In the introduction that played before screenings of the new documentary Listening to Kenny G this week at the Toronto International Film Festival, director Penny Lane explained, “Kenny G is the best-selling instrumentalist of all time. He is probably the most famous living jazz musician. And I made this film to find out why that makes certain people really angry.”
Talking to The Daily Beast recently over Zoom, the musician beams beneath his trademark ringlets when asked about that mission statement. “No, she never brought that to me. But she warned me when she sent the first draft of the movie. She said, ‘You’re not going to like the first 10 minutes.’”
Somehow then, his massive grin gets even bigger. “But I love those first 10 minutes, by the way.”
Listening to Kenny G will debut later this year on HBO as part of its Music Box documentary series about musicians. Unlike another film in the series, Jagged, which recently made headlines when Alanis Morissette accused its filmmakers of having a “salacious agenda,” Listening to Kenny G boasts the enthusiastic support of its titular saxophonist.
Some might consider that a gracious act.
The documentary takes meticulous care to underline just how massive a pop culture phenomenon Kenny G is; a man who sold tens of millions of records and pioneered a kind of instrumental music so unclassifiable that a new genre—“smooth jazz”—was coined to describe and (more importantly) market it. He was so ubiquitous that China co-opted a riff from his “Going Home” recording as its unofficial national closing song for businesses.
But Listening to Kenny G doesn’t just dictate the artist’s success. It asks us to reconsider it, four decades into a lightning-rod career that has seen commercial embrace and polarizing reputation evolve into a mastery of memes, social media virality, and an unlikely embrace by the hottest acts in modern music.
Is Kenny G’s music good? Is it bad? Is he a joke? Is he in on the joke? The artist himself is not really sure. But whatever he is, he wants to be perfect at it.
Lane opens her film with prominent music critics, specifically in the field of jazz, listening to Kenny G’s songs. You would think they were being subjected to wartime torture.
“I’m sure I heard a lot of Kenny G while waiting for something, at a dentist’s office for example, or at a bank,” says The New York Times’ Ben Ratliff. “So I think I associated his music with a corporate attempt to soothe my nerves. I don’t like that.”
New York University professor Jason King describes it as “just part of the musical furniture of American culture.” Jazz critic Will Layman laments, “He makes ‘nice’ music. For nice people… It makes me feel that it’s just wallpaper. I just want to believe I’m better than that.”
“I’m used to it,” Kenny G (given name Kenneth Gorelick) tells The Daily Beast. “It wasn’t anything that I haven’t heard before.”
It might be that he’s magnanimous. He could just have really thick skin. Maybe he’s among the more craven subscribers to the “all press is good press” adage. Yet it seems strangely more spiritual and evolved than any of that. “In the movie, the critics are all smiling when they’re talking about my music,” he says. “Even though they’re being critical, they’re enjoying themselves.”
Kenny G is such a phenomenon that even the trailing vapors of his rocket-launch rise represent a more potent success than most musicians could dream of.
His global sales tally more than 75 million records. During the peak years of success, he was positioned as part of the monoculture alongside acts like Madonna, Whitney Houston, and Michael Jackson—an unprecedented leap into the mainstream for a person whose entire act was playing the saxophone, usually with no vocal accompaniment. While he was a mainstay of “easy listening” radio stations—and arguably responsible for their rise in the 1990s—his songs were also played on jazz, pop, and R&B channels.
He set the Guinness World Record for the longest sustained single note. Bill Clinton called him his favorite musician. Couples around the world would line up at autograph signings to brag that one of his recordings was their wedding song, or to confess that it was the soundtrack to their child’s conception. For a time, he was among the most well-known people on the planet—and among the most hated people in jazz.
While everyone else argued over whether what he was producing was good art, Kenny G was largely unbothered. He refutes the idea that he made easy listening music as part of some nefarious commercial agenda because it would sell well to the masses: “If only I was that smart!”
Before he became a runaway success, Kenny G got his start gigging in Seattle, starting as a teenager. He played for Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra, the Ringling Brothers’ circus, the Ice Capades, Liberace, and Sammy Davis Jr. It was starmaker Clive Davis who, after signing him and tinkering with his sound and image until it finally connected with a jazz instrumentalist-skeptical audience, penned letters to radio programmers imploring them to play Kenny’s records. The rest is history.
“I played all sorts of gigs and got lots of great feedback: ‘Hey, you’re really good,’” he says. “It’s not that it went to my head. It was just that when I did hear the occasional, ‘Whoa, I really don’t like what you’re doing…’ later on as I got more successful, it was like, ‘Boy, I’ve been hearing just the opposite for a long time.’ So it didn’t really bother me.”
But there’s a difference between an artist who doesn’t take offense, and an artist who ignores. Throughout his career, Kenny G has never feigned ignorance of people’s negative opinions. In fact, he’s considered them all. Sometimes he takes their point. Almost always, at the very least, he respects their craft.
“OK, let’s talk about the hair.”
