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Kenny G's Wildly Successful Music May Not Be For You. But To Disregard Him Entirely Has Unfair Implications.

Kenny G

Photo: Courtesy of HBO

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Kenny G's Wildly Successful Music May Not Be For You. But To Disregard Him Entirely Has Unfair Implications.

Some jazz fans believe Kenny G's enormously profitable music is a net positive; others, the opposite. But as a new HBO doc illuminates, those raring to disregard him should weigh the costs and benefits for the jazz community.

GRAMMYs/Dec 7, 2021 - 03:47 am

There's a poignant moment in a new Kenny G doc where we get to meet his fans as real people — not as faceless record-sales statistics.

Lined up in front of the Blue Note in New York's Greenwich Village, we see those he touched, who hail from all ages, racial backgrounds and walks of life. Three women — all saxophonists — traveled all the way from Costa Rica to see him. Several sets of parents and adult children say they've been enjoying him together for decades. "He's a really serious, excellent musician," one older woman says pointedly, irate that the wider world would have the gall to mock him.

None of these expressions — however arresting — are bound to sway the jazz aficionados who loathe Kenny G. The points of contention are manifold, from his vanilla sound to his decades-long cultural ubiquity to his astronomical record sales. (At press time, he's sold more than 75 million records.) Neither might they rewire the brains of those conditioned to find him laughably milquetoast via gags on "South Park," "Family Guy" and "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon."

The cover of Kenny G's New Standards.

But as director Penny Lane's recent HBO doc, Listening to Kenny G, expertly lays out, the GRAMMY-winning and 17-times-nominated saxophonist born Kenneth Gorelick never set out to siphon a precious American tradition for fame and cash. ("If only I was that smart!" he cracks.) Rather, as the film shows, he's simply an idiosyncratic, impossibly driven oddball making music that he personally finds beautiful — and it just so happens that millions of people feel the same.

And if you're not one of the scores of people captivated by tunes like "Songbird," "Going Home" and "Silhouette," that's fine. Listening to Kenny G is not an argument for his brilliance as an instrumentalist, nor that he's more gritty and authentic than people think. (He isn't.) But to be so quick to take him to task — as TV outlets, the highly-educated bearers of coarse opinions on Jazz Facebook, and, most vociferously, the brilliant guitarist Pat Metheny — has a troubling ripple effect worth examining.

The first problem? To view him as an existential threat to the genre is questionable — partly because he's not really a "jazz" artist, but also because it implies the world he at least tangentially occupies is a fragile entity requiring constant, vigilant defense. Then, we come to the elephant in the room: elitism. Left unabated, this attitude threatens to make jazz an arid, insular place only catering to the properly-vetted intelligentsia.

Because no matter how many records Kenny G sells, the tradition and language of jazz has held together just fine, thanks — no matter how many "duets" he records with long-dead luminaries like Louis Armstrong and Stan Getz. Metheny may have slammed his work and its implications as "something that we all should be totally embarrassed about — and afraid of," and maybe you agree or disagree. But go ahead and tell that to the people who married, buried and gave birth to his music.

Ever since Charlie Parker helped forge the archetype of the "jazz" musician as an uncompromising intellectual rather than an entertainer, this world has been a place of solemn reverence, brain-breaking study and genuflection to one's elders. (Sidebar: if you want to burst that bubble regarding Bird's perception, consider that he was a goofball who loved country music as much as he was a dead-serious innovator and visionary.)

This new paradigm locked Bird, everyone he birthed and influenced, and all the scholars and students in his cosmology, into a common practice — one that's sophisticated, culturally resonant and incontrovertibly connected to the Black experience. With every successive generation and school of players that builds on the last one's contributions, the lineage grows deeper, more thrilling, more lasting.

So for this curly-haired interloper to take something resembling jazz, butter it up for the world and experience a cash windfall for his trouble understandably rubs musicians the wrong way. As often lifelong practitioners of the craft, they're entitled to their opinions on the man. But the fact that he stirred the pot on such a scale still begs the question: Is Kenny G really jazz?

As the jazz writers among Listening to Kenny G's talking heads explain, Kenny G's music is free of dialogue, either with jazz progenitors or the musicians who accompany him. Nothing he plays is clearly traceable to the Gamaliels of this form — no Duke Ellington, no Coleman Hawkins, no Lester Young, no Sonny Rollins. The deeply uncharitable view would be that he projects a theoretical world without them.

Read More: John Coltrane's Unearthed A Love Supreme: Live In Seattle Is A Revelation. Without This Little-Known Figure, It Wouldn't Exist.

