Smooth jazz is a genre of music that grew out of jazz and is influenced by rhythm and blues, funk, rock and roll, and pop music styles (separately, or, in any combination). Musicians such as Kenny G., Ramsey Lewis, David Koz, and Spyro Gyra have had hits with instrumental recordings, while singers such as Anita Baker, Sade, Sting and Norah Jones have found success with vocal releases. George Benson remains a popular Smooth Jazz artist as both a singer and guitar player.
In general a smooth jazz track is downtempo (the most widely played tracks are in the 90–105 BPM range), layering a lead, melody-playing instrument (saxophones – especially soprano and tenor – are the most popular, with guitars a close second) over a backdrop that typically consists of programmed rhythms and various synth pads and/or samples. Smooth jazz groups or recording artists tend to play their instruments in a melodic fashion such that they are recognizable within just a few measures; this category includes names such as saxophonists Kenny G, David Sanborn, George Howard, Najee, Boney James, and Art Porter, Jr.; guitarists George Benson, Earl Klugh, Marc Antoine, Peter White, Jonathan Butler, Ray Parker, Jr, Norman Brown, Ronny Jordan, and Yves Vincent; pianists David Benoit, Bradley Joseph, and Joe Sample. Some performers, such as Dave Koz, Bob James, and Nathan East are notable for their numerous collaborations with many of the genre's big names. Groups include Fourplay, Pieces of a Dream, Acoustic Alchemy, Airborne and The Rippingtons. Female performers include Keiko Matsui, Joyce Cooling, Mindi Abair, Candy Dulfer, Sade, Brenda Russell, Pamela Williams, Regina Belle, and Anita Baker.
Smooth jazz can be traced to at least the late 1960s. Producer Creed Taylor worked with guitarist Wes Montgomery on three popular records (1967's A Day in the Life and Down Here on the Ground and 1968's Road Song) consisting of instrumental versions of familiar pop songs such as "Eleanor Rigby", "I Say a Little Prayer" and "Scarborough Fair". While jazz musicians had performed pop hits since the early 1900s, Montgomery's commercially successful albums were somewhat of a departure from this tradition, containing little of the complex improvisation of his earlier recordings and being aimed squarely at pop music audiences. Reviewing A Day In the Life, critic Scott Yannow writes, "although the jazz content is almost nil, the results are pleasing as background music." From these commercially successful records with Montgomery, Taylor founded CTI Records. Many established jazz performers recorded for CTI (including Freddie Hubbard, Chet Baker, George Benson and Stanley Turrentine). The records recorded under Taylor's guidance were typically aimed as much at pop audiences as at jazz fans, with ornate string section arrangements, and a much stronger emphasis on melody than was typical in jazz. Some critics and jazz fans expressed a distaste for CTI releases, but much of the label's output is now generally well-regarded: Yanow writes, "Taylor had great success in balancing the artistic with the commercial." Hubbard's funk/fusion album Red Clay, issued by CTI and containing a lengthy cover of John Lennon's "Cold Turkey" and has been described as arguably "Hubbard's finest moment as a leader." In addition to Benson, jazz musicians in the 1970s whose style would be called smooth jazz today included Bob James, David Sanborn, Herb Alpert, Al Jarreau and Chuck Mangione.
A recent development is urban jazz, which incorporates aspects of hip-hop. This style is aimed at audiences who would normally listen to radio stations that play a mix of hip-hop and R&B. Among the musicians who frequently perform urban jazz are Dave Koz, Boney James, Paul Jackson Jr., Nick Colionne, Vincent Ingala, Bobby Perry, Urban Jazz Coalition, Streetwize, and Tha' Hot Club. Urban jazz includes artists such as Bob Baldwin, Michael Lington, Brian Bromberg, David Lanz, Jonathan Fritzen, Bobby Ricketts, Kim Waters, Daniele Caprelli, Ken Navarro, Walter Beasley, Peter White.