He’s been the butt of so many jokes that he decided to join the party. The first
blockbuster commercial that millions of American viewers of the Super Bowl in
February were treated to was for Audi, and it featured a satirical take on a
luxury prison breakout, where ascot-wearing, chess-playing inmates begin causing
problems. When things begin to get out of hand, the guards call to the prison
Riot Suppressor, played by Grammy-winning saxophonist Kenny G.
to blow on his instrument into an intercom system, and within seconds, the
agitated white-collar types turn into pussycats before plopping to the ground
fast asleep. The not-so-subtle hint: Kenny G’s music works great as a
“It’s hard to explain why I did it,” said Kenny G (Gorelick)
last week on his car phone on a freeway near his Los Angeles home he shares with
his wife, Lyndie, and their two sons.
“You can look at the commercial and
say to me ‘what you’re saying is that your music puts everybody to sleep and
that’s why they’re using it. And that should offend you!’ But I don’t look at it
like that. My music obviously strikes a chord with people – it can be looked at
as soothing, or melancholy, inspirational, memorable, emotional or intimate. So
what they were doing was pretty funny, taking it one step further. Originally,
they were just going to play my music, but I thought if they’re already going to
do that, then I might as well be in it and it will be even
Kenny G was being serious though when he said his music strikes
a chord with people. Despite his self-deprecatory façade, the 54-year-old
musical icon with the trademark long, curly locks is the biggest-selling
instrumental musician of the modern era, with global sales of his adult
contemporary jazz totaling more than 75 million albums.
One of the most
identifiable musicians in the world, Kenny boasts staunchly loyal fans who
readily defend his music against an equally vocal cross section of jazz purists
who slam the sax player for non-improvisatory style and the rock establishment
who label his dulcet tones akin to elevator muzak.
The Israeli contingent
of the Kenny G fan club will likely be out in droves next week when he takes the
stage on April 10 at Hechal Hatarbut in Tel Aviv, his first appearance – and
first visit – to the country. Raised in Seattle’s heavily Jewish South End,
Kenny G grew up as a cultural Jew in the 1960s.
“I’m not sure what you
call a traditional home anymore, but we went to synagogue on the High Holidays
and I had a bar mitzah,” he said.
“I’ve never been to Israel, though, but
I’m going to come with my two teenage sons (Max and Noah). It’s going to be a
boys’ trip and we’re going to do a little touring around the country for a
RATHER THAN religion, it was music that grabbed Kenny G as
a child. Even as the world of rock & roll was exploding around him, and
fellow Seattlelite Jimi Hendrix was expanding the scope of what a guitarist was,
Kenny G fell in love with the saxophone at age 10.
“I saw someone playing
the sax on TV and it looked intriguing to me. Once I started playing, I really
enjoyed it, and it’s a love affair that’s still going on,” he said.
romance wasn’t without its trying times however.
When he tried out for
the high school jazz band, Kenny G didn’t make the cut, but by the time he was a
senior, he was so accomplished at the instrument that his band director made a
special connection for him.
R&B great Barry White was touring the
country, and in those days it was commonplace for established stars to pick up
backing musicians at each locale they appeared in to cut down on the costs of
traveling around with a full touring band.
“He knew the person that was
finding musicians to be in Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra when they came
to play in Seattle. They told him that they were missing one sax player that
could do x, y and z, and he said, ‘there’s this kid in band…’ And that turned
into my first professional appearance,” Kenny G said.
“I was so excited
and nervous – I can’t believe looking back that I did that at age 17. But if I
hadn’t taken that chance, then I probably wouldn’t be talking to you
Kenny G continued to play professionally while attending the
University of Washington in Seattle where he graduated magna cum laude with a
degree in accounting. Jerusalem resident Todd Warnick lived with the musician in
the same dorm and recalled the sound of music always being close by.
used to hear him play a lot in the dorm. There were a number of talented
musicians there and they used to play together, but of course, Kenny stood out
from all of them,” said Warnick, a former international basketball referee who
moved to Israel from Washington in 1979.
“During his freshman year, he
got a gig backing up Sammy Davis Jr. and we were all excited for him. As
Seattlelites, we’ve always been very proud of Kenny.”
At a crossroads
between a career in accounting and music, Kenny G chose… guess what? Music. He
landed a gig with the acclaimed Jeff Lorber Fusion where he honed his chops for
a few years before signing a solo deal in 1982 with Lorber’ Arista Records and
its head honcho Clive Davis.
“It was a huge step to sign that deal with
Clive and Arista. I was really flattered that he wanted to take a chance on the
sax player in the band he was already working with,” said Kenny G.
the same time, it was very difficult to leave Jeff.
He had given me my
first national exposure and I learned so much from him – it was like leaving the
nest, but I felt I needed the freedom to create the music I wanted
BY HIS own admission, however, the early years with Arista were a
bit rocky – even with his second and third albums GForce and Gravity achieving
platinum status – as he struggled with the label over what kind of music he
should be playing.
“They had no idea what to do with me – they kept
trying to put vocals on my albums thinking that was the only way to make an
impact. And I told them that I needed to be able to do my instrumental music and
it took four CDs to get to the point where they actually would get behind what I
wanted to do,” he said.
From there it was a quantum leap, with his fourth
album, Duotones, selling over five million copies in the US alone, and his sixth
album, 1992’s Breathless, becoming the number one best selling instrumental
album of all time, with over 15 million copies sold. Kenny G, his saxophone and
his hair had arrived, and were reaching more ears than any jazz musician ever
had. But according to Kenny G, mass popularity and mainstream success have not
been his primary motivators.
“The success has been satisfying in the
sense that I’m creating the music that works for me – I’m not creating it to
sell records. I wish I was that talented that I could know what people like to
hear and then create it,” he said.
“But I’m just writing my music,
hearing the melodies I hear, and expressing myself. That’s the satisfying part –
that I just do what I do and people seem to enjoy it. I can’t speak for other
jazz artists – hopefully they’re doing the same thing, but my opinion is that if
people try to sell records or manipulate their music to try and reach people and
get exposure, it’s never going to work in the long run. So I never do that – I
try to stay true to what I do and let everything else happen after
Not content to coast on his skills, Kenny G still gets up every
morning and practices for hours, before transitioning to his other great passion
in which he also excels – golf. On a good day, he gets to spend time indulging
in both endeavors, but he’s clear where his priorities fall.
I’ll start practicing my scales at 8 am for three hours, with some breaks for
phone call and emails.
Then, if the weather’s nice and I don’t have
anything pressing, I’ll head out to the golf course,” he said “So usually on a
daily basis I get to do both of my loves, but if I had to pick one or the other,
I’d pick the scales. I really enjoy practicing, it’s not a chore to
Part of my excitement every morning is discovering what I’m going to
learn that day.”
He enjoys the same enthusiasm about his first visit to
Israel next week, preferring to treat it as one of his open-ended musical pieces
that may not have a rigid structure.
“I’m one of those guys who doesn’t
try to have expectations, but just to be open to what happens. Maybe that comes
with being a jazz musician, you improvise a lot. So I don’t know what I’m going
to see or feel in Israel, but I am looking forward to it,” he said.
whether he’ll be tailoring his show with any Israeli or Jewish themes, Kenny G
said he was thinking about performing one of his composition, “The Hannuka
“I’m generally going to play what I always play because that’s why
I was asked to come,” he said.
“But I do have “The Hannuaka Song” which
has an old-style eastern European feel to it. So I may play that as a ‘tribute’
because it’s a Jewish-sounding song – it’s kind of weird to say something sounds
Jewish, but I’ll play it and let the people decide if they like it or not. It
works for me.”