No One Sets Out To Be A Smooth Jazz Musician

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No One Sets Out To Be A Smooth Jazz Musician

Look, I'm not going to lie to you. Nobody ever just woke up one morning and thought, "Of all the things possible in the vastness that is life, what I'd really like to do is play smooth jazz 250 nights a year." It just doesn't work that way.

It's not something you can plan for—it's all circumstance, I swear: You want to play music for a living. You bust your ass paying your dues in tiny clubs with six people in the audience. You think about all the talented jazz musicians out there who can't make ends meet and you start to worry. The next thing you know, your agent has you filling out forms to legally change your name from Mel Jablonsky to Michael Langello, and it's seeming like a good idea. Then suddenly you're 40 years old and you open up your dresser drawer to find nothing but linen pants.

But it starts so innocently. When you sign up for band in the fifth grade, you're upset to learn that the only instrument left is the alto sax, but you decide to make the best of it. You tell yourself, "This sounds kind of cool, I guess, sort of." What you could never know is that at that moment you have taken the first step down the long path toward a highly lucrative spot in heavy rotation on every smooth jazz radio station in every dentist's office in the country.

So you land a couple gigs at a hotel lobby sitting in for a buddy of yours, just to pay the rent. So what? Then you start picking up hours doing session work because you just found out your wife is pregnant. Big deal. Eventually, you're standing on the deck of some record executive's yacht saying, "I'd like you to meet my very good friend, Chuck Mangione." How did this ever happen? 

I don't want to sound like I'm complaining. Smooth jazz has been very, very, very good to me. But I can't exactly say I spent 80 hours a week practicing at Juilliard only to play watered-down instrumental versions of innocuous pop songs to audiences composed primarily of over-30 middle-class moms and their husbands. On the other hand, it does bring in $6,000 to $14,000 a night, and, no, Juilliard was not free. I mean, honestly, if one day you're just sitting around sipping coffee on your back deck and you get a call from Windham Hill Records, what are you going to do, not take it? There's worse things that could happen.

Obviously, no one ever thought they'd get their chops playing with Miles Davis only so they could one day support Kenny G on the European leg of a world tour, but life is funny that way. Thousands of half-decisions add up over time. Eventually, you grow up a little and give up your dream of an experimental hardcore rock-jazz trio called "Orbit." You realize life is a series of compromises. You think, "Come on, what's wrong with a pleasant blend of jazz and soul that people might enjoy listening to at home, possibly for a night of romance? That never killed nobody."

Then you wake up from a daydream to find yourself sitting on top of a piano on a beach in the Caribbean, wearing a loose-fitting white shirt, with photographers all around you, and you don't have any idea how you got there. For a moment you're terrified, and then it all comes flooding back: the new album, the road trips, the lunch meetings, the Grammy for best children's album. And then, well, then you're just left with yourself.

But the truth is, I'm fine with the fact that 52 years of professional jazz experience boils down to a few secretaries typing a little faster when my song comes on the radio. Really. The one thing I can't get over is when people at my shows yell out requests for "Yah Mo Be There." That's Michael McDonald, for Christ's sake, and I happen to know even he hates that song. It's eating him alive to have to crank that one out night after night. But c'est la vie. You just give the booking agent your direct-deposit routing number, and you soldier on.

I promise you, there was never a single, defining moment when I realized there was a huge market of people out there who only own four records, and convinced myself that, dammit, mine could be one of those four. Why would I? Fact is, I can't think of even one musician currently on the circuit who intentionally chose to go into smooth jazz, except maybe David Sanborn. But even he got to play some rock and free jazz earlier in his career and get it out of his system. 

But like I said, I'm not complaining. Nobody held a gun to my head when I recorded that album with George Benson last year. That was all me. Two and a half hours in the studio turned into a much-needed kitchen renovation and a new Prius. And it makes people happy.

After all, that's what it's all about, isn't it? Right? Isn't it?