whereas Miles Davis often performed with his back to the audience, smooth jazz has taken a 180-degree turn to ingratiate itself, to slink into the lap of its audience and coo airy sweet nothings in its ear. Literally.

Consider Washington's commercial breakthrough, the Grammy-winning Winelight, which hit multiplatinum on the strength of Bill Withers' guest vocals appearance on "Just the Two of Us." To this day, a near quarter-century later, smooth jazz remains stuck in that now-formulaic rut, consistently providing a single guest-vocal track on nearly every album. Grover may have paved the way, but will anyone ever wander off that beaten path again?

Maybe, maybe not, but don't blame Grover. For all the trickle-down success Winelight enjoyed, the disc generally held up as his masterpiece of influence is his 1974 release, the contemporary jazz classic Mister Magic. With its nine-minute funk-infused title song, Washington's monument might well be the final fork in the road, the ultimate levee between those who look back at the river of what jazz was and those who dogpaddle in the wading pool that jazz has become.

"Mister Magic just really defined that sound," Taylor says, "and it still sounds great today. It made me want to kind of be like him, you know. It made me feel like that. I want to make my own music, but I want to do what he's doing."

"'Mister Magic' is the song that told record companies around the world that instrumental music could make money," Albright says, "and that contemporary jazz, which is what obviously it was called at the time, was a profitable medium for other instrumentalists to come along and do what they do. So I think Grover was one of the main guys to open the door for that type of music."

For better or for worse.


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