Movies

Let’s Talk About Kenny G

A new HBO documentary rethinks the legendary—and legendarily despised—smooth jazz colossus.

Kenny G plays his saxophone while walking by a pool showing his reflection.
HBO Max

Decades ago, an up-and-coming music star took the stage on late-night network TV. But instead of performing his latest single, as all parties had agreed, he switched at the last minute to what he wanted to play instead, while the show’s booker furiously gave him the finger. No, I’m not talking about Elvis Costello’s notorious 1977 “Radio Radio” fakeout on Saturday Night Live, a tale of punk-era insolence that’s been retold ever since. This scene took place on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show in 1986, and the artist was the floofy-haired soprano saxophonist Kenneth Gorelick, better known as Kenny G.

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At the time, Gorelick was frustrated with Arista Records’ repeated attempts to market him to “15-year-old kids in the ghetto” with R&B records featuring guest vocalists, even though he was a white Jewish music nerd from Seattle. So when he got his late-night opportunity, he seized it to showcase his own composition, “Songbird.” Tonight Show producers cursed him out, but an Arista executive’s wife was watching at home and told her husband she loved it. The following week, the legendary mogul Clive Davis threw his personal weight behind the track, transforming “Songbird” into a national radio phenomenon. Before long, Carson’s people were asking him to come back and play it again, putting him en route to becoming the bestselling instrumentalist in pop history, with 75 million albums sold, and the figurehead of a whole new genre known as “smooth jazz.”

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That anecdote is one of many unpredictable moments in Listening to Kenny G, a new documentary that debuts tonight in HBO’s Music Box series, by filmmaker Penny Lane (yes, that’s her real name). Her previous acclaimed films needle conventional thinking about, among other subjects, Richard Nixon, Morgellons disease, and the Church of Satan. So when producer Bill Simmons asked if she had a music-documentary idea, Lane thought, as she joked in an interview this fall, “I made a movie about Satanists. And who do people hate more?”

Lane’s film doesn’t stint on documenting that contempt, pithily represented by a one-liner from the late Norm Macdonald about Gorelick’s 1994 Christmas album, Miracles: “Hey, happy birthday, Jesus! Hope you like crap!” At much greater length, the jazz guitar star Pat Metheny went on a famous rant in 2000, after Gorelick inserted his own sax solos into Louis Armstrong’s recording of “What a Wonderful World.” Metheny called Kenny G an at-best-mediocre musician who had committed “necrophilia” and sacrilege against Armstrong and all the other great jazz artists of history, “a new low point in modern culture” that “we ignore … at our own peril.” Along the way, he threatened to brain Kenny G with a guitar if they ever happened to meet.

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Lane’s main aim is to question where those aggressive responses to Gorelick’s almost pathologically inoffensive music come from, and how to think about the gulf between his haters and his global legions of devoted fans. Her film includes inquiries into his rise and the scope of his popularity; interviews with fans, radio programmers, and others about his appeal; conversations with mostly skeptical jazz critics; and, most prominently, a series of interviews and outings with the cascadingly ringleted horn man himself. “How are you feeling?” she asks in an early scene, as he surveys the hall where he’ll be playing that night’s concert. “Um, underappreciated, in general,” he answers. “But other than that I’m fine.”

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I should acknowledge that I’m not entirely an objective observer here. Not that I have any special animus or affection for Kenny G himself. But Lane’s look at his work and reputation very much parallels my own book, Lets Talk About Love. There, I use Céline Dion as a case study of a similarly divisive pop culture figure at her commercial peak (which came around the same time as Kenny G’s 1990s apex) to ask how people’s tastes develop, what they mean, and why we clash about them the way we do—often as stand-ins for other kinds of social antagonisms. When Listening to Kenny G premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Lane told me that my project had been one of the seeds for hers. So obviously I have sympathy for and curiosity about what she’s up to here.

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The case against Kenny G in particular, and smooth jazz overall, seems to come from two directions. One is a suspicion of pretty, soothing music in general as inherently mediocre or even corrupting. Early on, the critic Will Layman calls Gorelick’s sound “nice music for nice people. And … I want to believe I’m better than that.” Former New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff more pointedly says, “I’m sure I’ve heard a lot of Kenny G while waiting for something,” as in a bank or a dentist’s office. It seemed to him like “a corporate attempt to soothe my nerves, and I didn’t like that. I don’t like that.” Later, the film documents the rather astonishing fact that for decades in China the Kenny G track “Going Home” has served as the national song signaling the end of the workday, an audio cue that it’s time to pack up and go. (Gorelick even claims that when he made the mistake of playing it in the middle of a concert in China, the audience all got up and left.) After hearing that, Ratliff asks, “Is Kenny G’s music a weapon of consent? Does it make people agree to comply?”

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This whole line of critique strikes me as a specious recycling of old Frankfurt School cultural theories that consider commercial popular culture in general as a capitalist and fascist ploy to dull the senses of the masses. But sweet-sounding tunes aren’t some recent consumer-age innovation to tranquilize the people; human beings seem pretty much to have always liked them. Pernicious political effects seem if anything more likely to stem from the adrenaline stimulation of a raucous Kid Rock anthem than Kenny G’s saxy syrup.

Yes, smooth jazz often seems highly suitable for shops and offices; people might be bored by it, but it’s unlikely to disrupt the business at hand. However, in Lane’s film we also hear from fans and others who have used Kenny G’s recordings as the soundtracks for weddings, romances, even childbirth. His music becomes woven into the fabric of their lives. That’s much more persuasive to me than abstract cultural conspiracy theories. As the scholar and critic Jason King says in the film, “It can’t simply be that millions of people are just stupid, and Pat Metheny is the smart one.”

