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Mike Zwerin's portrait of Kenny G

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Portrait: Kenny G

From Ice Capades to Web Controversy

By Mike Zwerin

PARIS, 26 July 2000 - The first time 10-year-old Kenny Gorelick took this neat little sax out of its case and put it together he thought wow, this is fun, I'm going to have a great time with this thing.

By the fourth grade he was already the best sax player in the school. The teachers gave him perks and encouraged him. Older guys would ask him how he did this or that and he thought gee whiz, they're asking me and I'm just a kid, I guess I have a knack for this thing. Teachers patted him on the back and said "hey, you're great" and even if he wasn't as good as all that it made him want to try harder.

Grover Washington Jr. was already making records playing the sax. Kenny liked Grover's style. He decided that, if Grover could do it, he could make a living playing the sax, too.

The band director at the University of Washington was contracting musicians for shows that came through Seatlle - The Ice Capades, Johnny Mathis, Liberace, Sammy Davis Jr. and so on. The band director took Kenny under his wing. He gave Kenny some calls and it was easy for him. He was the only young musician included with all those older union guys. It was fun. It was no problem.

Twenty years later, now billed as Kenny G, his albums are in every elevator and airport you have the misfortune to go down in or pass through. (One nice thing about the French is that he is not popular in France.) It has gotten so by now that any pop album without a vocal on it is called "smooth jazz." As if the rest of it were bumpy.

Millions and millions of units sold. G's success gets a lot of jazz people mad. The late Grover Washington and David Sanborn are the only two saxophone players who even come close in sales. G can't really say what's different between his style and theirs, but he does hint, accompanied by expressive eye-contact, that his music must be better than theirs because he sells more records than they do. I am not making this up.

An angry critique of G by the guitarist Pat Metheny has recently been widely circulated on the internet. Metheny is correct but he wastes his time and energy. The music isn't good enough to deserve an intelligent analysis. There's nothing new about the success of dumb music. The fight against vulgar and dishonest music is long lost. Better to spend your time listening to Mozart.

Critics describe his music as bland, sappy, shallow, soporific, and boring. Some people call it "yuppie jazz." Kenny does not believe that yuppie is meant in a flattering way. It's not something he'd like to see on his tombstone. But it doesn't really bother him. Yuppies are people who are better educated getting those accounting firm jobs, the advertising firms and the lawyers. He's not saying they're better people, but they need to relax more than blue-collar people. It's fine either way. Nobody's better than anybody or anything but if it's true that yuppies are under more pressure, then his kind of music seems to relax them. It's just a theory he has. Might be 100 percent wrong. Probably is.

It's a question of taste. It so happens at this time that people are inclined to be more attracted to Kenny's music. Kenny imagines from his 44 years on this earth that women like softer music. They are the ones who are buying his records. He's sold a lot of records.

That's great. But it doesn't mean he's going to change everything because of success and notoriety. It doesn't mean he's going to be a singer or movie star. People get crazy. They think they can do anything. He's been playing sax for 34 years. He can't all of a sudden do something else.

Sometimes he gets calls to do music that isn't his own. He has to say no. Music is easy for him or he can't do it. That big hit he had, "Songbird," it wasn't written to be a hit. That's just the kind of music he writes and it became popular anyway. That's the way it has to be. Easy.

Other guys drive themselves nuts looking for better equipment. He has the same Selmer sax with the same mouthpiece and the same brand reed since he started. The saxophone is an extension of himself. When he wakes up, he doesn't say let me change my left arm today. If he feels good, his sax feels good. It's part of himself. If neither of them feels good one day, that's fine, he can live with imperfection. He'd rather go to the movies with his girlfriend than spend time in shops looking for the magic horn. He already has it. He'd rather go swimming, or for a hike, or a bike ride. He wants to be a well-rounded person.

He's always thinking about how to become a better leader. He believes in leading by example. You have to be a good communicator. If somebody has a problem, wait for the right moment and get it settled. It's difficult, the guys in the band are on the road as much as experiencing the same hardships and their rewards are not as much as his. He's known two of his guys for 26 years. They're not quite as peer-like as they were.

