Music critics mock Kenny G’s ‘safe sax.’ But a new documentary will change how you see him


(CNN)If the Jazz Police began launching midnight raids against musicians who offended their sensibilities, Kenny G would be at the top of their list.

The 65-year-old saxophone player has been called the best-selling instrumentalist of all time, someone whose songs have formed the sonic backdrop of so many weddings, shopping mall and dental office visits that one music critic said he’s “part of the musical furniture of American culture.”

The Jazz Police — fans and critics who are self-appointed enforcers of jazz purity — have called Kenny G’s music “safe sax” and compared it to takeout Chinese food (“an hour later you’re hungry again”). Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny has dismissed Kenny G’s style as “lame-ass, jive, pseudo bluesy out-of-tune, noodling.”

    But a new documentary film by Penny Lane may lead some of Kenny G’s critics to reconsider.

      Listening to Kenny G,” which premiered this week on HBO Max, offers surprising glimpses into the songs and private life of the skinny, White guy who became the face — and hair — of smooth jazz.

        The film suggests that Kenny G, who just released his first album in six years, is not only unappreciated but a groundbreaking artist who pursues perfection and innovation in his own sweet way.

        The documentary also asks bigger questions outside of music. It explores racial prejudice and the art vs. commerce debate, and offers some lessons on what it takes for someone to be successful in any field.

          What comes through is that Kenny G probably would have been successful at whatever he chose to do. He is relentless striver — practicing his sax at least three hours each day — with a compulsive need to get better at everything, even if it’s just baking an apple pie in his opulent kitchen.

          Many critics have disparaged his music

          Kenny G’s devotion to his craft, though, will probably not impress his critics.

          His music has been described as bland and soporific — like an aural hit of Ambien. It has furnished many Internet memes, and shows like “Saturday Night Live” and “South Park” have made fun of his “Snooze Jazz.”

          Some of the funniest scenes in the documentary come when jazz critics are asked to appraise Kenny G’s music. Many squirm like toddlers at the dentist, with looks of discomfort across their faces as Kenny G standards like “Songbird” play in the background.

          When Ben Ratliff, a well known jazz and pop music critic, was asked what he thought of Kenny G’s music, he struggled to give an assessment.

          “I’m sure I heard of a lot of Kenny G’s music — while waiting for something,” Ratcliff says, referring to the piped-in music he hears in stores or during visits to his bank.

          Another critic, though, cited Kenny G’s massive popularity — he has sold at least 75 million records — as a form of defense.

          “It can’t simply be that millions of people are just stupid and Pat Metheny is the smart one,” says Jason King, a musician and scholar at New York University.

          The center of the documentary, though, is Kenny G himself. His canny deflections of his detractors take the film in unexpected directions.

          Kenny G refrains from labeling his own music. Is it jazz, pop? You tell me, he says. He also dismisses the notion that he deliberately set out to create jazz Muzak that would appeal to the masses.

          “These are songs from my heart,” he says. “This is just the way I hear it. They [critics] think I just decided to play these songs because I knew they would sell well. If only I was that smart.”

          Even so, he created a signature sound

          But the film makes clear, as it traces his rise in the musical world, that Kenny G is a lot smarter than people realize.

          He was born Kenneth Bruce Gorelick in Seattle, Washington, a quiet Jewish kid who was expected to take over his father’s plumbing business one day. But young Kenny became enthralled by the silky music of jazz saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., whose hits like “Just The Two of Us” heralded the 1980s rise of the smooth jazz genre.

          Kenny G’s high school music teacher recalls him as a shy kid with no girlfriend who was “super, super smart.”

          The teacher tells a funny story about Kenny G stealing the show during one of his first live gigs by holding a prolonged note — a signature stage move that would be recognizable to any of his fans today.

          Some of the best scenes show Kenny G’s cockiness. He’s also an outstanding golfer as well as a pilot and a successful investor.

          “That’s a hard lick and I just played it really well,” he says with a self-satisfied smile after an impressive practice run on his soprano sax.

          The film also does a good job explaining why some jazz critics despise him. Many say his music is not jazz.

          Jazz, they say, is about improvisation and vigorous interplay between musicians who are testing musical boundaries. Those qualities don’t describe Kenny G’s music.

          But even some of his critics concede that Kenny G created a new type of instrumental music with massive hits like “Songbird” and “Silhouette.” What’s inarguable is that he has a distinctive sound that’s sold millions of records.

          How many musicians can claim that?

          “I don’t think a lot of people could say they created a new sound, but I did,” he says.

          Some dismiss that sound as “easy listening,” but Kenny G seems nonplussed by the label.

          “When you hear the words, ‘easy listening,’ it almost sounds bad,” he says. “Well, I don’t see anything wrong with something that’s easy to listen to.”

          His music sparks debate about what is authentic jazz

          Jazz purists criticize Kenny G because they don’t think his music reflects any exceptional jazz chops or innovation. They also complain that he’s earned so many millions from his music while many jazz musicians who are much more skilled toil in relative obscurity.

          As the film makes clear, the debate over what constitutes true jazz is as old as jazz itself.

          Louis Armstrong is widely seen as the greatest jazz musician of all time for his virtuoso trumpet playing and singing. But is “What a Wonderful World,” one of his biggest hits, jazz? And if not, does it tarnish his legacy?

          Miles Davis, another jazz legend, was accused of selling out when he went electric on his album “Bitches Brew,” which helped launch jazz fusion music in the 1970s. Yet no one would claim Davis isn’t an authentic jazz artist.

          Besides, there is another purpose that jazz, and all music, serves.

          Music offers people an escape, a way to feel good. Some of the most moving passages in the documentary show Kenny G’s wide appeal. His fans come in all races, age groups and nationalities (he’s huge in China). The film depicts them all blissfully nodding along to his music with the same contented look.

          The great jazz drummer Art Blakely once said that “jazz washes away the dust of everyday life.”

          Kenny G’s music may not fit the classical definition of jazz. And it may put some listeners to sleep.

            But maybe we shouldn’t underestimate a musician who can wash away the dust of everyday life for many listeners who are worn down by living in an increasingly divided world.

            If we go by that standard, Kenny G just might be a maestro.