Killin’ ’em Softly: The Death of a “Snooze Jazz” Station

George Benson may not have created smooth jazz but he perfected it...

Ever so often I have somebody tell me, ” Jazz?  I don’t like jazz.”  Know what’s the first thing I ask them?   “Where have you heard jazz?”  Invariably, they answer, “On a smooth jazz radio station.”   I love it when that’s their answer  because I get to say, “That’s why you don’t like jazz.  You haven’t heard real jazz.”   

When WJZA, (103.5 FM)  the only smooth jazz radio station in Columbus ended the last day of July, the first day of August found it changed to a classic oldies station and leaving the city with no radio stations playing jazz as part of its regular programming.   No great loss.   WJZA had been impersonating a jazz station since it debuted in 1998.   It finally stopped faking it.  

Every so often you’d get Ramsey Lewis and his syndicated “Legends of Jazz” program and there was a local jazz aficionado,  Fritz “the Nite Owl” Peerenboom playing three hours of straight-ahead and contemporary jazz on Sunday nights, but otherwise, there was very little jazz being played on WJZA.  

I didn’t like their smooth jazz station format at all.  In fact, to be honest, I HATED it like a sickness. It irked me to no end that their programming never played any serious jazz at all and instead emphasized soft-ass shit from the likes of Michael McDonald and Alicia Keyes that have NOTHING to do with jazz. When you’re playing Steve Winwood and not Miles Davis on your “jazz” station I got a problem with that.  

WJZA’s demise was noted in an article in The Other Paper, the city’s only alternative weekly,  entitled, “The Death of Smooth Jazz.”  (We should be so lucky!)  

 “We tried, we really did,” said Alan Goodman, president of the Columbus Radio Group, which managed Columbus’s Smooth Jazz 103.5, as well as Sunny 95 and Mix 107.9.  

 “We were one of the last smooth jazz stations to bail on the format. But it’s been in trouble for a while. There’s been a shift in the industry, where the quantity of listeners became more important than the quality of listeners. The radio stations that have lots of listeners, regardless of how long they listen, will be rewarded, and the stations whose listeners listen passionately aren’t rewarded. The ’JZA listeners weren’t button-pushers.”  

...until this schmuck came along and sucked all the life out of it.

What a load of self-serving crap.   

WJZA failed because they never fully embraced the music they were supposed to be playing.  They never believed in jazz so they took the easy way out.  Smooth jazz doesn’t have to be dull and dumb, but jazz is an improvisational art form.  It’s not supposed to be programmed up the wazoo to the nth degree.   

When you’re a jazz station and you want to build a fan base you don’t do it by insulting their intelligence.  How can you call yourself any kind of jazz station and you’re playing Steely Dan and John Mayer but the only way Herbie Hancock gets any play is when he collaborates with John Mayer?  

WJZA was a source of endless frustration for me.  Even on the rare occasions they did play something I though sounded halfway decent, they had such little regard for the music that after they eliminated all their disc jockeys and went to a completely automated station, there was no one to tell the listener who it was they had just played!  You had to log on to the WJZA website and maybe–just maybe–you could find out the name of the artist and the title of the song.  Oh, but they never let you forget the name of the station as they would announce the call letters between the end and beginning of each and every song.  Like I’m going to forget the name of this wretched radio station that is pissing me off something fierce?   How full of bull do you have to be to have such contempt for jazz artists that you don’t even think they’re worth mentioning?  

One thing jazz fans have to be is resilient.  The other is determined. Despite being as good as it is jazz gets no love in pop culture. We get our music fix whenever and wherever we can.  

I’m lucky.  Reviewing CD’s for means I get to hear a lot of new stuff.  What doesn’t come in the mail, I can get up to speed by another way.  

Over the last few years I’ve discovered music from Chris Standring, Four80east, Ronny Jordan, Roger Smith, Eliane Elias, Stefon Harris,  Robert Glasper, Jessica Williams, Bob Baldwin, Pat Metheny, Brad Mehldau, Chuck Loeb, Gregg Karukas, Down to the Bone, Gail Johnson, Kyle Eastwood,  Ottmar Liebert, and more from Internet radio such as Pandora and Slacker.  If I waited until WJZA decided to turn me on to any of these musicians, I’d still be waiting and most likely in vain.  

Not "on air now." Or ever again. Thank the Lord.

It is said if you can think of it, you can probably find it online.   I think about how much I love jazz and while I love Sade too, she is not  a jazz singer no matter how many times WJZA played “Smooth Operator.”  Sade is jazzy, but she isn’t jazz.  Neither is George Benson when he’s deep in his pop music mode.  Not that I have a problem with that side of Benson, but when that’s the only side  lazy snooze jazz stations play, that is a huge disservice to both an artist with an extremely diverse and rich catalogue and to the listener who’s being shortchanged of a true representation.  

As far as Kenny G  goes and all his bastard saxophone clones noodling away, please take them with you and never darken my radio again.   

Goodbye and good riddance to you WJZA.  You were always more jive than jazz.   Jazz is one of the great original American art forms and you were a poor steward of the idiom.  You served up watered down swill when you had a rich legacy of legendary and contemporary artists to choose from.  The fans deserved better than you and I doubt you will be missed or even remembered.   

Jazz lives on.  WJZA is dead.  Jazz is better off without you.   Don’t let the door hit you in your dead, raggedy ass.