Kenny G: Good Humor Man
The mega-selling musician on his audience, the demise of smooth & his new comedy career
Has Kenny G found a way to maintain his mega-selling streak despite music industry upheavals? “No, I have not found a way,” says the famous—perhaps infamous—saxophonist, 56. “No one has. But I love what I do, so I’m going to keep doing it. The fact that I don’t get paid what I used to, or have the success that I used to, it doesn’t deter me.”
In late June, Concord released Namaste, a collaboration between G and Indian classical musician Rahul Sharma.
The downturn in smooth jazz, G maintains, has to do with the airwaves becoming overloaded with very bland music, made in some cases by second- or third-tier emulators of Kenny G—“people who didn’t deserve to be on the radio,” he charges. It’s ironic given that G himself has been denounced, most famously by Pat Metheny, for personifying blandness or worse. But zillions of listeners for three decades have had a different view.
Asked to pinpoint his audience, G begins in Asia. “In Korea, families come: grandmothers and 6-year-olds and everyone in between. It’s the same in China and maybe a little more adult in Japan. I’ve been to Asia 60 or 70 times in my life. In the States, the audience is older. In the major cities like L.A., Detroit, D.C. or New York, a lot of African-Americans come. I think that’s because my music used to be played on the quiet-storm format in the wee hours of the morning. They played Grover Washington, George Howard, Ronnie Laws and they played me, and I became part of that sound.”
Jeff Lorber, one of G’s first employers, is blunt about whether he had any inkling of the man’s future stardom. “Absolutely none,” he admits. “But a lot of other players just weren’t all that interested in working hard and doing what had to be done to make it in the music business. When I met Kenny it was very different. He immediately understood that things could go somewhere. He had a fantastic attitude about wanting to jump in and get with the program.”
G has a thick skin, a funny streak and a way of undermining his detractors by joining them. In a 2011 Super Bowl ad for Audi, he’s cast as a prison official who uses his horn to put rioting inmates to sleep. “At first they just wanted to use my song for something they’d already filmed, but I said, ‘Look, why don’t you just have me in the commercial as well?’ So I was having laughs with the director and he put the scenario out there. I said, ‘Sure.’ It was just a bunch of ad-libbing—there were a million things that got said that didn’t make it.”
In another video called “Kenny G Loves the Internet,” G lampoons viral online trends and can be seen planking, owling, watching the Honey Badger and so forth. “That was a couple of young directors who approached me to do a story about me. In the process of doing that, they said, ‘Hey, do you want to make a funny video today? It would be really funny if you Tebowed.’ I said, ‘Really, would that be funny?’ ‘Yeah.’ So we filmed it and came up with that thing.”
About being satirized on Saturday Night Live and South Park, G is far from bothered. “That’s where I was blowing the note that makes everybody crap their pants, right?” he says of the South Park bit. “I loved it. I thought it was hilarious.” The recurring SNL skit ‘What Up With That?’ features Fred Armisen in the role of Giuseppe, a saxophonist with distinctly curly, G-like hair. “I said to them, ‘Just have me in the thing! I don’t even have to say anything, just have me be the guy, because he’s playing me anyway. I haven’t gotten them to OK that yet, but I’m trying really hard.”
Originally published in September 2012