Is Smooth Jazz savior of traditional jazz?

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AUGUSTA, Ga.—The rumors are running rampant throughout many major cities in the nation—live (traditional) jazz is just about dead.

Well, during a recent Smooth Jazz” show at the William Bell Auditorium in the heart of Augusta, Ga.’s entertainment district, a lineup of jazz stars headed by virtuoso guitarist Norman Brown, vocalist Phil Perry, keyboardist Alex Bugnon and rising sax superstar Eric Darius, provided jazz lovers with arguably the finest-ever jazz performance in recent times.

normanbrown
NORMAN BROWN

Billed as the “3rd Annual CSRA Jazz Festival,” the show featured several of the world’s premier jazz men who are predominant when it comes to the nouveau jazz category called Smooth Jazz.

At the concert alto saxman Eric Darius, a throwback in the jazz tradition, in that he, like so many jazz greats like John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, have Southern roots.

Darius, a Tampa, Fla., native, brought the proverbial house down with a fiery brand of funky-soul-jazz that not only moved the crowd, but notedly, brought the ladies in the crowd to a frenzy.

Darius’ version of the Alicia Keyes’-penned “If I Ain’t Got You,” was a major crowd-pleaser, where he displayed his uniquely unbridled energy—running offstage into the audience—never missing a note, and giving the traditional saxophone “growl” a new sex appeal.

EricDarius
ERIC DARIUS

Darius has his own style, perhaps a cross twixt Grover and Maceo. Phil Perry calls him the new “Young Gun.”

Meanwhile, Norman Brown proved why he’s been the heir to Georgie Benson’s jazz guitar throne for the past decade. Brown, a radio host on a nationally-syndicated smooth jazz radio network, was a natural to host the bandstand that featured a united rhythm section supporting all five headliners—saving money and precious time.

Philly-born keyboardist Gail Johnson served as musical director and proved why many call her the East Coast answer to Patrice Rushen.

Young drummer L.J. Holyfield and the seasoned vet, Robert McDonald on bass, locked-down the air-tight funky rhythm section.

Alex Bugnon, who was born in Switzerland, reflected to the audience about his performance at a Birthday Bash for the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.

Perry played the intimate Touch of Class jazz and soul lounge in 1996.

Jazz festival promoter Bill McKinley, a Chicago native and staunch supporter of the nation’s live jazz scene, agrees that jazz is not dead. But he too offers that Smooth Jazz could be the defibrillator needed to infuse new life into the uniquely American music art form created by African-Americans.

The Augusta show har­kens back 20 to 30 years ago, when many of the top funk-jazz stars frequented the Stanley Theater and other smaller Pittsburgh venues.

An October 1979 show featuring Earl Klugh, Bob James and Harvey Mason filled the Stanley with amazing sounds. Another show called the Calcavade of Stars featuring Leon Ndugu Chancellor, Patrice Rushen, Ready Freddie Washington, Lenny White and others.

A similar show featured Billy Cobham and Alphonso “Slim” Johnson. George Duke’s Dukey Stick tour in ’78, was more funky-fusion. But the return of Georgie Benson to the Stanley Theater, circa 1983, is most definitely an unforgettable one.

As well as the debut of Angela Bofill, also at the Stanley. Phyllis Hyman played Heaven, the Downtown nightspot, during one of her final shows at home before her untimely death.

While critics and musicians alike are largely critical of the Smooth Jazz genre—mainly due to its lack of a primal presence such as raw and earthy soulful elements—these days, with traditional jazz on the brink of extinction, when it comes to live venues to hear and appreciate the music—one would have to surmise that Smooth Jazz is apparently the reviver of the traditional jazz idiom.

Face it, younger listeners are typically uninformed or tuned-out, when it comes to the sounds of Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, Lester “Prez” Young, Bill “Count” Basie or even John Coltrane.

On the contrary, younger self-described “jazz” fans, are flocking to jazz festivals and jazz cruises to see and hear Smooth Jazz artists.

Importantly, however, in some cases, once the younger ones are turned-on to the smooth artists, very often, they’re likely to reach out to become more educated about the original jazz creators and its more traditional flavor.

Credit guys like Norman Brown, Brian Culbertson and even Kenny G, for keeping the jazz flames alive in their own smooth and jazzy sort of way.

Brown is the evolution to Benson and Darius holds a similar capacity when it comes to being compared to the late great Philly super saxman, Grover Washington Jr.

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