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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.