In 1974, Franklin High School student Kenneth Gorelick was asked by mentor and composer James Gardiner to perform a saxophone solo at a Seattle Center Opera House concert.
Gardiner expected Gorelick to improvise a complicated lick to impress the masses. Instead, the young musician held one note for over 10 minutes, the spotlight shining directly on him.
“That was the moment little Kenny Gorelick became the ‘G Man,’” Gardiner said.
Dubbed the “best-selling instrumentalist of all time,” Kenny G’s reputation ranges from sax symbol to blowhard — notoriety that documentarian Penny Lane doesn’t shy away from in her film “Listening to Kenny G,” now streaming on HBO Max as part of the “Music Box” series created by Bill Simmons.
“I don’t think I’m a personality to people; I think I’m a sound,” Kenny G said to the camera, standing on an empty stage.
Yet his sound was near-instantly recognizable to so many, becoming iconic in the 1980s.
Composer of “Songbird,” which sold 5 million copies in the U.S. and reached No. 4 on the “Billboard Hot 100,” Kenny G and his music were cast as the pinnacle of romance to some.
With long, breathy notes, Kenny G’s music was the perfect background for offices, dentist waiting rooms and elevators. Entire radio stations, including Philadelphia’s WJJZ, were designated to Kenny G’s music and the “smooth jazz” genre he helped to popularize.
His long, curly, Ashkenazi locks made Kenny G further recognizable, not only as a musician but as a pop culture star, even as his pop stardom was eclipsed in the 21st century. Appearing on pop artist Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F)” music video and Kanye West’s 2019 album “Jesus is King,” Kenny G earned recognition from younger generations who wouldn’t know to attribute “Silhouette” and “Going Home’’ to the saxophonist.
“Listening to Kenny G” portrays the musician’s rise to stardom as easy — to a fault. Kenny G describes himself as a young musician as “trying to become a white Grover Washington Jr.,” and admitted that he failed, though it helped him discover his own sound.
Though he created his distinct sounds branded as smooth jazz, Kenny G was accused by critics as drawing generously from the wealth of jazz tradition, steeped heavily in Black American culture, without paying homage to the Black thinkers and musicians who paved the way for the genre.
On his early records, Kenny G would be shown as a silhouette with shadows obscuring his white skin, making him appear dark-skinned to market him to a younger Black audience.
“I’ve never really thought about that before,” he said, considering whether his whiteness was a driving factor in his success. “I’m going to say I probably benefited.”
The ease to which Kenny G rose to stardom is his greatest gift and most obvious shortcoming.
Reminiscing with producers while looking at a wall of framed childhood pictures, Kenny G remarks that he was always the happy-go-lucky guy the audience now sees him as in front of the camera. Sure, he would kvetch, he said, but he defines the meaning of the Yiddish word as transient: His anger or frustrations would go as quickly as they came.
Meticulously dressed and with a smile always plastered on, Kenny G attributed his success to his hard work (and, in fairness, to Arista Records former president Clive Davis, who signed him). Practice, he said, is what made him a success at whatever task he was looking to master, claiming success at golf, investing and even parenting.
Kenny G’s confidence and positivity are off-putting at times. For every fan who loved his music is a music scholar who found his records insufferable. Kenny G said that’s just how he makes music.
When allowed to dig deeper, reveal something about his music or his past, Kenny G instead remains neutral and nonoffensive, but not too compelling. In this case, maybe the personality is the same as the sound.
“Listening to Kenny G” allows the titular musician to be his most honest self, but instead, Kenny G comes across as disingenuous at times, despite his self-awareness.
Kenny G doesn’t admit any culpability to his audience or show any sign of struggle, and in the end, it doesn’t do him any favors. Though he wonders why he’s not known for his personality, Kenny G gives the documentary’s audience little insight into who he actually is when he’s not playing the sax.