By Shannon Carlin
In our series First Times we get to know a musician better by finding out about those initial experiences in their life that make them who they are. This time around we’re talking with Kenny G about the first time he met Bill Clinton, cut his hair and realized he was big in China.
Kenny G likes the word “instrumental,” he doesn’t even mind “contemporary instrumental,” but he does not like when people call his music “soft jazz.”
“It’s not a good name,” G—short for Gorelick—tells Radio.com of the moniker his music gets saddled with. “You can just call it instrumental. It’s a good generic word for anything pretty much wordless. You can even say contemporary instrumental, if you want to keep the conventional jazz guys from going crazy.”
To him “smooth jazz” is a totally inappropriate term that has a stink associated with it that he’d prefer to stay away from. “Smooth jazz is a name for music with a lot of mediocre vocals,” he says over the phone from a snowy New York City. “I never really like that kind of music very much myself.”
The 58-year-old saxophonist does like Bossa Nova though—specifically fellow saxophonist Stan Getz’s ballad-filled album, Getz For Lovers—and with his latest album, Brazilian Nights, out now, he’s celebrating Brazil’s music. He admits playing Bossa Nova was a departure for him and he had to give himself a crash course in the style.
“Picture me by a music stand, with paper and a pencil listening to the sounds of the ‘6os, writing down my notes, practicing the different kind of ways to play through these chord changes,” G says. “I just made sure I did my homework before I started to record.”
In honor of his first Bossa Nova record, Radio.com spoke with Kenny G about the other firsts in his life including the first time he met Katy Perry, his first celebrity crush and the first time he knew he was a big thing in China.
First Time You Picked Up a Saxophone
I was 10 years old, I had just got through watching The Ed Sullivan Show and saw somebody playing a sax solo so I rented a saxophone and then when I got the saxophone home I took it out, put it together and that was the first time I actually held one in my hands. I’ve been using the same saxophone since high school, when I bought it, so it’s my original saxophone and I still have it and I’ve got it here in New York. I think there’s some magician magic inside of it, some voodoo or something. I don’t know what’s in there, but there’s something special inside that one.
First Time You Met Bill Clinton
I was in Los Angeles, he was campaigning. He was then Governor Clinton and he was campaigning for his Presidency and he was down at the Sheraton Hotel Downtown and wanted me to come and play with him at one of his fundraisers. So I went down there and I brought my sax down and I was in the room and he walked into the room, nobody else, and he sat down and said hello and I said, ‘Well, you know, Governor, you said you wanted to play with me, but what are we going to play?’ He opens his sax case and takes out sheet music for my song ‘Songbird’ and says, ‘Hey, will this work?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I know that one!’ That was pretty cool, I have to say. [Laughs]
First Award You Ever Won
I think it was trophy for skiing when I was in fourth or fifth grade, you know, when you’re racing, learning how to ski. I’m pretty sure that’s the first trophy that I got that meant anything to me. The Guinness World Record [for the longest note ever recorded] I earned it by doing this crazy thing, my GRAMMY [for Best Instrumental Composition in 1994] was voted on by people. I didn’t do anything more, just did what I always did. I have to say the longest note record I take more pride in because it’s something that I really did.
First Haircut You Ever Got
Honestly, I don’t remember. [Laughs] I never worried about my hair, it was always curly and did what it did so I never thought about it much. It’s an unusual set of curls that happen to be passed down to me from my grandmother. Usually guys don’t have hair like that, so me and Howard Stern are pretty lucky.
First Time You Realized You Were a Star in China
First time I went to China I went on a tour that was sponsored by Budweiser, 20 years or 20 plus years ago, and I remember going down a main street in Shanghai or Beijing and seeing my huge billboard up on the side of this main thoroughfare, and saying, ‘Oh wow, I guess I’m pretty well known here.’ I do know this, when I’m in China I hang out and I hear the Chinese music being played through the systems wherever I am, which could be in the square or at a restaurant, and I realize I actually really like the Chinese melody. Since I like the melodies, I think it’s maybe in my music and becomes a way for them to get in touch with my music, the same way I get in touch with their music.