When he comes into the middle of a conversation and they're talking about financing a new synthesizer they say something to him like, "Go out and buy a Porsche. Come back later." They don't want him around right then. It hurts his feelings. He'll live with it. He has to - short of splitting everything seven ways which isn't fair either. So he tries to give better perks, like flying their girlfriends to Hawaii. But people don't remember those things. Ten days later they're mad at you for not giving them enough per diem. That's just the way it is. He's the boss.

He never listened to Coleman Hawkins and those older guys. Early Coltrane, that's as far back as he can go. He never learned the old standard songs either, just started off with the Ice Capades in Seatlle and then his own things. If you gave him a page with chords on it, he couldn't play a note. He watches other guys reading all those complicated symbols, he can't imagine how they do it. He guesses he could learn how if he had to but he can do his own stuff in his context better than anybody and he's getting a lot of radio play. He must be doing something right.

He'd like to live more in the present. He envies people who can stop planning who don't think about the future, like about what to do for dinner tonight. That's difficult for him. He's always been one of these achiever-type people. Very motivated. An American dream guy all the way. Push push push. Try try try. Study study study. One of the guys in the band tells him he should stop and smell the roses.

He'd like to come to Europe to live, he wishes he could learn other languages and other cultures instead of being isolated and ignorant. A lot of Americans are ignorant about what goes on in the world. He envies somebody who can speak French. He loves Seattle, though. Seattle's a great town.

Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The Village Voice. Mike Zwerin is the author of several books on jazz and the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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Blaine Nye couldn't have said it better.

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He left out Golf and Jeff Lorber but otherwise this is a perfectly insulting piece of straight up biography.

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I've reviewed two Kenny G releases. One, Silhouette, had its last line removed by a newpaper editor:

"Calling this a jazz record is like hanging a silhouette next to a DaVinci painting and calling both masterpieces."

The other, a scathing review of the ridiculous Classics in the Key of G, was never published by the outlet to which it was submitted. At least I got paid for my work...

If Kenny G were a rapper, he'd be Vanilla Ice, if he were a classical performer, he'd be Liberace (though I'm sure he's straight). He's part of the hairdo music school: Yanni, John Tesh and the like, with nothing to offer.

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well, yes and no - he sucks, but he's really no worse than Najee or a million of those other guys I hear on BET every day -

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Sorry, dude, but Najee can play, as can Gerald Albright. The records suck (Najee's moreso than Albright's), but those are cats who could play "straight ahead" in an at least competent (and in Albright's case, convincing) manner. I really don't think that the same can be said about the G-Man.

Which is ok, I suppose, but as somebody who enjoyed both Grover & George Howard at face value, it bugs me to no end that the market for this type of instrumental pop-jazz/jazz-pop has been defined for so long by one of its least gifted (both technically and expressively) practitioners. Nothing good has come out of that, and nothing good will.

Edited by JSngry

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According to Dr. Herb Wong, Ken Gorelick could play pretty damned well in high school, before he reduced his sound to a pop sound. Whether or not Gerald Albright, Najee or the late George Howard were ever capable jazz musicians is a moot point. The recordings that I've been subjected to have consistently been of no interest, playing the same bland riffs over and over, with equally empty solos.

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yes, that's my point - the records are no worse than Kenny G's - maybe they can play, but if they don't show it than I don't know it -

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Sorry, dude, but Najee can play, as can Gerald Albright. The records suck (Najee's moreso than Albright's), but those are cats who could play "straight ahead" in an at least competent (and in Albright's case, convincing) manner. I really don't think that the same can be said about the G-Man.

Which is ok, I suppose, but as somebody who enjoyed both Grover & George Howard at face value, it bugs me to no end that the market for this type of instrumental pop-jazz/jazz-pop has been defined for so long by one of its least gifted (both technically and expressively) practitioners. Nothing good has come out of that, and nothing good will.

Najee is on a Charles Earland recording, and it's a good record.

