jazz: The 1970-'80s: From Smooth Jazz to the Neo-Cons

The 1970-'80s: From Smooth Jazz to the Neo-Cons

Jazz-rock continued to be popular in the first-half of the 70s, with groups like Return to Forever, John McLaughlin’s Mahavisnhu Orchestra, and Weather Report using synthesizers, danceable beats, and catchy melodies to gain large audiences. A countertrend occurred centered on the European record label ECM, with artists like Gary Burton and Keith Jarrett recording contemplative, almost chamber-like jazz. In the later half of the '70s-early '80s, artists like Kenny G, George Benson, and Chuck Mangione developed what came to be known as smooth jazz. This radio-friendly music was decried by purists as lacking the true essence of the music.

As a reaction to smooth and commercial jazz, a "return-to-roots" movement arose around younger artists who came to be known as the "neo-cons" because of their focus on earlier jazz styles. The leader of this movement was Wynton Marsalis, a young trumpet virtuoso who burst on the scene after attending Juilliard in the early '80s. From a notable New Orleans family, Marsalis became a vocal critic of jazz-rock and its offshoots, promoting instead the work of leaders like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Marsalis was the prime mover behind the founding of Jazz at Lincoln Center in 1988 and its related big band. Other neo-cons associated with Marsalis included his brother, Branton, and Terence Blanchard and Joshua Redman, although the movement splintered as each developed a unique artistic voice.

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