You know him as nothing but a ‘G’ thang, but he also happens to be a pilot, golfer, stock-picker and, well, huge in China. Smooth-jazz maestro Kenny G has returned with the bossa nova-themed Brazilian Nights, his first studio album since 2010’s Heart and Soul. Can the long-locked saxophonist who has sold 75 million albums and chilled out another 75 million dental offices also compose punchlines to a few Awkward Questions? Let’s get a reed on the situation.
Why go by the name “Kenny G”? Was “K Gorelick” not moving enough units? The problem was that they didn’t know if it was pronounced like gorilla or garlic—I mean, people were thinking they were going to have to buy some sort of grocery item when they said my name. Kenny G is a lot smoother.
You were an early investor in Starbucks. Was that just to ensure placement of your albums? Absolutely. That’s where you want your record—at the counter at Starbucks. My Christmas album Miracles was actually the very first CD that Starbucks sold…. I think it goes best with a Frappuccino. It’s soothing and also sweet.
You’ve been ranked by Golf Digest as the no. 1 musician golfer. How stiff is the competition in that category? Or is Alice Cooper just not that intimidating in knickers without his makeup? The competition is stiff, but the shaft on my driver is stiffer. And I think Alice Cooper is about a 5 or 6 handicap without makeup—but with makeup, he might give Tiger Woods a scare.
Would you consider coming out with a line of underwear called the Kenny G-String? The truth is I used to sell G-strings at my concerts when I first started. They were for women, not for men. They had my name right in the sweet spot.
Were they a big seller? They weren’t, actually.
In China, your song “Going Home” is piped into public places to let everyone know that it’s time to leave. When you play concerts there, do you screw with the audience sometimes and open with “Going Home”? It has to be the last song. Or it’s the first encore, and you rarely get a second encore after “Going Home.” There’s four people left that might want to hear more—but those would be the rebels.
Given that China doesn’t pay you royalties and you hold a degree in accounting, could you tell us how much they owe you? Oh, let’s see. I think probably $30 or 40 million? It could be five times that much…. With China you just have to enjoy what they have to offer.
Ever just cut out the middle step and perform in an elevator? I was on a cruise ship once and the elevators were clear, and people that were going up and down were watching me play. It was weird for me to play to an elevator as opposed to being played in an elevator.
Using a technique called circular breathing, you set a record for sustaining an E-flat for more than 45 minutes. Why did you stop? At that point it’s just boredom, right? I didn’t want to stop but what happened was that a little bit of spit got in the way of my reed and the mouthpiece and then the sound stuttered. And then the Guinness [World Records] people said, “That’s it! That’s it! You didn’t hold it anymore!” And they called it. I could’ve probably gone another 20, 30 minutes. I want to see if I can get a bunch of companies to sponsor me, to say, “I’ll give him a thousand dollars a minute,” and then see how much money I can make for a charity if I can hold it for an hour. It’s really hard to do for that long. You can’t swallow for an hour. Just think about walking around and not swallowing.
What other records would you like to break? I’d like to physically break the first record I made, because on the cover I look like Richard Simmons jumping off a trampoline mid-air doing some sort of a twist. It’s not a flattering shot.
Miracles is the No. 1 holiday album in the Sound Scan era, selling more than seven million copies. Do you think that turning on your gentle music by the fireplace has stopped more family fights at Christmas, or caused them? I think it’s probably caused them because they’re trying to figure out how a Jewish guy made such a great Christmas album.
Tell us about a secret jam session you had with someone we’d never expect. The more metal, the better. Dave Mustaine from Megadeth. He called me up and wanted me to play a solo on some song he was working on. But he didn’t want it to sound like music, he wanted it to sound like crazy stuff that didn’t have anything to do with notes. When I started playing he said, “No, no—it sounds too musical. You have to make it sound crazy and wild and weird and wrong.” So I did my best to make it sound as wrong as I could, and that was super-strange.
There’s that great pic of you with Miles Davis. What was Miles thinking in that photo? “Who the f— is this white boy?”
True or False: If you play sax within a 100-yard radius of an unshaven man’s face, within 30 seconds it will be as smooth as a baby’s bottom? True. But if I’m more than 100 yards then he just ends up with a five o’clock shadow.
You play a sax solo in the video for Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night (TGIF)” before a mob of party kids carries you off. Where did they take you? Actually, I was trying to get them to take me back to her trailer, but they just threw me in the pool.
You’ve flown your own plane to gigs. Is it called G Force One? It’s a de Havilland Beaver. It’s just called the Beaver. Every time I go to an airport, one of the pilots will get on the intercom and go, “Nice Beaver!” and then I answer, “Thanks! I just had it washed and waxed!”
You’ve jammed with President Clinton and played at his inaugural ball. Did he seem like a sax addict to you? When he pulled the sheet music of my song “Songbird” out of his sax case, I knew he was a saxaholic.
I’m playing a sax solo but I need to make it look 40 percent cooler. What do you recommend? Lean against a graffitied brick wall in alley or just pop on a pair of shades? Put on sunglasses. That adds 5 percent cool. Putting a fan down and letting your hair get blown backward adds another 12.5 percent. Let’s see, so we have 12.5 and 5… that’s 17.5. To add the other 22.5 percent, you have to grow your hair out long, and if it’s not naturally curly, you need to get a perm.
Let’s say we want to style our hair like yours. What are the do’s and don’ts of your do? No fruits and berries. That only works with Eddie Murphy in Coming to America. I just put a little defining cream in there and that’s it. I wash it once every three weeks, tops. Blow-drying is a no-no. That will damage it and then you end up looking like Michael Bolton used to. Then I have to cut my hair and my career would go right down the toilet. If I cut my hair, it’s over.
Is your hair a parody of Weird Al’s, or is it the other way around? It’s got to be the other way around. I was definitely there before he was around, he must have seen my hair and thought it was cool. I mean, I don’t even know if his is natural. Mine’s natural. If his isn’t, then that’s even worse.
How would you characterize your relationship with Warren G? Brotherly, Cordial, Competitive, or who is Warren G?We presented an award together once. We walked on, he read his cues, I read my cues and I don’t think we ever even talked to each other. Too bad, because I think a combination of a little rap and a little smooth sax would be pretty cool. Slip me into one of those tunes.
You’ve sold 75 million records, won a Grammy, and played with everyone from Barry White to Frank Sinatra to Barbra Streisand to Aretha Franklin to Whitney Houston to Weezer. Do you ever sit back, reflect on your career and think, “Wow. I once wrote a song called ‘Virgin Island’?” (silence) Did I write a song called “Virgin Island”?
Yeah! You sure about that?
I’ll double check…[Googles “Virgin Island” and “Kenny G”] Yeah, it’s on Gravity. Here, listen… [Holds phone up to computer speakers playing “Virgin Island.”] Well, Virgin Island is a fictional island that all saxophone players go to after their reeds dry up.
You’ve played the same sax since high school. What do you think is inside it? Angels, magic, and unicorns.
If you wanted to, could you get Yanni or Zamfir on the phone right now? I wouldn’t want to.
Every time you’re charged for something instead of getting comped, do you shout, “Oh my God, they billed Kenny!” The thing about South Park is I’m actually proud I was in an episode where I played a note that made the whole world crap. But then they crapped so much that they all died, so I was this really bad person. I haven’t seen it happen at any of my concerts. Yet. But I’m trying. I try every night to find the right note.