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When the G-Man releases something even half as good (relatively speaking) and "from the roots" as Albright's Live at Birdland West, then we can talk about "equivalancy" or some such.

As for Najee, I've heard some passed around 10th generation or so tapes of things that he's recorded for his own pleasure. Again, the cat can play. He ain't no scary motherfucker, but he's no wimp either. Very skilled player with significantly more under his hat than you hear on the records.

As for Herb Wong, hey, whatever. He's both knowledgeable and verbose, at times simultaneously.

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Najee is on a Charles Earland recording, and it's a good record.

Thanks, I had forgotten about that. Yes, it is good. Some people ask where the African-American Jazz Audience has gone, and the truth is that a significant portion of the "Smooth Jazz" audience is the answer to that question. which is why it pisses me off so much that a lame, pencil-dick (soulwise) cat like Kenny G has defined that sound. If cats like Albright and Najee were following Grover's example, we'd be getting our fair share of tastefully produced pop-jazz/jazz-pop music with some semblance of real jazz feeling in the undercurrent. Instead, all we get is unqualified shit as each man tries to out-bland the other in pursuit of G-Dom.

Of course, if the whole notion of pop-jazz/jazz-pop is of no personal interest, then it's all a moot point. But frankly, I think that something like Winelight was a damn good record, "jazz" or not, and I still enjoy pulling it out for those special moments of pulling it out, if you know what I mean, and I'm sure that you do.

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when I watch these guys - Najee, Allbright, etc etc - on BET, which has them on all the time, the music is the corniest crap you can imagaine - and really no better than Kenny G. I certainly believe that, hidden in the closet, late at night, in their undies and shivering in the cold, Najee and Allbright can play like supermen, but unless they invite me over I probably will never REALLY know -

Edited by AllenLowe

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Well, you can always buy, beg, borrow, or steal that live Albright side and that Earland side. Neither one will rock your world (although the Albright has enough genuine groove to at times almost bring to mind a latter-day Bill Doggett vibe), but neither one will imperil your innate love of life either, which is more than you can about the rest of their stuff.

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Zwerin's article is pretty heavy - maybe downright "mean" - but major food for thought. I wonder if he still plays trombone? He's solid on The Magic of Ju-Ju and that Bob Pozar record.

Admittedly, I've never really sat down and thought about Kenny G or any of his associates - I just don't give a shit. But then as Jim said, smooth jazz can be accused of having stolen the audience that previously might have turned on to mainstream jazz fare. So things like that may be fighting words on our end...

Edited by clifford_thornton

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I wonder if he still plays trombone? He's solid on The Magic of Ju-Ju and that Bob Pozar record.

Didn't he play french horn on Birth of the Cool?

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I can't buy into the idea that smooth jazz hi-jacked an audience that might otherwise have warmed to mainstream music. There's just too much distance between those two points. I would argue that those who are attracted to the music of the G's of the world are looking for exactly what they get...white noise...a soundtrack for their lives so as to avoid complete silence, but not something that would actually necessitate their paying close attention. Not exactly the band of brothers I'd visualize making the jump from Gorelick to Grant Green. I mean, how many people do you know who actually like the kind of music we all listen to? Or, how many times have you tried to turn someone onto your favorites only to have them respond with that all time great jazz put down, "how can you listen to that, it's just noise." For whatever reason, 99% of the people in this world are satisfied with music that is mindless and unchallenging. They're not looking for anything else. It's the way they like it.

Up over and out.

Edited by Dave James

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I can't buy into the idea that smooth jazz hi-jacked an audience that might otherwise have warmed to mainstream music. There's just too much distance between those two points. I would argue that those who are attracted to the music of the G's of the world are looking for exactly what they get...white noise...a soundtrack for their lives so as to avoid complete silence, but not something that would actually necessitate their paying close attention. Not exactly the band of brothers I'd visualize making the jump from Gorelick to Grant Green. I mean, how many people do you know who actually like the kind of music we all listen to? Or, how many times have you tried to turn someone onto your favorites only to have them respond with that all time great jazz put down, "how can you listen to that, it's just noise." For whatever reason, 99% of the people in this world are satisfied with music that is mindless and unchallenging. They're not looking for anything else. It's the way they like it.

