Breathless: A Kenny G. Tribute 

186 Hampshire Street Inman Sq Cambridge 
 Can this avid high-level amateur golfer
 ever score a ‘hole in one’ with musicians?

In 1966, a 10-year-old boy of Seattle, Washington, by the name of Kenneth Gorelick, took up two hobbies: golf and playing the saxophone. His swing—at golf that is—proved quite successful as it eventually granted him a place on his high school team. His abilities on the saxophone, on the other hand, left something to be desired: he was initially rejected from joining the school jazz band.*

Always the optimist, Kenneth stuck with music and was determined to learn the craft that is jazz saxophone. He soon joined his school’s band after properly mastering the basics, listening to Grover Washington records for inspiration. These late night ‘sessions’ of listening to well-produced R&B jazz-like ballads in his childhood home would prove formative in the quest for his personal sound. This music was also popular with a demographic that would eventually become his fans.

Meanwhile, years of determination on the golf course led Kenneth to be featured in many tournaments. Learning from legends Tiger Woods, Jack Nicholas, and Arnold Palmer, he won Golf Digest’s Best Musician in Golf Award in 2006, and second place in 2008. Many professionals and enthusiasts consider him quite an accomplished player, sporting a +0.6 handicap. Unfortunately, however, praise for this golfer would remain confined to the course. Kenneth Gorelick would have to become Kenny G in order to change the world. His Arme de Choix (Weapon of Choice): the soprano saxophone. His followers: confused pop instrumental music lovers convinced they listen to jazz.   

Pat Metheny on Kenny G:
I can understand why people don't like Jazz, because right now, sometimes you say the word 'Jazz' and people think of some of the worst music on earth. Like, for instance, Kenny G. I mean, there's nothing more stupid than that – let's face it, it's the dumbest music there ever could possibly be in the history of human beings. There could never be music any worse than that. And now people think that that's what Jazz is. That's not what Jazz is, at all!

Kenny G on Kenny G:

I’ve never personally criticized anyone else's music, but I know that the public's real problem is not the music I make but the perception that I play simple music for money only and for the notoriety and to increase my popularity.

According to Einstein, ‘Great sprits have always faced opposition from mediocrities.’ Of course we tend to forget another quote from dear Alfred: ‘Too many of us look upon Americans as dollar chasers. This is a label, even if it is reiterated thoughtlessly by the Americans themselves.’   We need to realize that at the core, all Kenny G wanted was the respect of his peers at the cost of Kenny Gorelick’s reputation. After decades of hard work at bringing his brand of jazz to the listening public, selling over 75 million albums and touring all over the world, one would assume that musicians like fellow ‘fro-haired’ guitarist Pat Methaney would be singing his praises, inspired to reach for similar heights.  Unfortunately, this is far from true. To understand G’s accomplishments, one has to accept him for who he is: one of the most controversial jazz musicians of all time.  But unlike jazz pioneers before him, he has avoided the conventions of pushing technical boundaries and transcending contemporary jazz harmonic tendencies and melodic phrasing. Kenny G set out to create his own musical language by not following these trends, but by playing only with the aesthetics of ‘harmless’ jazz.

Consider the following imaginary scenario: If you described jazz to a musician, without letting him hear it, and then had him perform what he thought jazz was, you would have smooth jazz. But it’s hard to explain the experience of ‘real’ jazz, leading to the common claim that jazz music picks up where words fall short. In the case of smooth jazz, however, words can describe it just fine. It’s not the notes Kenny G plays, but rather the sounds that come out of his horn that people want and love. G’s music consciously downplays the more contemplative and emotional aspects of conventional jazz, arguably rendering a comparison between the two ‘jazzes’ somewhat irrelevant. Perhaps we could better compare Kenny G with… Grover Washington, right?

The great saxophonist  Hoots “the Owl” of Sesame Street fame said once that it is considered wise to ‘put down the ducky if you want to play the saxophone.’ In Kenny G’s case, you might have to ‘put down the golf club if you want to play jazz.’ But with smooth jazz, it might be possible to double-fist both and do just fine. The controversy here is not that Kenny G is failing to pay his dues to the jazz tradition while making quite a pile of money (even though that can get annoying.) The real issue lies with the greater jazz community desiring that he tote his share of the burden of being a contemporary jazz musician. What if he were just to play ‘smooth music?’ Then most of his critics wouldn’t think twice about him! But by using the word ‘jazz’ to classify but not describe his music, it suddenly puts jazz musicians on high alert. They often curse the style and demand that this ‘smooth music’ carry the same meaning and authenticity that ‘jazz music’ has for them. But Kenny G doesn’t play the authentic jazz musician’s definition of authentic jazz music. He plays authentic smooth instrumental music whereby he is authenticating the aesthetics of authentic inauthentic sounding jazz, authentically. In other words, just because McDonald’s offers hamburgers and fries does not mean you should expect them to accidently give you steak frites. (Because secretly that’s what you really wanted, but you didn’t want to spend the money.)

Junk Kitchen will be the caddy that hold up the flag at the ‘hole,’ if you will, of the smooth jazz debate. We will present both sides of the argument with respective role reversals in an attempt to finally achieve what players of both styles of jazz really want: to be at once popular and artistic! Selections from Kenny G’s smooth jazz catalogue, arguably the most hated in all of jazz, will receive the ‘legitimate jazz treatment’ and be performed in honest and meaningful ways. The flipside will be jazz classics performed smooth jazz style. The centerpiece of these two sets will be a live reenactment of Kenny G’s most controversial performance of Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a Wonderful World.’ This show will help you take your own swing at the tee, but be careful, for the wind might change direction as soon as you let fly.

And now, folks, for our witty conclusion: Could the music presented here be a smooth hole in one, or will this jazz music leave you stranded in an emotional sand trap? The golf course is Outpost 186. The hole, Installment #14. Tee time is Sunday June 16th at 8pm. The entrance fee is, as always, a humbly suggested $10.

Kelly Roberge– Sax
Esther Kurtz – Oboe
Eric Hofbauer – Guitar
Paul Jacobs – Piano
Scot Fitzsimmons – Bass
Ben Dicke – Drums

*Typical high school jazz bands are made up of 14 to 17-year-old students who display an intermediate proficiency level on their respective instruments and show a marginal interest for jazz music and/or participating in afterschool activities. Though ‘Jazz’ may be the genre these students are understood to play, often core elements of traditional jazz performance are omitted, namely improvisation, stylistic inflections, and ‘bluesy’ melodic vocabulary. Instead, these HS ‘Jazz Band’ ensembles tend to favor practices such as ‘just being able to play in tune’ and perfecting the art of  ‘everyone coming in at the right time.’ Many of these challenges are addressed by having students perform through-composed parts and solos, sometimes leaving out improvisation altogether à la Gunther Schuller’s Duke Ellington transcriptions (minus Duke Ellington.) Thus, apparently the young Kenneth Gorelick did not display proficiency even at this very rudimentary level.  His failure to meet the requirements of joining such an ensemble is of particular import, as it demonstrates the hill that the young instrumentalist had to climb in order to become the world famous smooth jazz visionary, Kenny G.