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How smooth jazz took over ’90s radio

Tracing the rise and fall of smooth jazz.

In 1986, a young Kenny G appeared on one of Oprah’s very first nationally televised shows. A decade later he (and his saxophone) had become a cultural phenomenon. From golf commercials to a presidential inauguration, Kenny G had hit his peak.

But it wasn’t just Kenny G. Smooth jazz, the music he’d come to be the face of, was quickly taking over the radio. Smooth jazz didn’t start with Kenny G, though he did quickly become one of its most ardent mascots. It started in the late 1960s when virtuosic jazz artists, facing declining record sales, began incorporating pop elements in their music to reach a wider audience.

A shining example of that sound can be heard in Wes Montgomery’s cover of Little Anthony and the Imperials’ “Goin’ Out of My Head.” While most jazz at the time was based on highly improvised solos, Wes Montgomery strictly stuck to the hook that radio listeners couldn’t get out of their heads. It was a hit, to the dismay of jazz purists, and helped establish a formula for smooth jazz we know today.

The video above traces the rise and fall of smooth jazz, and the playlist linked below offers some of the best tracks the style of music has to offer. For more Vox video, subscribe to our YouTube page.