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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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