INTERVIEW

Kenny G on his new doc & not paying attention to critics: "Miles Davis liked what I was doing"

The musician spoke to Salon about HBO's new film "Listening to Kenny G," how much he practices & one effusive fan

By Gary M. Kramer

Published December 2, 2021 6:00PM (EST)

Listening to Kenny G (HBO Documentary Films)
Listening to Kenny G (HBO Documentary Films)

Love him or loathe him, Grammy-award winning saxophonist Kenny G has skills. The best-selling instrumental recording artist of all time — he has sold 75 million records — Kenneth Bruce Gorelick's music has been performed at countless weddings, and his hit, "Going Home," is used to signal the end of the day in China. But Kenny G has also be for taken to task his appropriation of Black jazz music, his duet with Louis Armstrong (that prompted a hate screed from Pat Metheny), and how he has been derided in popular culture on programs such as "Saturday Night Live" and "South Park." 

HBO's "Listening to Kenny G," the genial, evenhanded documentary by Penny Lane ("Hail Satan?") gives voice to the polarizing musician (and his critics). In the extended interview scenes, Kenny G comes across as modest, humble and hardworking. When asked how he is feeling, he responds, "Underappreciated." He gets the joke may be on him, but has in recent years become a bit of an internet sensation for his Twitter posts and that Valentine's Day video Kayne West arranged of having the musician serenade Kim Kardashian. (Even better is the James Corden/Ray Romano spoof).

None of this was likely in the mind of Gorelick, who grew up playing music in Seattle and being recognized for his ability to hold a note. (Fun Fact: he has a Guinness World Record for playing a note for approximately 45 minutes). His success may be that his form of Jazz has crossover appeal to pop and R&B. At least that's what record producer Clive Davis realized when he helped Kenny G become a worldwide phenomenon. 

RELATED: Kenny G is driving people away

"Listening to Kenny G" features gushing fans and haters, but it is hard not to watch this film and not come away with appreciation if not admiration, even if his music is not to your taste. Salon spoke with Gorelick about his career, his new documentary, and what may be the best thing anyone ever said to him about his music. 

You talk in the film about practicing, practicing, practicing, and your music shows the value of that dedication and your strong work ethic. Did you ever anticipate this phenomenal career of yours? 

Actually, no. I never thought about it in that way. My goal was to get a record deal and make records. There were only a few saxophone players that made records at that time, such as Grover Washington, Jr. Then I heard some of the greats — John Coltrane, Stan Getz, all those great players. I wanted to do that. I wanted to make a record and sound as good as those guys. I just wanted a record deal. I didn't think about the sales in the sense that, "Wow! I want to sell so many." I just wanted to sell enough to keep making records. Every time I was allowed to make a second, or third record, I thought this was going well. I did just good enough, and I get to make another. Lucky me. But once the sales got into the multi-millions, I know that I can make records forever now. This is pretty great. Now it's the same thing — to always make the best music — but now I don't have to worry that I won't be able to make another record. I know I can. 

How many hours a day, or a week, do you practice?

I practice three hours day, which is about 1,100 hours a year. 40 years later that's 50,000 hours plus shows. I am wired to have a discipline. Hopefully my work ethic doesn't take away the fun from the people around me. I need my three hours of practicing, and then I'm going to exercise for an hour and after that, I will be all fun and games. But I won't be all fun and games if I don't get my three hours of practicing in! All I will think about is get my practicing in, and then I will be a fun guy.

Do you feel you have to be on the defensive or apologize for your success? We see fans gush about your music in the film. We hear from haters. Are you laughing all the way to the bank? I mean, is it tough being Kenny G?

I don't say I'm laughing all the way to the bank. I'm laughing because it doesn't faze me what they are saying. It's not serious to me. It's just an opinion of a person. If they are a jazz aficionado, and they love Ornette Coleman, or Charlie Parker, or Stan Getz, or John Coltrane, they may not like my music. But I can tell you, Miles Davis liked what I was doing. I opened up shows for him. He told me he likes what I do. Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan liked my music. I just did some gigs with George Benson, who said I may be the best soprano sax he's ever heard. But I told him, you knew Coltrane. He said, "Yeah, but there is something about what you do." I was like, "George, can I get you to sign a legal document? You're telling me you think I'm as good as Coltrane? Can you sign this really quickly?" I have that inside me. So, when I do hear the critics, of course, they are biased, and I get where they are coming from, and it makes sense that you would criticize it that way, but it isn't stopping me, and I am liking what I'm doing.

You have been accused of cultural appropriation, as a white artist who has achieved success on the back of Black musicians, (especially from the Louis Armstrong duet). However, you meet this criticism with kindness, as you did with your last answer. You provide "sax education" and will encourage listeners to seek out John Coltrane, Stan Getz, or other musicians. Can you talk about that, and how it impacts you?

When people ask me what I listen to, I first tell them to go back and listen to Miles Davis and Coltrane. But as far as my sound of my songs that's just me doing what sounds good, I like the way it sounds, so I play the way I play. I think that's my obligation to reintroduce people to the traditional jazz. In my live shows, we play "Naima" by John Coltrane and "Desafinado" by Stan Getz, which they love. I am leading them to open a new door. As far as the Louis Armstrong thing is concerned, we asked David Foster to produce it, and he was up for it. Clive Davis loved the idea. And we asked the Louis Armstrong Foundation. This is not me trying to profit from Louis Armstrong's music. I wanted to bring light to it and let all the proceeds go to whatever foundation you want. They were all on board. We got their blessing.

