the subject and the star

Kenny G Is in on the Joke

“I wouldn’t have approached Kenny if I thought he was going to be super-sensitive,” Listening to Kenny G director Penny Lane explains. “It was very clear to me that he doesn’t give a shit.” Photo: HBO

Kenny G gets it. The chart-topping, Grammy-winning, multi-multi-multiplatinum-selling pop saxophonist — who released the most successful instrumental album ever in 1992 and is almost single-handedly responsible for creating the smooth-jazz radio format now inextricably associated with elevators, dentists’ offices, and waiting rooms — knows people hate him. He has read the critical brickbats, the complaints lodged by fellow jazz musicians. (“Kenny G has created a new low point in modern culture,” said guitarist-composer Pat Metheny.) He has watched the comedy routines, even laughed along with cultural curiosities that knocked him off his pedestal and covered him in filth (like the South Park episode in which an animated Kenny G is shown compelling the entire world to simultaneously shit its pants with his music). But Kenny G (né Kenneth Bruce Gorelick) appears unbothered. So unbothered that the corkscrew-curled alto-sax cipher agreed to participate in a documentary spanning four decades of his life with no expectation of controlling or curtailing its narrative.

Directed by Penny Lane (Nuts!, Hail Satan?), the documentary Listening to Kenny G premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and arrived on HBO Max Thursday. It traces his unlikely ascent — the Seattle-born son of a plumbing business owner who grew up loving and aping his musical hero Grover Washington Jr. — to the pinnacle of pop as de facto creator of “wallpaper music” and turns to critics, academics, and DJs to ask a larger question: What makes music good or bad? Kenny G, 65, and Lane spoke to Vulture ahead of the film’s release about why the musician agreed to be the subject of a documentary about artistic taste. “We were trying to figure out if I’m a subject or a star,” Kenny G began our conversation. “We haven’t figured it out yet.”

How did this documentary come about? Penny, Bill Simmons asked you to pitch him?
Penny Lane: When Bill asked me to pitch a new music documentary, at first I was like, I don’t know, man. Tough form. I don’t really like music documentaries very much.

Kenny G: Why don’t you like music documentaries?

PL: Because there’s no conflict in them. So there’s no drama. It’s just like, Here’s a person. People are there just to all say, like, how great they are in the movie.

KG: Did you see the Bee Gees documentary? Why couldn’t we have done one like that? [Both laugh.]

PL: We had this conversation before. I was trying to think of something that would actually have some conflict in it. And so I thought about the conflict about artistic taste and how important our artistic taste is to us. I’m the first to admit that if I love a film and I talked to you and you hated it, I’m mad. I’m not just like, Oh, it’s interesting that you disagree. It’s like, I’m angry. And I almost think of it as a moral problem or something or that I have to convince them that they’re wrong. So I thought that was interesting — that was a source of conflict. And so I was trying to think of a musician who would embody that conflict.

But then I met Kenny and got to know him. So the movie really evolved a lot because he’s more than a vessel for an idea. He’s a person with a career.

Kenny, this film does such a thorough job of contextualizing how you and your music have been misunderstood over the years. But you are the first to say you are not angry at your critics and you’re not angry at the comedians who have taken swings at you. So what was your agenda here?  
KG: I was super-flattered that there was even an idea about it. I told Penny right off the bat that this is never going to see the light of day. “You guys are going to start this thing, and you’re going to find out this was a complete waste of time. There’s nothing here of substance. And you’re going to move on to — I don’t know — Bon Jovi or something.”

PL: I love that your counterexample is Bon Jovi.

KG: And then when I really realized it was going to happen, I just wanted to get across that my work ethic is something that I think has been the real key to my career: the practicing and the dedication. Not that I want anyone to pat me on the back. Just that I always admire somebody that’s put in the hours to get really good at something. And then they make it look easy. So I was hoping Penny would catch that. And of course she did. Now she knows me better than anyone. She knows I’m constantly tweaking, trying to make sure that everything is as good as it can be. I work so hard at stuff. So that was the main thing I wanted to get across.

Penny, let me ask you this: Given Kenny’s overwhelming success, given the sheer ubiquity of his music, he’s not the most sympathetic subject. It’s not like, Let’s celebrate the guy who’s had the diamond multiplatinum smooth-jazz success. How did it occur to you that this is a person who merits a deep-dive investigation?
PL: Well, first I’m going to disagree with your premise. I think that people watch a film about someone like Taylor Swift, and they’re perfectly willing to extend sympathy. I don’t think success is a stumbling block to feel empathy for somebody. But I sort of know what you mean in the sense that maybe someone would think I was making a film that was, I don’t know, apologizing for Kenny or something. But I’ll deal with your second part of the question.