Up over and out.

Sad but true but I keep trying.

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I wonder if he still plays trombone? He's solid on The Magic of Ju-Ju and that Bob Pozar record.

Didn't he play french horn on Birth of the Cool?

I don't know - I don't have a ref copy of BOTC at the moment.

He caught some shit for playing with Shepp, and Shepp for hiring him, in the late '60s. Those were the days...

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So chris o, a question: don't you think G moves units to those who would have been into Stan Getz or the Three Sounds? I may be wrong about that line of thinking, but it makes sense to me. I mean, I hear your point, but good jazz records have been "easy listening" in the past.

Then again, I list Cecil Taylor's Nefertiti as among my favorite bebop records, so what do I know about "mainstream" tastes...

Edited by clifford_thornton

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I grew up loving Grover, Herbie's Headhunters, all the funk jazz crossover that reached millions of idiots in the 70's. Yes, if you're going to start somewhere you might as well start stupid. That's America. That's "crossover." Except it isn't far from "Headhunters" to "Maiden Voyage" and then into one of Miles great bands, so there was something there. With Kenny G you're Wile E. Coyote trying to run on air after moving off of the Kenny G. butte.

Saw Grover on his Mr. Magic tour which was, you know since Grand Rapids is about a decade behind the rest of the world, like the cover of "On the Corner" come to life: cats dressed to the nines in 70's chic, giant Thomas McAnn shoes, furs or maxi black leather super fly double breasted leather coats, leather brimmed hats, and their women were all feathered up or in shiny mini's. It was great. Went with a drummer. We were both in high school and about the only two NOT fly people in the Aquinas College field house. Grover was a Philly man and though is music was melody based with a beautiful sound it was groovy as hell -- all about rhythm. Kenny doesn't have that part of Grover figured out which is why his music sounds so empty. Grover's recordings would include a Strayhorn number here and there, you know, Passion Flower. Grover had that tradition to play off of whereas, as Zerwin notes, Mr. G. sniffs his nose at the idea of ideas in evolution.

Sanborn still gets traction with me, too, though I'm happy to say it isn't all nostalgia: he's great for a beer party prequil to the orgy dance party. Or just some hard driving rhythm playing. He and Maceo would make a hell of a record together.

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So chris o, a question: don't you think G moves units to those who would have been into Stan Getz or the Three Sounds? I may be wrong about that line of thinking, but it makes sense to me. I mean, I hear your point, but good jazz records have been "easy listening" in the past.

Then again, I list Cecil Taylor's Nefertiti as among my favorite bebop records, so what do I know about "mainstream" tastes...

Clifford that's a tough question to answer maybe they would or maybe Getz and the Three Sounds would have been to "out" for them and they might have felt safer with Pat Boone. I don't think Stan Getz and the Three Sounds were pandering to the lowest common demoninator no doubt they wanted to sell records and they can't be faulted for that but I think they were more concerned about their art then consciously trying to make a safe,homogenized record and IMO that seperates them from the G man.

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None of this matters. Some people think and discover others don't think and accept.

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I wonder if he still plays trombone? He's solid on The Magic of Ju-Ju and that Bob Pozar record.

Didn't he play french horn on Birth of the Cool?

Zwerin played trombone on the nonet's live dates.

My favourite date of his is an album of Kurt Weill songs he did in the 1960s. Eric Dolphy appeared on one side.

He's always a good read.

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...about the only two NOT fly people in the Aquinas College field house...

I find it really hard to believe that ANYONE could be fly in the Aquinas College field house, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. :wacko:;)

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I've reviewed two Kenny G releases. One, Silhouette, had its last line removed by a newpaper editor:

"Calling this a jazz record is like hanging a silhouette next to a DaVinci painting and calling both masterpieces."

:g

Actually, it's more like hanging a Thomas Kinkade next to a DaVinci painting.

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