Everyone in Listening to Kenny G acts like they have no idea when they first heard Kenny G. Like it’s a fact of life, that you’ve just heard and accepted the music as a piece of pop ephemera, between things you chose to hear. That’s simply not true for me. I distinctly remember when I first heard Kenny G. It was at a buffet restaurant where the patrons still smoked inside and the air was stale, penetrated only by that sax that spoke loudly and said nothing at all. I still remember peeling off the skin around the chicken I was eating, the bad consistently of the buttered biscuit (a huge glob of butter and no flavor). Most distinctly, I remember that the music didn’t stop, that Kenny G soundtracked the whole thing. It was my first memory of what it was like to eat too much and still go for the dessert (yeah, sure kids should decide their dessert portions… should be illegal now). Everything about the outing was so dated: the buffet; the smoke hanging over the air during a family dinner; the objective of eating just as much as you can; the way the music was as dreary as the food. It was the only way I ever wanted to hear Kenny G. And unfortunately, like everyone else in the documentary, his sexless jazz earwormed its way into every other corporate setting I might remember from the ‘90s.
How does an artist recover from being music to hear at the dentist? Maybe they don’t. Maybe they only exist in that rarefied void of nothingness forever. Maybe they hold that against their audience forever. Why make a documentary about such a musician, anyway? Now, here’s the catch: Penny Lane is an emerging great director of documentaries. Hail Satan? is one of the most interesting works of recent years. Her lens on Kenny G also proves interesting, showcasing a genuine ability to take difficult and alienating subjects and to bridge the gap of understanding, if not to morally solve any of the myriad issues for her viewers. The documentarian films what is true and the audience can make up their own minds. She is, perhaps, more gifted than her subject, in this regard. And her thesis is fundamentally funny: some people hate Kenny G and some people tolerate Kenny G… why?
Is there anything more patently uncool than being Bill Clinton’s favorite musician? An interest in jazz is the most interesting thing about Bill Clinton. Kenny G being Bill Clinton’s favorite is the most damningly boring factoid about Kenny G. The most interesting thing about Kenny G is that he heard real jazz and was moved to play it — “I wanted to become the White Grover Washington Jr.” — a moment where the artist lacks awareness in a documentary where that happens often.
And so, Kenny G, off the back of gorgeous Black jazz traditions, makes music so wholeheartedly disconnected from the continuity of jazz. Kenny G comes from Seattle, the jazz capital of the Pacific Northwest, but lives in a self-professed musical vacuum. Here’s where the listener becomes frustrated. Penny Lane elucidates this dissonance through a series of great interviews. The subjects chime in, “this is not sex, this is masturbation.” “Is Kenny G’s music a weapon of consent, and if so, why?” Where does the guy get off? He once set a Guinness World Record for blowing his sax for a whole 25-minutes. It is the national music of the buffet. Little did Young Calvin know, but I encountered the music at just the right moment, in just the right setting.
Kenny G makes for a curious interview subject. He is always on the verge of thinking something profound but saying something so elementary and simple about his art. There is an internal frustration here, that’s obvious, and possibly personally crushing for Kenny G. Penny Lane is great, because she lets Kenny G talk. She gives him what he’s always been seeking and says he wants: to be someone known not only for his music but as a person that exists outside of corporate playlists. It’s a hard ask that ultimately relies on the documentary to tell the story for him. It does, and it totally resonates.
Can we now take Kenny G seriously? That’s simply not the objective of the piece. His work is parodied so broadly in the media because it plays as an ironic parody itself. Norm MacDonald has a great crack on SNL’s Weekend Update: “Kenny G has a Christmas album out this year. Hey, happy birthday Jesus, hope you like crap.” Simple anti-comedy for anti-music. Is there a better way to sum up something so tangentially weird, and outside intentional cultural osmosis? The documentary cannot help, and doesn’t aim to, resolve the tremendous issue of appropriation of Black art, and how white artists tend to benefit from it commercially. Whatever happens when we listen to Kenny G, commercial, smooth jazz remains the enemy of art.
The damndest thing happened. I chose to listen to Kenny G. After the documentary, I took my dog to the top of the hill. We stopped and looked out over the Seattle skyline (presumably the birthplace of this placeless music), peaking over some fall trees. A constant sheet of light rain — the refreshing kind — danced against us under a small wind. I remembered pulling back the chicken skin in that smoke filled buffet, and my Grandma saying she liked Kenny G. It was in this moment of light serenity, that I decided I’m glad someone liked it. And that it didn’t have to be me. My dog took the biggest dump of his life and it all seemed right, just a giant turd, mocking this moment of calm serenity. That’s Kenny G.