Kenny G is one of those artists you love, hate, or just allow to exist quietly in the background of your life, like so much of the smooth jazz that he’s done over his 40-year career.
HBO’s new documentary unpacks every point of view of the polarizing superstar. Listening to Kenny G charts the unlikely ascension of Kenny Gorelick, a promising young saxophonist in Seattle, Washington; to Kenny G, an international powerhouse with 75 million records sold, making him the best-selling instrumental artist of all time.
Even if you don’t like Kenny G’s take on jazz (and the documentary certainly delves into the varied criticisms in that regard), you can’t deny that he’s an incredibly skilled musician who, even after decades of playing the saxophone, stays in the mindset of a neophyte.
“I make the joke sometimes: I’ve been practicing three hours a day, it’s been about 50 years, and last week I started to see some results,” Kenny G says in the latest episode of Fast Company‘s podcast Creative Conversation. “There’s these really small nuances that [take] it from good to great—and those small nuances are the three hours a day practicing for me.”
Kenny G attributes his success to that relentless pursuit of perfecting his craft, paired with trusting his instincts, both in his art and his career.
By 1986, Kenny G had released three albums under Arista Records, to middling sales. During an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Kenny G was supposed to play his single at the time, “Don’t Make Me Wait for Love,” but at the last minute, he told his band that he was switching to “Songbird,” a song he’d only played at small venues.
That performance (and gut instinct) was the catalyst for his dizzying climb. “Songbird” hit Number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, and the album, Duotones, landed in the Top 10 on the Billboard 200.
“It definitely took a lot of conviction, but honestly at that point I had zero to lose,” Kenny G says of his decision to go rogue on Johnny Carson. “I had not had much of a career. And so I’m thinking, ‘This is my big shot on television. I’m going to play the song I want. And if nothing good happens, well, at least I know I went out trying my best.'”
Pack a parachute when you go rogue
“First of all, you have to get your skill level up to a certain point because you don’t want it all based on luck. You don’t want to go on a show [like Johnny Carson] and go, ‘Well, I’m pretty good at this, and I hope tonight’s the big night that I do really well.’ No, you want to know that you are really great at what you’re about to perform, and then do what you do. Then you know that you probably have a good chance of it being successful. Even if people don’t really like it, you know that you did a great performance of something that meant a lot to you, and you can walk away feeling confident. And that confidence can then lead to maybe another break somewhere along the line if it doesn’t turn out to be that break that night.”
Trust your ideas
“I’m going to trust that something I hear inside [my head] is good. And then I’m going to take that idea that I think is good, and I’m going to try to expand it. I’m going to try to make it better and make it more expressive and grow that idea. That, to me, is creativity. Rather than looking around and seeing what’s popular and trying to emulate something that you think is cool, or that you think people are going to like, it comes from within. You trust yourself, and you grow it from there.”
If you know, you know
“What I give from me [are] my recordings, my performances, that’s what I deliver. What happens after that is entirely up to the individual, and I can’t control that. So if I play a beautiful song that, for me, every nuance of it was something that you should pay close attention to because [it’s] very complicated the way I [move] from the F sharp to the E flat and all these things that you could say, ‘Whoa, that technique was pretty awesome,’ you might listen and go, ‘Whoa, I’m going to put that on in the background for tonight’s dinner with my girlfriend or boyfriend,’ that’s fine. I know what went into it. So that’s where I can feel good about what I’m doing.”