Q&A with Saxophonist Kenny G

On December 2, Kenny G arrives at the Kravis Center for an evening of contemporary jazz hits and festive holiday music. Kenny G (the “G” stands for Gorelick) picked up the saxophone at age 10 and landed his first professional gig in 1976 as a member of Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra. He broke out from behind the music stand to become a thriving solo artist, selling tens of millions of records worldwide. Today, he’s a pop culture icon as famous for his curly locks as he is for his sax skills. Kenny G recently spoke with PBI about his musical style, admired artists, and passion for golf.

Kenny G. (Photo by Chapman Baehler)

PBI: You’re synonymous with the saxophone. Do you collect the instrument?

Kenny G: No, I’m not a collector at all. I have my high school saxophone, my soprano, that I still play. I also have my alto and my tenor, both [of which] I got just out of high school. Those three saxes are the same ones I play everywhere. I do have a couple other saxophones as spares that I found along the way. They presented themselves to me and were of the same era—the 1950s—that my saxophones are from. Also, I have my own saxophone line I created because I thought the design they did back in the ’50s was so good that I wanted to recreate it in a modern way. I sell them at my shows and try to give good prices so that kids can afford them. They’re really great horns.

What did you listen to growing up and how did it influence your style?

I listened a lot to R&B music when I was going to high school. I listened to more jazz when I went to college. I think the two styles of music came together somehow. Anybody who has their own style, there’s nothing conscious about it. It just happens because you have a perspective that feels right to you. Later on, you realize, “Oh, wow, it’s very unique.” But I wasn’t really thinking about it like that in the beginning. I was playing in a way that sounded good to me and felt normal.

If you could collaborate with any musician, dead or alive, who would it be?

Honestly, if I could get Stan Getz to do some music with me I would do it because I could learn a lot from his playing. That would be amazing. If I could get John Coltrane to be standing next to me then I could learn a lot from him, too. So if you’re asking me dead or alive, it’s going to be a duet where I’m going to learn a lot.

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Kenny G. (Photo by Chapman Baehler)

You’re very popular in China, and you’ve talked before about how your song “Going Home” has become an end-of-day anthem across the country. What was your process and inspiration in writing that song and why do you think it resonated so well with an entire country?

As I’m writing my songs and the melodies start to happen, that’s when the feelings come out. When I wrote that song, my mother had recently passed away and I remember just thinking about my Seattle times, because I was down in LA. It just made me think of Seattle, so I thought of the title “Going Home” because it reminded me of where I’m from. It had a heartfelt feeling for me when I wrote it. It’s not tangible, but I feel people connect with these things [and] for whatever reason when the Chinese people first heard it, it must have certainly resonated. They probably took the title a little literally at first and then it caught on. You can’t make these things happen—it has to resonate with people. You can’t force a song on a country. It’s super flattering and I’m always excited to play it. I just know it’s not a song you want to play at the beginning of your set. The first time we played it, we played it in like the middle of a set, and I looked up and I saw people going to the door and I went, “Oh gosh, that was a big mistake.” I’m not saying a lot of people rushed up, but a few people—they just can’t help themselves.

Do you have any pre-performance rituals?

I wouldn’t call it a ritual but it’s more of a discipline. Our shows are usually 7:30 or 8 p.m. On a typical day on the road, I wake up around 9 a.m., have something to eat, and exercise around 11. Then, I’ll probably play my sax in the hotel room for about an hour and then have lunch. I have to eat at 2 p.m. and I eat the same thing every day on the road and it’s not because I like the same food every day, it’s because I know if I eat it I’m not going to get an upset stomach and I will be fine for show. So I eat sushi at 2. That’s what I do. That’s my thing. Sushi at 2. There’s no question about it. What do you want? Sushi. At 2:30, I usually leave the hotel and head for the gig. From like 3 to 5, I’m just practicing and warming up my saxes and doing my thing. Then at 5, we do our sound check until about 6:30. Doors open and I go sign CDs usually before the show. Just a little bit to get a vibe. Maybe surprise people because they didn’t expect it. And then we do our show and I sign CDs afterward.

One of your other hobbies is golf. What appeals to you most about the sport?

Anybody who gets into golf loves golf. It’s just one of those things where it’s up to you to hit a good shot—and you can. Then the same person can hit a really crappy shot minutes later. And then you hit a great shot. It’s just the quest to repeat something and be great at it. It relates to music in that way. The problem is playing a saxophone is a lot easier than playing golf.

You were an early investor in Starbucks. What’s your go-to order?

I like their teas. I’m into drinking tea. And everybody likes Frappuccinos.

What’s one factoid fans would be surprised to learn about you?

I fly an airplane that lands on water. I have a little airplane, it has pontoons on it and I fly it around and land it on lakes all over the country in the middle of nowhere. It’s me and the bears.

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