Born Kenneth Gorelick, c. 1957, in Seattle, WA. Education: Graduated magna cum laude in accounting from the University of Washington. Addresses: Home--Seattle, WA. Record company--Arista Records, 6 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
Soft-spoken saxophonist Kenny G is a lot tougher than either his boyish grin or his mild, atmospheric records would tend to suggest. Ever since the release of the multimillion-selling Duotones in 1986, he has withstood a veritable onslaught of abuse from critics and fellow musicians alike. The heaps of invective flung in Kenny's direction intensified when his follow-up, 1988's Silhouette, went platinum. In fact, critical disparagement seems to run inversely to Kenny's popularity. Kenny himself tries to take it in stride. "I don't think anyone has been exceptionally mean to me," he explained in Entertainment Weekly. "It's the intellectuals who write the reviews. People read these things and think that these are the people who know the most. Maybe I'm a dreamer, but I think the ordinary guy has as much right to say, 'This is a good song' as somebody who is in the music business."
Kenny G is certainly one dreamer whose fantasies have come to life. In little more than a decade he went from being just another backup sax player to selling millions of records worldwide and, following an onstage jam with Bill Clinton, being billed as the U.S. president's favorite artist. In truth, his rapid and seemingly effortless rise to success may be part of the reason critics and musicians come down so hard on him. "I'm lucky," Kenny admitted in the Detroit Free Press. "I remember when Duotones came out, and I had a hit with 'Songbird.' The history of instrumentalists in pop is that you get a big hit and that's the end of it. They're not going to hear from you again. I've been lucky so far that it hasn't happened to me."
It was a combination of luck and musical prowess that landed Kenny his first gig. While still in high school, he was invited to play with R&B singer Barry White's Love Unlimited Orchestra. "They needed a sax player who could read and solo in a soulful style, and I really was the only person in Seattle [Washington] that could do both," Kenny recalled in Down Beat. "It was very funny, because I hadn't played professionally before. I didn't know anything about the business world of playing. They said suit and tie--and everybody knows that means dark suit, dark tie. And I came on with the whole bar mitzvah look--plaid jacket, maroon pants, and maroon tie to match, of course. I was a serious dork. When I showed up, the band could not believe it--here was this little tiny kid. But I did a great job--I even got a standing ovation because I had such a long solo. After that, I was a hero at school!"
Kenny continued to broaden his musical horizons over the next few years, playing with visiting performers such as White and famous pianist Liberace. His first big break came when he was asked to audition for jazz-fusion pioneer Jeff Lorber. Lorber was impressed, and Kenny joined the band--but only after graduating magna cum laude in accounting from the University of Washington, just in case he didn't make it in music. Lorber was Kenny's first and strongest influence. "I ended up playing with him for four years, from '79-82, and I learned so much," he reflected in Down Beat. "I think he was one of the pioneers of fusion--that blend of bebop, funk, and r&b--he had it down. I loved his style. And when you're in a band for four years, you live in that style--you really don't do anything else."
After a while, however, Kenny began to feel that it was time to strike out on his own. His first album, 1982's Kenny G, was produced by Lorber and released by Arista, Lorber's record company. The result was not exactly what Kenny had in mind. "I was a little frustrated, because the record was very much a Jeff Lorber album--it really had Jeff's sound," he revealed in Down Beat. "I'm not faulting him for that. He's a good producer who has strong ideas and he wanted to hear it his way. [But] I had Kashif produce my second album, G Force, and it sold almost 200,000 copies! I'm an r&b guy, and Kashif is an r&b producer, and I liked working with him."