“I just felt like they had to do what they had to do as music critics,” he says. “That’s what their job is: to criticize and critique. I get it. A lot of them were very cleverly written. Even though it wasn’t always very nice about me, they wrote it very well.”
It’s not just music critics who targeted him over the years. He was as much a staple of late-night comedy as Monica Lewinsky in the 1990s, with talk show hosts moaning that his music was lame or mocking his signature look, specifically that cascade of curls. When Kenny says in the documentary that he would never cut his hair because that would mean his career would be over, he laughs… but he’s not joking.
“OK, let’s talk about the hair,” he smirks when we sheepishly ask him about it. The trepidation is unnecessary. He’s eager to discuss. “It’s just natural. I’ve got curly hair, so it’s either really short, and then it doesn’t look very curly, which is fine, or it has to be long. Anything in between is weird. Once I grew it long in high school, I said, ‘That took a long time, and I went through a really ugly stage of the hair being really weird. So let’s just leave it alone.’”
That leads him to recall a time he was in the audience watching Don Rickles do stand-up. The legendary roaster called him out and told him to get a haircut. “I laughed really hard when he said that.” He giggles remembering the Saturday Night Live spoofs. Ray Romano tells a joke about him that he loves. He’s maybe most proud of the vicious takedown on South Park. “I mean, I’m the guy that plays the note that makes people crap their pants. I’m on their radar somehow. That’s the coolest thing ever.”
He has a rather healthy philosophy about it. “If you’re being made fun of, it’s flattering because it means you’re being noticed.”
But Kenny G is an outlier when it comes to the world of pop culture jokes: He never went away.
In fact, he flipped the whole idea of the pop culture joke on his head. Hip millennial websites fawned over his mastery of meme comedy on his Twitter and Instagram accounts, where he would craft jokes at his own expense. But that, too, evolved. His inclusion in the zeitgeist ceased being a joke at all. It was actually pretty serious.
The internet suffered yet another breakage when Kanye West recruited Kenny G to play in a white room littered with flowers as a romantic gift to Kim Kardashian, but that viral moment led to him actually playing on one of West’s records. When The Weeknd released a remix of “In Your Eyes” featuring him and invited him to take part in his American Music Awards performance, it wasn’t a quick phoned-in solo. It was a legitimate musical collaboration that Kenny worked hard on.
“Without sounding like I’m blowing my own horn, there’s a talent there,” he says. “They must listen to my music and think that I’m talented and want that kind of virtuosity to be part of what they’re doing.”
Kenny G often proclaims to not want to blow his horn before blowing hard as hell. When he finally perfects a riff or a note in a song he’s recording, he sits back and tries not to be smug. “Without being egotistical…” he cautions in the documentary, “when I hear my sax recorded, when I give it my stamp of approval, I sit back and go, that’s fucking beautiful.”
But this isn’t the mark of a braggart so much as it is of a perfectionist.
He practices saxophone every day for three hours a day. If you’ve seen his Instagram videos, you’ll recognize that he is in impeccable physical shape, with the same pinky-sized waistline of his youth. When he took up golfing, he worked to a handicap of +0.6 and was named the best golfer in music by Golf Digest. He became an aircraft pilot, and then won awards for that, too.
Lane leaves in B-roll scenes in the documentary that other directors might have edited out that show Kenny micromanaging shoots, certain that entering a building in one particular way would be more visually interesting than another.
At one point during an interview, she finishes her questions and he erupts into a monologue about how he always wants to be good at everything, insisting that he’ll stay in the chair for 12 hours without food or water if she needs him to: “I want to be the best interview you’ve ever had.”
There’s another bizarre but captivating sequence in which he asserts that he has song ideas that could win him an Oscar if they were used in movies. But specific movies. Movies that don’t exist yet, which he then goes on to describe, including the director who would make them and the specific plot.
Is all of this perfectionism? Or insecurity? Perhaps narcissism? Whatever it is, it’s longevity. It’s the reason he’s had a 40-year career, and, frankly, probably one that lasts 40 more. Now there’s finally context for that ubiquity. Kenny G isn’t a joke, a public figure, or a talking point anymore. With the film, you see him as a musician—and a relentless one at that.
“I’m going to give you the album to make the babies, and the album to put them to sleep.”
In the works, he has a new standards record, something classical, and an album of lullabies: “I’m going to give you the album to make the babies, and the album to put them to sleep.”
It’s fascinating that someone who plays a saxophone very well and whose music is most often described as “easy listening” has been a flashpoint for such passionate discourse. As that critic says, his songs are meant to soothe. So how did they also irritate and enrage? It’s a dichotomy that shouldn’t make sense.
“Instrumental music gets inside of you and makes you feel something, because there are no words to say it,” he says. “Somebody hears it and goes, ‘This really touched my heart,’ and somebody else goes, ‘Man, that really sucked.’ Instrumental music allows that to happen, and that’s why it’s great. Everybody has a different feeling.”