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But Metheny’s complaint was coming from a jazz musician, and it’s the matter of Gorelick’s relationship to jazz, or lack thereof, that seems like the more substantial charge against him. At Franklin High in Seattle, a city still noted for its advanced secondary-school jazz programs, he focused mainly on R&B-fusion-based jazz, wanting, he says, to become “the white Grover Washington Jr.” (He failed at that, but found his own sound in the process.) But as he admits, he had little familiarity with the deeper foundations and evolution of the music. As Ratliff puts it, “Kenny G’s music seems to want to have nothing to do with a past.” Most musicians in the field consider themselves in conversation with jazz; Gorelick delivers a monologue.

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He also never took much interest in music theory, instead using his “sixth sense” to feel his way to “relatable” melodies, and relying on hired arrangers to match them with chords and other accompaniment. He boasts about using “circular breathing” as though it were his own invention—he even set a Guinness record for holding a single note for over 45 minutes. But as Layman points out, like most of Gorelick’s showoffy flourishes, these are things many accomplished musicians can do; it’s just not what they focus on. Layman compares Gorelick becoming the world’s best-known jazz musician to a scenario in which the stunt-focused Harlem Globetrotters were the world’s only profitable basketball team, while the NBA remained a semiamateur endeavor and LeBron James had to wait tables for a living.

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As the musician and academic Christopher Washburne wrote in his 2004 study “Does Kenny G Play Bad Jazz?,” the relationship between commercial and “art world” jazz has been fraught ever since it was eclipsed as the dominant American popular music in the 1950s. Purist gatekeeping serves a lot of vested interests. Even the jazz-rock “fusion” experiments of Miles Davis and others in the 1960s and 1970s were denounced as sellouts. By contrast, the jazz scene in the U.K. right now is one of the world’s most vital, and its channels are wide open to hip-hop, funk, soul, and electronic dance music. Washburne makes a strong case that smooth jazz, a descendent of fusion and cousin to “Quiet Storm” R&B, among other sources, should be acknowledged as within the lineage, whatever its shortcomings. One thing that’s conspicuous in the documentary is that Gorelick’s audiences—majority-Black in his early days, when his record company would put his picture in silhouette on his albums to avoid disclosing his race—remain highly mixed racially. I’ve seen rooms way more full of white dudes at a lot of supposedly progressive experimental jazz gigs.

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However, as Listening to Kenny G smartly addresses, having a fuzzy-maned white guy become the leading name in jazz to much of the world also perpetuates the ongoing syndrome of appropriation and co-optation. Gorelick has become a multimillionaire on the back of more than a century of primarily Black musical innovation. As King says in the film, it’s difficult to say what he’s offered the tradition in return. When directly asked, Gorelick, to his credit, acknowledges that being white probably brought him opportunities that other musicians weren’t offered. But stunningly, as a 65-year-old man who’s been playing jazz since he was a teenager, he tells Lane he’s “honestly” never thought about his race before.

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That kind of selective cluelessness is a regular part of Gorelick’s affect here. While more than game and not defensive against Lane’s inquiries, he comes off alternately as likably ingratiating, anxiously striving, and delusionally arrogant. Social media watchers in recent years may have been won over by him (and, as the film makes clear, his younger PR advisers) with his Twitter and Instagram so-uncool-it’s-cool routines, but the man behind the memes is less convincingly nonchalant. He’s fixated on being the best at anything he does, whether that’s music, golf, flying a plane, making pies, or, as he rather disturbingly says at one point, being “the best father the world has ever seen.”

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He recognizes that musical tastes are subjective and doesn’t try to debate his critics, but for that reason he’d rather win a golf trophy than a Grammy, because that means “I won … by beating other people.” At another point he talks about unpublished compositions that, if they were used in a movie—and he has very specific imaginary movies in mind—would definitely win an Academy Award. Or about doing an album of his own classical music, which would prompt people to ask, “Is this Beethoven? Is it Bach? Is it Brahms? No, it’s G!” He’s an engaging and diverting person to spend 90 minutes watching on camera, but I’m not sure I’d want to be stuck alone with him for a day.

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Recently, Gorelick actually has taken more of an interest in the history of jazz—he includes “sax education” sections in his concerts, during which he’ll play a standard or a John Coltrane piece and encourage his audience to check out the originals—but I doubt Pat Metheny is going to be thrilled about where that has led. On the album he’s recording while Lane is filming, New Standards, due out Friday, he has taken his “What a Wonderful World”–style jazzploitation tactics to new heights. He plays what he calls a “duet” with the long-dead bebop and cool jazz tenor saxophonist Stan Getz (who was white, which may be a strategic choice here). But what he and his producers have done is sample Getz from recordings and rearrange the notes digitally so he’s playing a Kenny G melody. Gorelick tells Lane that this Frankensong is how Getz “would have” played it if he were alive, as if that’s information he somehow has access to. He knows the “jazz police” will come after him, he says, but he doesn’t care.

I don’t buy it. I think that as a waning superstar who complains, like many musicians, about how difficult it is to market recordings in the streaming era, he cares a lot. He wants the critics to go after him. It’s the same temperament he showed three-and-a-half decades ago on the Tonight Show: People may or may not love what Kenny G does, but he’ll get them to pay attention.

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