The reason I thought Kenny would be perfect is that he is incredibly successful and popular and people love his music. There is a scene in the film that always makes me cry, where you see a montage of people getting married to his music. I cry every time I watch it. People have ideas about what jazz is and what it should be and what an artist should be or not, and all this stuff seems so fucking besides the point when you see these people all over the world. I mean, with more time and budget, we could have found literally infinite wedding videos to Kenny’s music. If people didn’t love his music then there wouldn’t have been a film. The point was not just to kick someone around for two hours. I knew that there would be a kind of answer to his critics. I knew that from the beginning, even before I met Kenny.

Kenny, a substantial part of this film features negative responses to your music, mean memes, jokes at your expense, critical bashing. Sure, it also shows you practicing for thousands of hours. But is that hard to digest — that emphasis on criticism of you?
KG: Not really. No. Penny has the editing authority to do what she wants. But actually it’s not stuff I haven’t heard.

PL: It’s all stuff he’s heard before and way meaner versions too.

KG: Way meaner versions!

PL: We did not cast the film with assholes who are just there to trash him. We tried to find people who maybe didn’t love his music but had interesting things to say.

KG: I liked your main critic guy at the end who goes, “What’s not to like?” While he’s criticizing me, he’s got a smile on his face. But he’s true to what he believes. So no problem. I’ve heard it so many times before. But I’ve also heard Dizzy Gillespie tell me he liked what I’m doing. Miles Davis himself said he likes what I’m doing. But that critic there wrote this shitty thing about me? Hmmm. Let me think. Who should I rely on? That guy or Miles Davis?

I wondered if your participation was motivated in part by being sick of being a punch line.
KG: No. I mean, did you see the South Park episode? That’s the greatest thing. I am on South Park! Somehow I’m on the radar of those guys. And they made a feature of me where I played the note that makes people immediately crap their pants.

PL: It wasn’t as if I hadn’t done any research into who Kenny is and what his personality is like. I watched interviews with him, and I looked at his social-media channels. Yeah, I wouldn’t have approached Kenny if I thought he was going to be super-sensitive and angry about every criticism that comes his way. It was very clear to me that he doesn’t give a shit. There was an early version of this film that was called Kenny G Gets the Last Laugh or something.

KG: Really? That’s a way better title!

There’s a fascinating moment in the film when Penny asks you about the benefits you reaped as a white artist in a predominantly Black field. And you admit it’s something that never occurred to you. I was hoping you could talk about that a bit — and whether it’s an issue you’ve thought more about subsequent to shooting. 
KG: I thought about it more since I saw the film. But I still go back to the way I’ve always thought about it, which is: There weren’t radio stations just waiting for a white guy to play the sax. Oh, we’ve been waiting for this instrumental that we really wanted to play because we didn’t want to play any Black musicians. I don’t think that was ever the case. What happened was that smooth-jazz radio started almost because of my sound. And now there’s a place for this kind of music.

In early promo shots, Arista Records obscured your racial identity, polarizing the negative so it made it look like you were Black.
PL: There’s a really simple, easy way to say, Well, there’s cultural appropriation. But look at the particulars of a person and their particular career, and there are places where his race was an asset and there are places where it was not. And I thought it was interesting and complicated. Also, looking back on how the world was back then, Kenny was played on what was then called “Black radio.” He was at the top of the Black Music Chart. I was just very jarred by that. Like, Wait. We used to have a Black Music Chart?

KG: I’ve won a couple of Soul Train Music Awards. Very few white guys win Soul Train Music Awards. Very few white guys win Image Awards. Very few white guys get to play at jazz festivals. And I remember being the white guy that was always the white guy in that environment. So that’s why I never really thought about it in the opposite way.

Listening to Kenny G features footage from your first music video, which is so amazing. You are break dancing and you jump up from a backspin straight into a sax solo. Clearly your label made you do it.
KG: That’s one of the most unfortunate things that’s happened to me.

PL: If you want to be an international star at Kenny’s level, you’re probably going to have to do some embarrassing things that you didn’t like at some point along the way.

KG: It was so embarrassing. See, this is what happens when —

PL: — when you’re the subject, not the star!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Kenny G Is in on the Joke