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Don't Hate Me Because I'm Popular

Taking their cue from the masters, Jay Beckenstein and Spyro Gyra make smooth jazz for geniuses.
Carol Weinberg

Unless your name is Miles Davis or Duke Ellington, it's not hip to be a commercially successful jazz musician. Witness the current backlash against Diana Krall. The singer-pianist's When I Look in Your Eyes has been sitting on top of the jazz charts for a year and, depending on the week, selling five to ten times more copies than the album in second place. Expectedly, Krall has been lambasted for her blond-bombshell looks, even though musicians who have performed with her, from Ray Brown to Russell Malone, say the woman has chops.

Not that Krall is alone. Fellow musicians and the media have skewered Harry Connick Jr., David Sanborn and Grover Washington Jr. Kenny G., long the target of stand-up comics and the press, was recently blasted by Pat Metheny on the guitarist's Web site. Even Davis was vilified for bastardizing jazz during his fusion phase. Sure, the criticisms are usually without merit. That's not the point. The point is this: If you sell a lot of jazz records, the world becomes a cold place. You become the antichrist.

"Musicians are a jealous lot," says Spyro Gyra saxophonist and founder Jay Beckenstein. "I mean, musicians hate it when somebody sells 20 times more records than they do. They don't consider it just, so they'll make a case against it."

When Spyro Gyra's eponymously titled first album was an immediate hit in 1978 and its follow-up, Morning Dance, spawned a Top 40 single, the band should have foreseen the knee-jerk criticism to come. Good jazz bands aren't supposed to have hit records. For the past two decades, Spyro Gyra has had nothing but. In the jazz world, an album is considered a major success if it sells 50,000 copies. Spyro Gyra's releases routinely sell twice that number. Its debut sold 70,000 copies within a year. Two of the band's albums have gone gold, one has reached platinum, and all of its 22 discs are still in print. Spyro Gyra has been the most successful jazz band of the past 25 years. That's enough to make the act a target.

"There's a little bit of this weird romanticism that still clings to the whole jazz thing," Beckenstein says. "You know, you're supposed to be a suffering heroin addict, and if you seem well adjusted, happy, feet-on-the-ground, and you're selling a lot of records, well, that doesn't quite fit into the romantic concept of the struggling musician."

"I started off [when] the Leonard Feathers of the world were very much around," Beckenstein says, referencing the renowned jazz critic. "Those guys had attached themselves to jazz when jazz was a music that was intimately associated with the struggle for racial equality, and they championed jazz as a showpiece of what African-Americans were capable of, a way of showing that they could have a depth of expression that was just as good as Tchaikovsky. There was an almost crusaderlike cause attachment to jazz….Critics took it deadly seriously."

While Spyro Gyra took the music seriously, the band's commercial success spelled trouble to critics. What the band's detractors missed, and the general public got from the very beginning, was that Spyro Gyra made substantial records and truly carved out a unique identity. Spyro Gyra came along at a time when jazz-rock fusion was losing popularity and most of the first-generation fusion stars had moved into different territory. The group's poppy instrumental sound combined solid hooks and relaxed arrangements and served as a melting pot for a variety of musical genres, including rock, Latin, calypso, bebop and just about anything else.

Along with Sanborn, Washington and John Klemmer, Spyro filled a void in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The band wasn't playing high-volume, guitar-based fusion, nor was it playing straight-ahead. Instead, the group crafted memorable melodies -- something most jazz at the time lacked -- and wasn't afraid to flirt with R&B and other popular influences. Spyro Gyra created a radio-friendly sound that became the blueprint for the smooth genre that would evolve a decade later.

Though the band essentially fathered the much-maligned genre, Spyro Gyra stands apart from its imitators (as do Sanborn, Klemmer and Washington) in a profoundly important way. The boys can improvise. Beckenstein grew up on Charlie Parker, Lester Young and other jazz legends. During the early '70s the band he formed in Buffalo, New York, which would later become Spyro Gyra, played Davis and Weather Report tunes, plus instrumental versions of pop and R&B numbers. Beckenstein and company actually became known for their long, self-indulgent solos. By stretching out in small clubs, Spyro Gyra learned how to play off-the-cuff. When the players hit nationally, they had become disciplined. The band's albums were never a fair representation of the musicians' talents; the short solos found on those discs were designed to keep jittery radio programmers happy, not to showcase the players' strong improvisational chops. The truth is, Spyro Gyra will blow most smooth jazz acts off the stage. More than one jazz festival act has been unfortunate enough to try to win a crowd over after a Spyro Gyra performance.

"We go back to a time when this music was really connected in every way to jazz and to a tradition of jazz," says Beckenstein. "Improvisation and taking some risks and stretching out and looking for new things to do has always been part of what we've done. The whole [smooth jazz] thing has shifted away from improvisation and creativity and away from the focus on the instrumentalists and away from the glory of group interaction. You know, it's machines and videos and prepackaged stars." He sighs.

As one of the longest-running groups in jazz history, Spyro Gyra has amassed an impressive repertoire of more than 200 songs, all originals. When you hear a Spyro Gyra song -- no matter what style -- you know it's Spyro Gyra. "We felt the thing that defined what you do more than anything is that initial writing process," says Beckenstein. "What is this material that you are going to be playing? What direction is it going to go in? I don't know if we've always succeeded, but the only chance you have of doing something that is unique to yourself is by writing it yourself."

There's already a whole generation of players who have been influenced by Spyro Gyra. Smooth-jazz sensation Boney James, for instance, cites hearing Morning Dance as a defining moment. But what has kept Spyro Gyra vital is that its gifted improvisers have never rested on their laurels. There has been consistent evolution. Maybe that's why the jazz press has started to give Spyro Gyra the props it has deserved from the beginning. It's not any instrumental band that breaks pop barriers with original jazz, and still sounds fresh after a quarter of a century.

"If anyone takes the trouble to look back on all the work we've done through the years, sort through the things that succeeded and the things that failed," Beckenstein says, "you'll find 50 things on those records that are really good, that are really, really good, and where it's really evident that we really tried to stretch our envelope, and of that I'm proud. Whether history will go back and sort through it to find all of it," he says with a laugh, "I don't know."


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