10 things I learned from Kenny G
Photo: HBO

10 things I learned from Kenny G

Recently I watched Listening to Kenny G, a new documentary about the life, career and music of the world's most popular instrumentalist. Loved by millions, loathed by music critics and jazz aficionados, Kenny G has earned incredible fame and fortune creating music heard mostly in lonely office cubicles and hospital waiting rooms.

I watched to better understand the man behind the sax, the hair, and the schmaltz. Who is this guy? Does he care what his critics say? Does he believe his music is misunderstood? Is he apologetic or perhaps even embarrassed by his success?

fascinating character study. Through interviews, fly-on-the-wall studio sessions, and other candid moments, we learn what makes Kenny G tick. What his day-to-day life is like. What he values, believes, and thinks.

We see him prune and perfect his music in the studio, speak about race and privilege, articulate his role in the history of jazz, and — in one particularly transparent scene — attempt to name other famous jazz musicians pictured in a painting on his own wall (spoiler: he forgets a big one).

The documentary is refreshingly honest and unbiased. It doesn't defend or vilify. It's not a puff piece, nor a hit job. It's simply a candid, behind the scenes look at a musician everyone knows, but knows little about.

After watching the documentary, I wrote down ten things we can all learn from Kenny G:

  1. He creates on his own terms
  2. He doesn't seek acceptance
  3. He competes only with himself
  4. He can always be better
  5. His audience is what matters
  6. He knows what he likes
  7. He knows what his audience likes
  8. He doesn't change
  9. He doesn't apologize
  10. He is happy

The last point is especially important. Some might think, well...of course he's happy! He's sold more than 75 million records, was an early, pre-IPO investor in Starbucks, and continues to tour the world and perform. He's done well for himself.

But imagine for a moment going through life as an artist creating work routinely panned by the media. Your name elicits eye-rolls, jokes even. Peers are dismissive. Even worse, you must field persistent questions about your authenticity, deservedness, and respect (he did, after all, produce a "duet" with the ghost of Louis Armstrong without comprehending how offensive that might be).

And yet none of these things seem to bother Kenny G. Any other artist in his position would likely cave to pressure and produce a "serious" jazz album or two, work with respected collaborators, and attempt to prove to critics and the world the depth of their talent.

But he's never done that. Odds are, he never will. He doesn't need external validation to prove his worth or talent. He can't hear criticism because he's so focused on being the best version of himself and remaining true to the sound he's heard in his head for the past four decades.

Kenny G's sound may not be "genuine" jazz, but it's genuine to him, and that's ultimately what matters.

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