I Saw Kenny G Last Night
Smooth Jazz at the Blue Note
He was witty. He was dynamic. He was entertaining. He was… Kenny G? You’re god damned right he was Kenny G.
Last night (October 21), my girlfriend and I took in a late night performance by the smooth jazz legend at the Blue Note jazz club in New York City, and while I initially thought I’d enjoy the show, I had no idea I’d be as impressed by Mr. Gorelick and his funky saxophone jams as I was.
I grew up in a household that was filled with the sounds of jazz music. My dad had a deep music collection and it wasn’t uncommon to find him in the evenings, sitting alone by himself in the living room listening to Charlie Parker or Archie Shepp or John Coltrane or Duke Ellington or Dizzy Gillespie or Pharoah Sanders or Sun Ra. And that’s just scratching the surface. He breathed jazz music— heck, he breathed black music in general— and he had a snobbiness about his tastes. Things that were too commercial, too accessible, too successful were… well, bad. He was a hipster by nature, not by choice.
Twenty years ago, back when Kenny’s 1992 LP Breathless was out (ed note: according to Wikipedia, the most accurate source of knowledge known to man, it has sold 12 million copies. Jesus!), I asked my dad what he thought about who was then the face of jazz music.
“Kenny G?” he mused. “That’s not real jazz.”
And just like that, a young impressionable Paul Cantor— future music producer, future music journalist, future music snob— wrote off Kenny G and his syrupy soprano saxophone forever.
Well, that is until my early twenties, when a musician named Adam I was working with walked into my studio singing Kenny G’s praises.
“Bro, you don’t fuck with Kenny G?” he asked me one late night, seemingly dumbfounded. “That dude is a GOD.”
Maybe he was just hearing something I didn’t hear. I don’t know. The piano was Adam’s main instrument, but he sang and also played the soprano saxophone and the flute. His music, sans my production, often sounded very much like smooth jazz. It was technically good and I could respect it, but it was also listless. It just didn’t really go anywhere, didn’t move me. Kind of like Kenny G.
Still, there’s something to be said for artists who achieve a great deal of notoriety, even though you and everyone you know thinks they suck. It’s like when a song comes on the radio that you can’t stand— maybe it’s by Maroon 5 or someone equally as insufferable— and you’re just sitting there thinking, “Who the fuck actually likes this song?” But someone does. And if you’re in the pop culture business, it’s worth figuring out why. Kenny G is like that.
One day a few months ago my girlfriend told me she was a big Kenny G fan (ed note: She also likes Maroon 5, for what it’s worth), and a conversation ensued where she tried to sell me on why Kenny G was amazing. I agreed that he was amazing— hey, the boy can play— but said I didn’t find his music very enjoyable. Further, I invoked whatever my dad told me all those years ago, and tried to write off Kenny G as a big jazz joke. The Maroon 5 of jazz, if you will.
Then I went home, and in true contrarian fashion looked to see when the heck Kenny G was going to be in New York. Because there is no better feeling in life than willfully indulging in things that you’re predetermined to dislike. Low and behold, I saw that Kenny would be playing at the Blue Note in October, which seemed both crazy and odd. Are things that bad at the Blue Note that they’re booking Kenny G? Again, my prejudice for Mr. G’s brand of smooth jazz was rearing its ugly head.
At that early date the tickets weren’t even available to purchase yet, so I waited and forgot about the concert altogether. Until Saturday, when the topic came up after dinner and I looked to see what the date was for the show again.
“It’s tonight!” I said. “It starts at 9:30.” It was 9:45.
“Can we still go?” my girlfriend asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “Let me call.”
So I called the Blue Note and they told me Kenny G was sold out. There were no walk-up tickets available for that evening, but Sunday’s show was still selling, and they were a whopping $75. Seventy-five dollars for Kenny G! That’s crazy. But my girlfriend really wanted to see him, so we took the plunge and made our plans to go. The excitement was palpable.
When we arrived for the 10:30 show on Sunday night, his last engagement here in NYC, the line was down the block. I hadn’t seen a line that long for a concert in years. I didn’t even realize that many people could fit into the Blue Note. On the way there, we wondered what type of people we’d see at the concert. Because really, who the hell goes to Kenny G concerts? We figured it would be a lot of old people and out-of-towners.
