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Why everyone loves to hate Kenny G, according to the jazz musician himself

Updated December 6, 2021 at 11:50 AM ET

Kenny Gorelick, better known as Kenny G, is a musical hero for legions of fans around the world. Yet, to an equally fervent degree, the smooth jazz icon is also the subject of memes, mockery and more than his share of scathing reviews.

A new HBO documentary, Listening to Kenny G, sets out to explore why the music of one of the best-selling instrumental artists of all time is both revered and reviled by so many.

In it, we get to hear from the man himself. And Kenny G is fully aware of how much his music is hated. But his feelings aren't hurt.

"I don't mind that they say what they say," he says in an interview with NPR's David Folkenflik.

Nevermind the dismay of the dogmatic protectors of traditional, Gorelick says, he's doing his own thing.

"They must think that my music somehow is going to damage the reputation of traditional jazz, which — it shouldn't have any effect on anything," he said. "They have every right to be protective if that's what they want to do. I've got other things to do, which is create and practice."

Director Penny Lane (Our Nixon, Hail Satan?) tells NPR that what started as an idea to capture an impassioned conflict of taste between music critics and fans turned into a film focused more squarely on the man himself.

"At first, I thought about Kenny as more like an object, like a screen that I could project this conflict onto," Lane said. But when she got to know him, she said, "He's so charismatic and interesting that he started taking up more and more of the film, which really was to the benefit of the film in many ways."


The following interview has been condensed and edited. To listen to the audio version, click the link above.

David Folkenflik: Let's start with you, Kenny G. I'm curious, what was your reaction when Penny pitched you this idea?

Gorelick: Well, I love the way that she put it when she pitched it to me. She said this to me, she says, you know, your music is very popular. You've been immensely successful throughout the world, and that makes some people really angry. I'd like to make a movie about that. And I thought, you know what? That's a really good idea, Penny. Let's do it.

And, Penny, we heard your pitch. Why did you want to make the film?

Lane: Well, as Kenny just said, I've always found it very interesting but also funny that Kenny's music inspires such anger in certain people. And I just thought that trying to explore that and answer the question of why that would be would be productive and might be an interesting contribution to music criticism.

What do people not know about Kenneth Gorelick that they might have learned from this film?

Gorelick: They probably don't know, you know, the intimacy of my work ethic and how much I practice and how I think about playing the saxophone. Maybe they learned that I took a lot of risks in my own way at the early part of my career when, you know, really, there was no home for the style of music I was doing, and I was doing the music just from my own heart.

I mean, back in the, you know, mid-'80s we didn't have any of the things we have today — computers, cell phones. So there was no way to find out, like, what music is being done here or there. I basically created my music in my own little space just because — just because it was inside of me.

Why do you think your music is so polarizing to so many people? Not that there are a lot of people in America or in the world who don't say, hey, that's great; it's that there are people who actively seem to dislike it.

Gorelick: You know, there are people in the world that really feel protective over certain things. And there are people that are very protective of traditional jazz and the style of traditional jazz. I play a different style of music.

I'm just playing my instrument the way I play it. I play it differently than other people play it. I write songs that are different. And I do what I do. And everyone's got a right to say what they want to say.

Penny, what do you hope audiences take away from your documentary?

Lane: I think ultimately this film is about how music is so tied deeply to our personal sense of identity and to our social allegiances. And I want people to really think about that — not because I'm trying to change it. I just think, occasionally, it's good to remember that when you attack a particular artist or a work of art, you're sort of attacking the people who love that. You know, you're not doing it on purpose. There's something about music that is just so deeply tied to how we consider who we are and how we consider how other people are.

You really cannot watch this movie and not know how much this guy practices. I mean, whatever you take part in, it's pretty clear to me, Kenny, that you practice even folding your laundry just so, so that everything is precise.

Gorelick: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. And, by the way, I love to practice. So, it's fun for me.

If people somehow get the message that, you know, what's really in my heart is this, and it might take me 20 years to, you know, get accomplished at that thing that I know is the right thing for me, but I'm going to put the time in — if they have the opportunity to do that — maybe the message is stick with what you love. And probably great things are going to happen.

And even if you don't have, let's say, the same kind of commercial success that I've had — which, again, was not my motivation — you're going to be feeling great about your life because you've done what you wanted to do. And that, to me, is the ultimate happiness and peace that you would get in your life if you can do that.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.