In Defense of Kenny G

Our first piece of 2020: a defense of the great Kenny G.

Kenny Gorelick, aka Kenny G, or “the weasel-toned saxophonist,” as he was referred to by the New York Times. Scott Harrison / Getty

Not too long ago, an off-duty flight attendant discovered that her neighbor on a Tampa to Los Angeles flight was a musical celebrity. Having recently lost her daughter to brain cancer, she suggested an impromptu performance to raise money for cancer research. The musician immediately agreed to the request —he strolled down the aisles with his instrument, passing the hat for donations that quickly doubled the $1,000 goal.

All that would seem innocuous enough. But, as is common on the internet, this anodyne act of charity became the grounds for abuse.

Why this was the case will make sense when the name of the musician is revealed — a figure so universally reviled that to utter a word in his defense is to invite social ostracism: Kenny Gorelick, aka “Kenny G,” or “the weasel-toned saxophonist,” as he was referred to by the New York Times. So toxic are the sounds he emits that an encounter with them constitutes “torture” — the aural equivalent of the United Airlines assault of one of its passengers, which had occurred only a few days before.

At least, such was the perception of the cross section of my left-liberal friends.

And yet, according to reports, the admittedly captive audience seemed to enjoy “the show of a lifetime.” A video shows rows of smiling passengers aiming their phones as Kenny G delivers his impromptu serenade, strolling the aisles of the cabin.

But these expressions of enthusiasm were easily written off. They were, after all, deriving from a “large crowd” whose “basest impulses” manifest “callous disregard for the larger issues . . . a new low point in modern culture — something that we all should be totally embarrassed about — and afraid of.” All this “we ignore . . . at our own peril.”

Kenny G Is Bad “Because I Said So”

These denunciations were drawn from a blog post frequently invoked by Kenny G’s detractors written some years back by guitarist Pat Metheny. For Metheny, Kenny G’s “harmonic and melodic vocabulary . . . limited, mostly to pentatonic based and blues-lick derived patterns,” his “out-of-tune, noodling” suffused with “wrong notes” and “harmonic clams” are all assumed to be data points providing the empirical basis for a unique conclusion: abject musical incompetence. This, presumably, in distinction to canonic jazz icons whose mastery is empirically demonstrable by means of technical musical analysis.

It is at this point that those with professional expertise in music theory need to intervene to note that what is being played as a trump card here is in fact a bluff. Music theory can, of course, identify many significant aspects of musical structure — in other words, why composers chose the notes they did. What it can’t do is predict why a particular piece of music is regarded as good, bad, indifferent, or deplorable.

For those in musical scholarship, this is all familiar ground from Joseph Kerman’s 1980 classic essay “How We Got into Analysis, and How to Get Out.” This appeared at the peak of influence for certain variants of music theory that, in their most extreme form, tended to equate what Kerman called musical criticism (the evaluation of a work’s aesthetic merits) with analysis (the formal description of its structure).

The latter, as would be noted by subsequent generations of musical scholars, was inferred to provide an objective basis for the claims for transcendent greatness of what was being analyzed, namely canonic masterworks deriving from white, European males. Relatively soon, all this would be exposed and criticized as cultural chauvinism at best; white supremacy masquerading as objective scholarship at worst.

Metheny and those who cite him have evidently failed to learn the underlying lesson from the collapse of these defenses of the traditional canon. Their criticisms amount to little more than retrofitting the discredited assumptions of the old musicology to defend a “high/low” distinction. The only difference is that pure jazz now occupies the summit, with the debased form represented by Kenny G and others viewed as fundamentally unserious and beneath discussion. The grounds on which this is claimed is just the same as it was in the past: some analytic characteristic is shown to be present (or absent) in the objective structure of the music, which is taken to be a proxy for aesthetic merit, artistic seriousness of purpose, or the lack of it based on the assumption that there is a necessary connection. While it’s now taken for granted within classical music that matters are not this simple, it has evidently yet to register with those who are now concerned with policing the boundaries of jazz.

For them, Kenny G making use of a “limited vocabulary” constitutes a de facto criticism. It is, however, obvious that this is not the case and that Metheny himself doesn’t believe it is — if any composer can be described as making use of a “limited harmonic and melodic vocabulary,” it is Steve Reich, whose Electric Counterpoint Metheny himself commissioned and presumably admires.

