The jazz world is insular — too insular, by far! — but I wish John Halle had more command of the terrain in his broadside, “In Defense of Kenny G.”
Halle is right about a generic starting point, that jazz musicians generally don’t like Kenny G’s music, especially G’s saxophone playing. Halle enjoys quoting Pat Metheny on this topic. However, Halle misses the reason Metheny spoke up. Metheny waded in because Pat was defending Louis Armstrong (a name that doesn’t appear in Halle’s article). Pat’s a nice guy, he wouldn’t have ranted like this if he wasn’t trying to stand for Pops.
Halle gets even further afield by citing European techniques like counterpoint and composers like Steve Reich, Richard Wagner, and William Byrd. None of that stuff will help us assess Kenny G. Indeed, these pointless references are exhibiting the kind of snobbishness Halle is decrying in the first place.
Kenny G is within a genre, a genre called smooth jazz. Before we get a step further down the road to enlightenment we need to define what that is, specifically what smooth jazz saxophone is. Incredibly, the only other saxophonist mentioned in Halle’s article is Eric Dolphy, one of the most original and important avant-gardists of the 1960s.
When talking about Kenny G, Eric Dolphy is not relevant, unless you simply want to scream into the unseeing void.
Here is a partial list of saxophonists that might help you discuss the soulful origin story and continuing smooth context of Kenny G: Earl Bostic, Louis Jordan, Stanley Turrentine, Houston Person, Grover Washington, John Klemmer, Tom Scott, David Sanborn, Michael Brecker, Jay Beckenstein, Dave Koz, Boney James…
Halle doesn’t use the words “rhythm” or “feel” in his article. I suspect the problem many jazz professionals have with Kenny G is simply rhythmic. Of course, this is the side of the music that traces back to Africa, and also the side that is hardest to write about in an academic way. Is there any rhythmic difference between one of David Sanborn’s records and one of Kenny G’s? In my opinion, yes! David Sanborn’s records are way better rhythmically! (Back to Metheny: I feel certain that Pat is standing up for Pops because Louis Armstrong gave us so much in terms of the basic beat of American music.)
All that said, I am actually willing to play on Halle’s team, at least up to a point. There is a way that hardcore jazz fans look down on smooth jazz that can be rather unsophisticated. After all, smooth jazz is far more beloved by the black community than any kind of “avant” or “straight-ahead” jazz, and it’s been that way since the beginning of smooth jazz. There’s genuine diversity in the audience for smooth jazz. Of course, all this connects to R&B as well. At times smooth jazz and R&B share the same audience. Indeed, Kenny G has many black fans! I personally think “modern creative jazz” — or whatever the hell this stuff is called in Brooklyn these days — needs more outreach, more beat, and more black audience.
(There are some who claim that Kenny G is not smooth jazz, but instrumental pop. I’m actually on firmer ground if that is the case, for I naturally approve of various classic pieces of upscale kitsch by Henry Mancini or even Enya — there’s no beef with “Orinoco Flow” in my household — in a way I don’t naturally approve of smooth jazz. However, Kenny G plays with a soulful, bluesy melodic expression and even “improvises,” so I see him more like Sanborn than Yanni, although I certainly understand the “instrumental pop” argument.)
Halle gets closer to what Halle is really trying to talk about when he examines the positive effects of Kenny G’s music on casual listeners. But when trying make sense of bigger political issues involved in that transaction, there’s not much to gain by gathering the opinions of jazz insiders…
To take the Kenny G political-critical discourse further, we need to look at other artistic figures who command an amazing amount of general interest but lack respect from fellow professionals. Offhand I might suggest classical pianist Lang Lang, the late painter Thomas Kinkade, and the “writer of the decade,” Rupi Kaur. An article assessing Kenny G, Lang, Kinkade, and Kaur in the terms of Halle’s socialist beliefs would be entirely valid. Indeed, I would be eager to read Halle on such matters.
But don’t come to me complaining about why I hate on Kenny G — unless you also want to talk about why Grover Washington is so much better than Kenny G.
(I have heard from a few people over the years that Kenny Gorelick is a nice person who doesn’t take himself too seriously, and I admit this clip is very funny.)