And while the essence of desert-island discs like John Coltrane's A Love SupremeMiles DavisKind of Blue or Dave Brubeck's Time Out is the poetic interplay between ensembles, G's saxophone hangs weightlessly in a soothing, digital soundscape — the other instruments are seemingly unreactive to what he's doing. Also, his songs are mainly structured on prewritten pop melodies, not improvisation — which somewhat disqualifies him from a form predicated on hip, extemporaneous expression within a musical language.

Kenny G. Photo courtesy of HBO.

So, given that Kenny G arguably doesn't fulfill the most basic requirements of jazz, how can he threaten it? How can he be a weak link if he was never part of the chain at all?

"When all these jazz guys get in a tizzy over Kenny G, they need to leave Kenny alone. He's not stealing jazz," the three-time GRAMMY-winning saxophone great Branford Marsalis once told Jazziz. "It's not like some guy says, 'You know, I used to listen to Miles, Trane and Ornette. And then I heard Kenny G, and I never put on another Miles record.' It's a completely different audience."

As G says in the film, "My songs were played on pop radio. They were played on jazz radio. They were played on R&B radio. Am I an R&B artist? Am I a pop artist? Am I a jazz artist? I think, maybe, the answer is yes, just to everything."

Genre aside, some musicians have thoughtfully made the case that G's interpolation of Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" recording (as found on 1999’s Songs of the Key of G) was disrespectful. "My gut reaction is that it's like [early composer/bandleader] Paul Whiteman trying to 'make a lady' out of jazz," pianist Fred Hersch told JazzTimes that year. "I don't think we need Kenny G to be a spokesperson for Louis Armstrong. I think Louis speaks fine for himself."

In the same article, saxophonist Charles McPherson agreed. "None of those people need Kenny G or anybody else to validate them," he said, before adding: "But it's true that his audience probably does not know Armstrong or Getz or Charlie Parker. So if he feels like his audience should be more familiar with those people, I can't see anything aesthetically wrong with that."

Kenny G. Photo courtesy of HBO.

Despite Metheny's hurled accusations of artistic defilement and "musical necrophilia," Kenny's re-do of "What a Wonderful World" never superseded the original in the public consciousness, and Satchmo is still venerated the world over as an improvisatory titan.

It’s a similar case with the mellow tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, who died in 1991 — only for Kenny G to resurrect him on his latest album, New Standards. Therein, he used software-based reconstruction to generate new melodies based on Getz musical thinking — and drew jazz scholars' ire for his trouble.

If new blood is disallowed if it flows through the G-Man, it might be more deleterious to the long-term health of this music than gatekeepers fully grasp.

Once the heat dies down, though, this — like the Armstrong "duet" — will likely be a brief off-ramp in G's career. He couldn’t replace the originals even if he tried, and fans old and new will continue wholly enjoying the timeless artist known worldwide as "The Sound."

Many who hear this uncanny-valley collaboration might never think of Getz again; others who may have never otherwise gone for him might make a beeline for classics like 1964’s Getz/Gilberto. Will purists sneer at them or graciously let them in? Because if new blood is disallowed if it flows through the G-Man, it might be more deleterious to the long-term health of this music than gatekeepers fully grasp.

If the blazered and accredited wouldn't march up to the fans in line at the Blue Note and insult them as tasteless buffoons — taking them to task for enjoying art unapproved by the pedagogy — perhaps thinking twice is in order before castigating Kenny G. Consider how a slight against your favorite artist can feel like an attack on you, then extend that ugly feeling outward to millions.

So, has Kenny G's existence been a net positive or negative for jazz? That can't and won't be litigated in a single article. He continues to pick up new fans every day, whether by appearing with Weezer and Kanye West or on "SpongeBob SquarePants." He remains charming, ageless, a tad self-regarding. His longtime devotees clearly aren't going anywhere; the indifferent will probably remain that way; haters gonna hate.

But Listening to Kenny G kicks up all manner of complicated questions. And given his global reach and sway, those raring to exile him from real jazz — to alienate his fanbase before their journey into the deeper things of this music even begins — would be well-advised to weigh the benefits and costs of such a disassociation.

Virtuosos, Voyagers & Visionaries: 5 Artists Pushing Jazz Into The Future

The Week In Music: RIP Internet
Prince at the BET Awards on June 27

Photo: Michael Caulfield/WireImage.com

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The Week In Music: RIP Internet

Prince's Tech De-Revolution

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

It may be time to cancel your Internet service, unload the laptop and MP3 player, and even do away with the number system entirely. According to Prince, technological Armageddon is upon us. "The Internet's completely over," his purple majesty said. "The Internet's like MTV. At one time MTV was hip and suddenly it became outdated. Anyway, all these computers and digital gadgets are no good. They just fill your head with numbers, and that can't be good for you." Kenny G responded to the artist formerly known as a symbol's declaration with a countering viewpoint, saying if the Internet is dead "then I must be dead, too, 'cause I use it all the time. Maybe I've got a sixth sense, and I only see dead people. I don't know." We think the jury's still out on this one.