Still, even that situation was less than ideal. "Kashif turned out not to be the right producer for me either," Kenny continued in Down Beat. "He's more of a vocal producer, and he was hearing hit vocal songs and I was hearing instrumentals. The second album we did together didn't do as well." Kenny persevered, however, and with help from Arista released his breakthrough smash, Duotones, in 1986. "I wouldn't have blamed the record company if they had dropped me because it was shaky. But I wanted to do the next record in a certain way, and Arista agreed to try to work it out. So when we made Duotones, we still included some vocal tunes, but I wanted to make sure they fit in with the whole vibe of the record. My main concern was to make an album that people could listen to from top to bottom and like it, because that's what I like about a record."
Kenny was not the only one who liked Duotones. The album was an unequivocal smash hit, with the single "Songbird" shooting up to Number Four on the pop charts. The enormous success of Duotones surprised everyone, including Kenny, who told a Down Beat contributor, "When I wrote 'Songbird,' it wasn't as if I said to myself, 'Okay, it's 1987 and it's time for another instrumental hit.' I wrote the song, I played it, and I thought it was beautiful. I didn't think it was going to be a hit. I wasn't trying to do that."
When Kenny's follow-up albums--1988's Silhouette and 1992's Breathless--set new sales records the world over, the saxophonist realized that his success was not just a fluke. "It's my commitment to put a record out there that is really great and not to release it from a business standpoint," he explained. "It's the thing that makes people successful in life or not successful."
Another aspect of Kenny's success is his ability to reach out to his audience. A highlight of his live performances is when he descends from the stage to walk and play among his many fans. Fellow saxophonist Eric Marienthal of Chick Corea's Elektric Band was quoted in Down Beat as saying: "One thing I thought Kenny G had going for him was that he had a great way of communicating with his audience. It's important to be proficient with your instrument. Also you want to try to communicate with people. Kenny's a master at that. He was able to get that real connection that a lot of musicians aren't as successful at doing." Kenny explained it this way in Down Beat: "Physically walking through the seats, to me that's the best. I like the sound better out there than the sound on the stage. Any time there's a performance, there is a wall separating me and the audience. You can leave it up there or take it down. I like to put myself in the audience's place."
Kenny's innate ability to relate to the nuts and bolts of record promotion has also helped him gain popularity. "The radio stations are not my enemy, and the record company is not my enemy," he explained in Down Beat. "If a record does well, then everybody's happy. Some artists look at the record company as the enemy. I look at it as part of a team." Indeed, his willingness to display his talents in remote locations has made him a dream artist to the business end of the music industry. "Kenny's his own best salesman," stated Heinz Henn, a senior vice-president at Arista's distributor, BMG, in Billboard. "He's just a genuine nice guy, who people warm to."
Kenny G is the embodiment of the musical success story. Dedication, hard work, and a bit of luck have taken him from relative obscurity to international superstardom in little more than a decade. Still, he tries to keep a level head. "I take my music and playing very seriously," he was quoted as saying in Down Beat. "I think it's a great position to be in. I remember the time when I didn't have a gig. It's a dream. I'm waiting for the dream to end, and I hope it doesn't."
by Alan Glenn
Kenny G's Career
Played backup for such musicians as Barry White and Liberace; played with Jeff Lorber Fusion, 1979-82; left to pursue solo career and released self-titled debut album on Arista, 1982; released Duotones, Arista, 1986; has made extensive world tours.
Kenny G's Awards
Grammy Award for best instrumental composition, 1993, for "Forever in Love"; Billboard magazine selected Silhouette as the Number One jazz album of 1988 and named Kenny G the Number One jazz artist of the 1980s.
- Selective Works
- On Arista Records Kenny G, 1982.
- G Force, 1984.
- Gravity, 1985.
- Duotones (includes "Songbird"), 1986.
- Silhouette, 1988.
- Live, 1989.
- Breathless, 1992.
- Miracles: The Holiday Album, 1994.
- Billboard, October 13, 1990; November 26, 1992; June 26, 1993; July 3, 1993; December 10, 1994.
- Detroit Free Press, August 27, 1993.
- Down Beat, January 1988; November 1992.
- Entertainment Weekly, April 2, 1993; November 18, 1994.