What is the difference between the “minimalism” of Kenny G and that of Reich, other than the fact that one is beloved by New Yorker readers and the other is not? Showing that there is a difference in their minimalisms is not so trivial. But even if we could determine what it is, it would not answer the question of why “we” (those claiming to have acculturated and informed musical tastes) tend to value the music of Reich above Gorelick.

Or, moving closer to Kenny G’s soul/pop/jazz idiom, if a “limited” harmonic and melodic vocabulary is a fatal flaw, what to make of the blues? One certainly finds objectively less chromaticism in B. B. King, Muddy Waters, or Albert Collins than in Richard Wagner or William Byrd. But only a pedant or a chauvinist would suggest that this, or any “limitation” unearthed via a music theoretical analysis, should take precedence over the visceral experience evoked by actually listening to the blues.

A slightly subtler issue is at stake in what Metheny characterizes as Gorelick’s “harmonic clams” or “wrong notes.” What is being referenced is what music theorists would refer to as unresolved, or inappropriately resolved, dissonance. Perhaps Kenny G’s choice of pitches are, in some absolute aesthetic sense, “wrong,” but given there is no agreement on the distinction between consonance and dissonance within a Bach Two Part Invention, there’s no justification for deploying it as a weapon to attack any music or musician, unless doing so is nothing more than a rationalization for preexisting aesthetic bias.

The problematic subject of “wrong notes” is perhaps best exemplified by the work of Eric Dolphy, which consists almost entirely of “wrong notes,” insofar as the term has any meaning. But what makes Dolphy’s wrong notes “right,” as any minimally literate jazz fan knows, and Kenny G’s “wrong”? At this point, the question can only be answered by some variant of “because I said so,” an appeal to a critical consensus with respect to who belongs within the walls of an increasingly sanctified canon and who does not.

The Kenny G Lesson

Music has for centuries functioned to reinforce social hierarchies and define the boundaries of elite class identity. Those exhibiting musical talent in the approved “high” genres have been able to transcend their economic status, gaining access to elite circles, as have those who have shown a full assimilation and deep understanding of the aesthetic and social norms associated with the high arts. Conversely, demonstrating an excessively non-ironic affinity for “low” musical genres and cultural products, however these are defined, is a recipe for exclusion from them.

It is in this sense that a preference for Kenny G, as suggested above, “invites social ostracism” by elites and by the professional managerial classes (PMC) that serve them.

As much of the PMC has descended into a precarity associated with the traditional working class, musical tastes and other markers of class status have assumed disproportionate significance. The pleasure many take in heaping abuse on those appreciating simple pentatonic melodies in high-gloss arrangements is a reflection of the PMC’s increasingly tenuous purchase on social respectability.

But while doing so might provide some psychic consolation, as a political act, it is a dead end. It is clear that we now have little to gain by investing ourselves with the attitudes and ideology of elites. The 1 percent no longer worships or even respects the high arts and high culture. Its sole deity is the commercial marketplace, which it views as the omniscient arbiter of all aspects of life, including the creation and circulation of artistic products.

With the 1 percent’s abandonment of its traditional patronage role, it should be obvious to us more than ever that our prospects are intrinsically connected to the 99 percent. At the same time, it should also be apparent that many of the barriers preventing the kind of multi-class alliance we need are of our own creation. Our reflexive tendency to consign to “a basket of deplorables” those whose tastes, musical and otherwise, and cultural sensibilities fail to comport with the arbitrary dictates of educated elites is one of the most conspicuous of these.

Breaking this unattractive habit doesn’t require that we take any great pleasure in listening to Kenny G. Rather, all that is necessary when interacting with those who do is to remember the old kindergarten adage that one should either say something nice or nothing at all.

If we are to take seriously our goal of developing a social base for a mass left politics, that is a sacrifice we should all be willing to make. Joining the millions of others already floating their cares away to the cool, smooth tones of Kenny Gorelick might not be everyone’s idea of a socialist utopia, but it’s pretty easy to imagine a lot worse.