In fact, maybe the Internet's really mostly alive. Trent Reznor revealed that he will be scoring director for David Fincher's Facebook-themed film The Social Network. Ironically, Reznor has more than 8,000 Facebook fans, though his band, or former band, Nine Inch Nails, has nearly 600,000 fans. With more than 98 percent of his fans recognizing him more under the NIN moniker, you could say Trent's Facebook presence is, well, a little Faceless, so maybe this score will score him more Facebook love.

Bieber Fever continues to reach astronomical proportions, but just how astronomical? "This s* is huge," wrote former Guns N' Roses bassist Duff McKagan in his regular Seattle Weekly column. McKagan has taken note of Justin Bieber's meteoric rise through the lense of his 12-year-old daughter, Grace. Duff happens to be friends with Bieber's tour manager and will be taking his daughter to a concert in Everett, Wash., on July 13, and there may be a chance "the Bieber will go down on one knee that night and ask her to marry him." Could wedding bells be ringing for Justin and Grace? And will Axl Rose be invited to the wedding?

Two weeks ago, former Beatles Paul McCartney and John Lennon were fortunate enough to make our world-renowned column. This week, it's Ringo Starr, who turned 70 on Wednesday. As part of his celebration, the peace sign-flashing drummer (no, all those peace signs Justin Bieber throws down aren't new) asked everyone around the globe to say "peace and love" at noon on his birthday by any form of communication, a welcome thought for any day of the year. For those of you reticent to jump in, Ringo will go first.

The summer concert season casualty list continues to mount. This past week, the "American Idol" tour was cut short by two weeks, which follows a recent announcement regarding Lilith Fair cancelling 10 concerts. Other artists who have cut short their summer itineraries include Christina Aguilera, Country Throwdown, Eagles, the Go-Go's, Limp Bizkit, Rihanna, and U2. Even the JoBros had to drop 20 dates on their U.S. tour. "If we're missing your city, please know that we love you and we will be back soon," the band said in a statement on their website.

So you've had a bit of a problem settling back into the groove following the big Fourth of July weekend. Get back on track and further reinvigorate your patriotism with Billboard's list of the 10 Worst National Anthem Performances Ever. Remember, this is Billboard's list, so if you actually dug Rosanne Barr's 1990 version at a San Diego Padres game, feel free to comment below.

Katy Perry's "California Gurls," featuring Snoop Dogg, notches its fifth week at No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 this week, while Eminem's "Love The Way You Lie," featuring Rihanna, reclaims the top spot on the iTunes singles chart.

Any news we've missed? Comment below.

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Last Week In Music 

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Multi-Flavored Pop

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 04:22 am

(For a complete list of 53rd GRAMMY Awards nominees, click here.)

It has been a massively successful year in pop with an extensive group of artists, producers and songwriters creating sounds that had music fans singing, dancing and tapping along across the globe.

Over the years, pop has become a very diverse melting pot that incorporates a myriad of different genres, styles and influences. What defines great pop, however, remains unchanged. Pop is marked by elements of classic songwriting, a catchy hook or a genuine sentiment that people everywhere can instantly relate to.

A good example of pop's diverse nature in 2010 is the Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals category. Beyoncé and Lady Gaga are recognized for their solid performance of "Telephone," as are Atlanta genre-buster B.o.B, Eminem and Paramore's Hayley Williams for "Airplanes, Part II." Also nominated are Katy Perry and Snoop Dogg ("California Gurls"), Elton John and Leon Russell ("If It Wasn't For Bad") and Herbie Hancock's phenomenal "Imagine," which includes Pink, India.Arie, Seal, Konono No. 1, Jeff Beck, and Oumou Sangare.

Arguably, females ruled the pop scene this year and the Best Female Pop Vocal Performance category is a proper reflection of that sentiment. Lady Gaga ("Bad Romance"), Katy Perry ("Teenage Dream"), Sara Bareilles ("King Of Anything"), and Norah Jones ("Chasing Pirates") are all up for the coveted GRAMMY statue. Beyoncé's life performance of "Halo" also received a nod. She won this same award last year for the studio version of "Halo."