What interests me most is what I think is at the root of your music being so polarizing: You have been accused of playing it safe. My question is: in your effort to be "inoffensive" are you inherently offensive? (Critic Bruce Ratliff acknowledges the craft, even if he dislikes the result).

First, we have to define what is my process, when I make music. Am I calculating? I'm capable of playing 3,000 notes within this 30 second period, and I'm going to play two notes, because that will make people buy my music. That is going to be inoffensive to people, whereas 3,000 is too much, but I really want to play the 3,000. All that is not going on. None of that is going on. What is going on is that I have a melodic sense inside of me, so when I am playing my music, and I play it, I play the melody that I feel is the right melody. It's not a dumbed down, watered-down melody because it's going to be less offensive to the listener and I'll be able to sell records. Before "smooth jazz" radio, there wasn't any outlet for what I did. It wasn't like I am calculating that I'm going to do this, and get all this airplay, and make millions of dollars and be this successful guy. I'm making this music that was unheard before; there was no place for it. This is what I hear. 

When you come see me live, you are going to hear a lot more notes. Because I like a live performance that is different than a recorded performance. When I listen to my songs, I want to listen every time and go, I love those notes. I love the way that sounds. Rather than, that was a good take on Wednesday, but now I play it differently. There is no calculated thought process of watering it down to make it inoffensive. But I can understand that people would think that.

When people say that to me, I think: You have no idea what I go through when I make my music. If I was that smart, why am I not selling 10 million copies each time? If I am that smart to know, that if I play this way instead of this way, I'm going to sell millions of records. I wish I was that smart, but I am not that smart. It just comes from here. [Kenny G touches his heart]. This is the melody. It sounds right to me. There are a lot of people in the world — and I know that folks don't want to hear this — but that when they hear my music, it connects with them. I'll tell you a story, Larry King told me that Stan Getz got such criticism when he did those bossa nova songs, like "Girl from Ipanema." The jazz community said he was going commercial, watering it down. He was vibing with that bossa nova beat. So, if people say that about me, they would have said that about Getz. But people would never criticize Getz. It doesn't go through process, and if it did, then I would have to cop to the fact that I am just appealing to the masses. But that's not the way it is. Not at all. 

I like that you resist labels. It is too easy to put a song in a box and call it jazz, or smooth jazz, or pop, or R&B. You are working on albums that tweak or ideas of or assumptions about jazz, or standards, or classical music. Why play with forms, given that you have created a unique style of music? People want to make you one-note but you're not.

The categorization is tough. It's good and bad. When you go to a restaurant, what are they serving? The labels are there for people to help them buy what they think that they want to buy. If they label my music jazz, they may say "Well, I never liked jazz." If they label it smooth jazz, "Well, what is that?" But we can label it smooth jazz, and people can figure out if they like it, or not like it. I never liked any of that. When people ask me what I do, I say, I'm a sax player. If they ask me what kind of music I play, I say I'm a jazz musician. That might offend people and it might not offend people. I get the categorization. I just wish we didn't have to. I see no need for it. I try not to do it. There's no good answer on that one. What is Heavy Metal music? What does that mean? Is it only Metallica or Megadeth? What happens if there are no vocals? 


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What music would folks be surprised to know you listen to?

I listen to old jazz, which is not surprising. My new record coming out soon is "New Standards." It's not like my other records in the sense of the melodic compositions, but it's still me. It's like if I was born in '50s, and playing that kind of jazz, how would I play it? But it's all original. That's why it's "new standards."

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that you are a pilot, that you are a champion golfer, and that you were an early investor in a little company called Starbucks. Were all of these interests you pursued as a result of the money and fame you earned? I mean, you are not following the typical sex, drugs, jail, and music arc of most musicians!

I started golfing when I was 10. I've always loved golfing. Pilot, was, if I do not have to work 9-5, which thankfully, I've never had to do, you do get to pursue things you are interested in. I was very interested to know how does an airplane fly? I took a few lessons and got me hooked. I flew a little plane all across the country to the Toronto International Film Festival. It took me three days to get here!

What is the most awkward or jaw-dropping thing a fan has ever told you? 

Well, you know, I've heard it all. It's not going to make my jaw drop. But here's a fun memory. I was in New York, promoting one of my records, and I was outside, and a guy walks up to me — and at my gigs, I don't have much security; I'm an easy access. And this guy comes up to me and he says, "I just want to tell you, I make love just like you play your sax. When you go low, I go low. When you go high, I go high. When you hold your note, I hold my note. You finish, I finish!" 

And how do you respond to that?

I just laughed. I said, "Man, thank you for telling that. That was the greatest thing you could have told me." I immediately went to go find the guys in my band and tell them this, and they were just loving it!

"Listening to Kenny G" premieres Thursday, Dec. 2 at 8 p.m. on HBO, and will be available to stream on HBO Max. Watch a trailer for it below, via YouTube.

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Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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