By and large, we were on the money with that assessment. The crowd was a mixed bag of old people, younger jazz fans and tourists. We squeezed in and sat at a table that already sat four people, and they seemed to be speaking in Spanish, mostly. Kenny G is presumably huge overseas.
The show began around 10:45 and before he took the stage he surprised us all by walking out into the crowd. There, he posed for photos and made a few jokes, saxophone in hand. Standing a mere three feet from our table, I thought about how cool it was of him to be that close to his fans. I thought about how exciting it must have been for my girlfriend, what with her being a supporter of his since she was in the 10th grade. Maybe Kenny G didn’t mean anything to me, but he meant something to everyone else. I was struck by how calm and at ease he was, and how he put everyone else at ease. He seemed so happy to be there, and so did everyone else.
Then he made his way up to the front, his piano and bass player to his right, drummer and lead guitarist to his left. He was wearing a black blazer over a tight black shirt, with what appeared to be dark blue jeans. He was thin and wiry and moved around the stage gracefully, blowing effortlessly into his sax and producing pleasant melodies. I’d love to say I knew all the songs he was playing, but lacking intimate knowledge of his extended catalog, I really didn’t. When you’re seeing someone perform whose music you don’t know, it can be hit or miss. They’re almost like a new artist, needing to impress you in that brief window of time that they’re there. Imagine that. Kenny G, needing to wow me. Hilarious.
“I’ve been playing with these guys since high school,” Kenny G said during a break. “We learned to play in public school, in band. I’ve known them for twenty years. When we were kids, our dream was just to be up here doing this for you tonight.”
It was a schlocky moment, and while heartwarming, I questioned its sincerity. Had he really been playing with these same musicians all these years? Maybe. It didn’t really matter, though. One of the biggest parts of show business is just that— the show. The truth is secondary, so long as you believe that they’re being sincere. So many artists make good music, but the great ones are the ones who make you believe in something. They make you feel like they’re not just talking to everyone. They’re talking to you.
Maybe Kenny G, by virtue of being an instrumentalist, can’t really do that with lyrics. So he does it with his saxophone, and then he does it with… himself. He’s not just playing a saxophone up there. He’s playing Kenny G. He’s playing that goofy white guy who plays easy listening songs that you might hear in the background at a doctor’s office.
There was a doctor in the house last night. Kenny G’s doctor, ironically enough. And Kenny cracked self-deprecating jokes about being bullied at school and wanting to get back at everyone. He talked about playing for Bill Clinton, sitting in the Lincoln bedroom, writing notes to his father on White House stationery about how he’d made something of himself.
I didn’t know if Kenny G had ever played at the Blue Note before (I found out later that he did. Thanks Google). But he made it seem like this was his first gig there… ever. Like over his nearly thirty-year career, this was the most important night of all, and that we were the lucky ones experiencing it.
He joked about the Blue Note’s manager, saying that he told Kenny that he could only play there if he performed a “real” jazz song, not the “stuff” he does. And so he did a Stan Getz number, and killed it. It was his way of saying “Oh, you want real jazz? I can do that too.”
At one point he brought the kitchen employees from the Blue Note downstairs so he could play a song for them. Later, he was advertising his own line of saxophones, and said the one he was playing was actually for sale. The catch? The proceeds wouldn’t go in his pocket, but rather, to the waiters and waitresses. Kenny G, a true man of the people.
Finally, around 12:30 the show wound to the close. Kenny had been on stage around 90 minutes and frankly, he’d given people their money’s worth. He played his hits— again, I’m not entirely too sure what their titles are, but I know they’re his popular tunes because I don’t live under a rock— and did his lil’ Kenny G ‘nice guy who made it with his high school buddies’ routine. Kenny seemed happy. Everyone there seemed happy. We left happy.
Walking from the venue, I told my girlfriend I really didn’t know any of the songs he played. I said that when you don’t know an artist’s music, enjoying a show comes down to the vibe, to the moment. Was what was happening on stage doing anything for me? Yes, it was making me feel good. Maybe that was Kenny G’s appeal after all. He was put here on this earth to make people feel good. Even if it was just temporary. I said that people liked to write off Kenny G because his music is soft and easy to listen to. It’s the kind of music that you hear playing in elevators.
“So what,” my girlfriend replied. “His music plays in elevators. What’s really wrong with music playing in elevators?”
I thought hard about that for a moment. I really couldn’t come up with a good answer.