The Best Male Pop Vocal Performance nominees span an iconic superstar and brand-new talent. A 13-time GRAMMY winner, Michael Jackson received a posthumous GRAMMY nomination for "This Is It," which was featured in his moving concert film Michael Jackson's This Is It. Also nominated are Bruno Mars ("Just The Way You Are"), who scored an impressive seven GRAMMY nods total; Canadian crooner Michael Bublé ("Haven't Met You Yet"); seven-time GRAMMY winner John Mayer ("Half Of My Heart"); and "American Idol" runner-up Adam Lambert, who received his first career nomination for "Whataya Want From Me."

The cast from Fox's hit television show "Glee" impacted the mainstream charts with a slew of covers this year. The cast's memorable remake of Journey's 1981 hit "Don't Stop Believin' (Regionals Version)" is one of the nominees in the Best Pop Performance By A Duo Or A Group With Vocals category. Also nominated are Maroon 5 ("Misery"), Paramore ("The Only Exception"), Sade ("Babyfather"), and Train, who ruled the radio airwaves with "Hey, Soul Sister (Live)."

The legendary Laurie Anderson, who first impacted the scene nearly 30 year ago with her debut album Big Science, is nominated for Best Pop Instrumental Performance for "Flow." Rounding out the group are five-time nominee Jeff Beck ("Nessun Dorma"), bassist Stanley Clarke ("No Mystery"), Gorillaz ("Orchestral Intro"), and the Brian Setzer Orchestra ("Sleepwalk").

Eight-time GRAMMY nominee Kirk Whalum picks up his fifth nomination in the Best Pop Instrumental Album category for his tribute to soul great Donny Hathaway, Everything Is Everything: The Music Of Donny Hathaway. Joining him are Gerald Albright (Pushing The Envelope), Larry Carlton and Tak Matsumoto (Take Your Pick), Kenny G (Heart And Soul), and Doors guitarist Robby Krieger (Singularity).

In the Best Pop Vocal Album category Susan Boyle (I Dreamed A Dream), Lady Gaga (The Fame Monster), John Mayer (Battle Studies), Katy Perry (Teenage Dream), and fresh-faced Canadian newcomer Justin Bieber (My World 2.0) will battle it out.

Tune in to the 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards live from Staples Center in Los Angeles on Sunday, Feb. 13, 2011, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS. For updates and breaking news, please visit The Recording Academy's social networks on Twitter and Facebook.
 

See Lalah Hathaway's new GRAMMYs
Lalah Hathaway

Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

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See Lalah Hathaway's new GRAMMYs

Anderson .Paak, Katy Perry and Tycho also featured in the tweets and Instagram posts we didn't want you to miss

GRAMMYs/May 15, 2017 - 01:36 pm
 

God Provides

A post shared by David and Tamela Mann (@davidandtamela) on

 

Thank Goddess @janellshirtcliff

A post shared by KATY PERRY (@katyperry) on

 

Mood Rip big beautiful toe nail. #freakaccident #ouch #couchpotato

A post shared by Meghan Trainor (@meghan_trainor) on

 

#tbt

A post shared by @ludacris on

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Kenny G To Notorious B.I.G.: Clive Davis Doc Shows Icon's Range

Clive Davis

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Kenny G To Notorious B.I.G.: Clive Davis Doc Shows Icon's Range

"The Soundtrack of Our Lives" documents the life and career of a true industry titan

GRAMMYs/Sep 19, 2017 - 02:08 am

Apple Music has released the first trailer for their exclusive documentary on music industry giant, Clive Davis, aptly entitled "The Soundtrack of Our Lives."

The film leans on testimonials from music greats such as Paul Simon, Aretha Franklin, Puff Daddy, L.A. Reid, Patti Smith, Alicia Keys and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, all offering high praise for the man who launched and shaped the careers of so many. Toward the beginning of the trailer, Franklin calls Davis "the greatest record man of all time."

Davis' close relationship with Whitney Houston is featured heavily in the trailer, a business partnership that yielded seven No. 1 singes. But a much more personal connection is evident in Davis' work.  "Clive really has a weakness for artists," says Patti Smith in the trailer. "It all stems from that authentic love of music,"

An accomplished record man in his own right, GRAMMY-winner L.A. Reid, lauds Davis' range in the trailer, saying, "That range of Kenny G to Notorious B.I.G., that's a distance."

"The Soundtrack To Our Lives" originally premiered at Tribeca Film Festival back in April. On Oct. 3, the film makes its debut on Apple Music with a limited run in theaters starting Sept. 27.

Read More: The Recording Academy, Clive Davis Partner For Pre-GRAMMY Gala