All that jazzy: The Richmond Jazz Festival

A point of contention for some and a highly anticipated event for others, this weekend’s Richmond Jazz Festival at Maymont Park is expected to draw big numbers to see the international, national, and local artists.

Pictured: Guitarist Norman Brown is scheduled to perform at the Richmond Jazz Festival

A point of contention for some and a highly anticipated event for others, this weekend’s Richmond Jazz Festival at Maymont Park is expected to draw big numbers to see the international, national, and local artists. The name — along with a perusal of the artists scheduled to perform — says it all: Richmond Jazz Festival.

Some might call it false advertising. After all, it’s true that the presence of straight-ahead jazz artists appears to be non-existent on the festival’s bill; just about every name fits the mold of smooth jazz, R&B, or soul. That’s not a surprise considering that the people who organized the festival are the ones behind Fridays at Sunset, the summer concert series that generally only presents artists of those genres. The conflict is more about the title of the festival giving the impression of inclusiveness, whereas it’s actually representing only a tiny sect of the music.

Whether you feel jazz is being misrepresented, or that the misrepresentation of jazz by its more commercial and easily ingested sub-genre is a backwards step for educating the public about the music and its history, there is a silver lining. For one, tourism to Richmond should prosper for the weekend, bringing tons of out-of-towners to see the big names that will perform. In addition, Richmond Jazz Society — who puts on monthly concerts of visiting artists and is dedicated to community outreach, education, and preservation of jazz — is receiving proceeds from the ticket sales.

And for me, nostalgia plays a part.

As a young musician growing up in the D.C. area, I was attracted to smooth jazz. The grooves were unlike anything I had heard in popular music, the harmony was exceptionally different, and I was just beginning to get into instrumental music of all kinds. In the radio world — which, much of the time, only gives straight-ahead jazz one day out of the week or a certain time frame every day — smooth jazz was available around the clock.

Though I no longer get the same enjoyment out of it as I once did, I can appreciate that it was smooth jazz that helped bridge me to straight-ahead jazz, bebop, and more.

So what is smooth jazz, and why is it generally abhorred by most of the jazz community and accepted and praised by others? It’s important to note that as there are many offshoots of jazz — and more and more developing as genre boundaries continue to close in on one another — smooth jazz is one of them.

Smooth jazz (or “smazz,” as some call it without affection), is just as much influenced by R&B and soul than it is by jazz. We normally think of smooth jazz as its timbre being overly polished and produced compared to other jazz; the solos tend to come across as charted out and far too perfect. Coming out of the studio, it sounds more like engineer-perfected pop music than nuanced jazz.

Timbre, Early Jazz author, composer, and jazz historian Gunther Schuller says, is an identifying feature of jazz that can immediately differentiate between “real jazz and commercial derivatives of jazz.” Written in 1968, he refers more to composers who adopt jazz instrumentation and timbre and create something that lacks jazz’s other elements (swing, improvisation, etc.) to confuse the audience into believing it’s jazz. He may not have predicted that in the future there would be a genre doing the opposite: avoiding the jazz timbre and still calling itself jazz.

Along with rhythm, form, harmony, melody, and improvisation, timbre is an essential part of jazz. Schuller writes,

“The sonority of real jazz is traceable directly to African singing and indirectly to African speech and language… One of jazz’s great attractions is that it has preserved the typically African open tone and natural quality. Some would refer to this quality as ‘earthiness,’ others as ‘beauty of sound,’ while still others have seen it as raw and vulgar, since it lacked the ‘polite’ sounds of European art music.”

In the last few years and especially due to the dwindling economy, jazz festivals have had trouble bringing in audiences. In order to draw the numbers and keep their businesses afloat, festival organizers have taken to bringing in big non-jazz acts to fill up the bills. Seeing names like Pearl Jam on jazz festival line-ups is a reality that jazz fans have had to accept. Such is the case with the Richmond Jazz Festival: there will be acts along the R&B and soul tip that sound “jazzy” but really have nothing to do with jazz, the vocalist’s bluesy melismas the closest thing to come to improvisation in their set. While other festivals at least book real jazz (as Schuller would call it) to counter the totally non-jazz acts, we won’t find such counters at the RJF.

The landscape for jazz has changed and will continue to change. As in politics, there will always be the conservatives (traditionalists) and the liberals (ground-breakers and genre-benders). Arguing about what the festival should be called would take the immortal ability to answer the question, “What is jazz today?” Only, this is art and not politics. Good luck answering that one.

The Richmond Jazz Festival will take place Saturday, August 14, and Sunday, August 15, at Maymont Park and will feature Chaka Khan, Poncho Sanchez, Chuck Mangione, Boney James, Ledisi, Stanley Clarke, Norman Brown, Plunky and Oneness, and more. For more information and for ticket sales, visit

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Dean Christesen

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