In the cold open of the new HBO documentary Listening to Kenny G, director Penny Lane explains that she set out to learn why the lite-jazz/adult-contemporary saxophonist is so polarizing, and why his success — he’s the biggest instrumental artist of all time, with 75 million records sold — downright angers so many haters. The musician, whose full name is Kenneth Bruce Gorelick, tells Yahoo Entertainment that Lane actually warned him that the first 15 minutes of the film, in which various jazz critics, historians, and scholar dismiss his music as “wallpaper,” would be especially brutal viewing for him. But while Kenny says it was “very kind of her to do that,” the caveat was unnecessary. As usual, he took the criticism in self-deprecating stride.
“There's a lot of critics in the movie that voice their opinion, and it's not things that I have been heard for the last 40 years,” Kenny says with a smile and a shrug. “When I saw it, I said, ‘Penny, you don't have to warn me. I've seen this and heard this for decades. And it hasn't changed my opinion about anything yet.’”
Kenny has always seemed at peace with his place in pop-culture history, and he claims there was never a time, not even early in his career, where the flak hurt his feelings. So, what’s the secret to having such a good attitude and Teflon-coated ego?
“Well, the secret is there's a lot of reps of all the good stuff. A lot of reps may makes me makes you strong,” Kenny explains affably. “You know, I got lots of reps of people telling me how good I am — and not just people, but people like Miles Davis and George Benson and great musicians, Stan Getz, saying that they enjoy my music. And these are legitimate jazz people. … I got lots of reps of me playing in clubs, where people are reacting to my music. I got reps of standing ovations. I got reps of playing with Liberace and Sammy Davis Jr. I got reps of doing all sorts of things. So yeah, it got pretty strong. And that way, when somebody says, ‘Hey, I don't really like what you're doing,’ I'm going, ‘And?’ Why would I even care? Is that supposed to change anything that I'm doing? No! Plus, the big rep is inside. I know that I'm doing what I love doing. I have an instinct about the way I want to play my saxophone. So, when I do it the way that I want to, and I release an album and it's the music that I want to release, it's like, ‘This is beautiful.’ [If someone says], ‘Oh, I don't like that song’ — OK, well, I still think this is absolutely great. So, that's the way it is.”
It's interesting that Kenny brings up Miles Davis, because an easily meme-able photograph from the 1980s — in which a young, starry-eyed Kenny looks thrilled to be meeting the jazz legend, while Davis appears to be glaring at him with utter disdain — has been making the viral rounds for more than a decade now. The photo has been circulated mostly by Kenny’s many detractors as supposed evidence that he is not respected on the jazz circuit, but as Kenny points out, “I’m the one that provided that picture! It came from me! I mean, I'm the only one that had that picture. I'm the one that put that out into the world. So, I'm proud of that picture.” And since the story behind the candid shot isn’t included in Listening to Kenny G, he takes a moment during Yahoo Entertainment’s interview to good-naturedly set the record straight.
Oh my goodness. This is Kenny G and Miles Davis. I cannot imagine a better picture than this. I love this so much. pic.twitter.com/t3cumFtr
— Penn Jillette (@pennjillette) November 25, 2011
Miles Davis meeting Kenny G is the ultimate in side-eye pic.twitter.com/ihqxyWoWPd
— Sarah Kendzior (@sarahkendzior) February 10, 2014
“That photo was taken backstage at Lincoln Center when I was [Davis’s] opening act for some concerts that we did not only there, but other places. So, I was his opening act. That picture happened in between two shows. He sticks his head into my room and he goes, ‘Hey, you play that song, it's called “Songbird.”’ I go, ‘Thanks, Miles! Can we do a picture together?’ And then somebody was there, and that was the picture. So, that's just the way Miles looked at me. He wasn't looking at me like he was mad, because he had just given me a compliment about how he liked what I was doing! … I remember that picture, because that's when Miles actually said to me: ‘I like what you are doing.’ Wow. There is a great stamp of approval right there.
“If you look at it without the context, it does look like he's glaring at me. But I think he just glares. … I think that's just his resting glare face, because he was not unhappy to take the picture,” Kenny continues with a chuckle. “He was cool. He's the one that came into my room. I didn't want to bother Miles Davis! I'm just glad that I was his opening act, so I just kind of minded my own business and was doing my thing and playing my set. And he's the one that came in and found me — so awesome.” Kenny adds that his opening set went over well with Davis’s audiences too: “I do my thing, and people seem to enjoy it. It wasn't like his audience was not responsive, just waiting for him.”
While Listening to Kenny G features many other times when Kenny has been the butt of the joke; Kenny notes that his favorite lampoon are by Norm McDonald on Saturday Night Live (“Happy birthday, Jesus — hope you like crap!”) and especially the “brown sound” episode of South Park, which made him “a hero to my kids.” But at some point in the doc, the narrative shifts, and all those eggheaded naysayers start to come around, almost in real time onscreen, and start to understand Kenny’s appeal. “It did feel good. It felt good,” Kenny says of this unexpected plot twist. “It also brought a smile to my face, and the [film festival] audiences also laughed when [the talking-head jazz experts] started to actually put out a few compliments, knowing how strongly they’d felt before in the earlier part of the movie. So yeah, it was nice. I was happy for [those critics] because I felt like, ‘Oh, maybe their lives will get a little bit better if they can embrace my [music]. That's going to make them happy.’”
The film wraps by chronicling the recent Kenny G renaissance, which has included his “In Your Eyes” remix with the Weeknd, his cameo in Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night” music video, his famous Kanye-commissioned Valentine’s Day serenade for Kim Kardashian, and his emergence as an unlikely social media star. So, does Kenny feel like he’s finally “cool” now? Has his time finally arrived? “I am feeling that right now,” he confesses. “I'm loving it. I think it's great. I just think, and I've always thought, if you’re around long enough, quality is always going to rise to the top.”
And so now is perhaps the best moment for the 65-year-old musician to release his first new album in six years, New Standards, a collection of originals inspired by jazz ballads of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Yes, the LP will surely have its haters. After all, the Listening to Kenny G doc goes into the backlash that ensued in 1999 when Kenny paid homage to old-school Louis Armstrong with a posthumous duet (which Pat Metheny decried as “a new low point in modern culture”), and this new album does feature a posthumous duet with Stan Getz. “[Jazz purists are] going to have a field day with this one,” Kenny laughs, clearly still unbothered. But he does feel that “this is going to be the right time” for a backwards-looking project like New Standards.
“I wrote all the songs. They're all new compositions. And I think I played it in a way that I had always envisioned that vibe. I think it's super-romantic. It's beautiful. It's sophisticated. It's very jazzy. It's a more straight-ahead, jazzy vibe than my past records. So, I'm really psyched about it,” says Kenny. “Everything feels good, with the HBO special coming out in December, record coming out in December. It just feels great to me. It feels like I'm kind of back doing what I was doing 30 years ago. And here we go. Let's go. Let's go again. I'm ready. I've got the energy.”
Check out Yahoo Entertainment’s full, extended Kenny G interview below, in which he discusses jamming with Bill Clinton, the Weeknd and Kanye West; being an early Starbucks investor; mastering his famous circular breathing technique, becoming an Instagram sensation, and much more:
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— Video produced by Jen Kucsak, edited by Jimmie Rhee