After about 30 seconds of Kenny G playing a single sustained note on his saxophone as he walks through Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley, the music tips from “Hey, cool trick” to something more surreal. Like the ringing in your ear after a louder concert. Kenny is demonstrating his signature circular breathing (blowing while he inhales). In 1997, he set a world record when he held an E-flat for 45 minutes and 47 seconds. Now, you can hear in the keening something essentially Kenny: his brand pushed toward self-parody, which is then absorbed into the brand.
This April, for the eighth year, Kenny G returns to Jazz Alley for a nine-show run.* It is, of course, a homecoming. Kenneth Bruce Gorelick grew up in Seattle’s Seward Park. After an accounting degree from the University of Washington, he cut his teeth in Cold, Bold, and Together, a staple in the city’s 1970s funk scene. In the late eighties, he blew up as a solo act. By 1994, three weeks after Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York hit number one on Billboard, Kenny’s Miracles: The Holiday Album took the spot for most of December, ceding a week to Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy.
Though he’s one of the most successful musicians ever (48 million records sold in the U.S., with 17 Grammy nominations and one win), you will not—you will never—hear him associated with Seattle like those acts. And that’s odd. Given that monster corporations now define this city more than thrift-store punks, Kenny may actually be the most Seattle musician. He arose coevally with the city’s business giants—and, in diction they’d cherish, in synergy with them. He invested in Starbucks when it had only one store. Miracles was the first CD the company sold. He scooped up Microsoft and Apple shares, befriended Costco founder Jeffrey Brotman. In 2014, he told Reuters he’d made as much off stock trading in the last decade as music.
That’d be an interesting footnote if his music weren’t such a fine mirror for commerce. This is the score of corporate elevators and department store cologne counters, a jazz so smooth it self-erases (in the way you’re meant to hardly notice your Windows operating system). In China, stores play his “Going Home” at close, part of the shopping ritual.
Live, though, he must deliver more. Last year’s Jazz Alley performance, starting with that long-held note, was a circus, in which Kenny played ringmaster and star acrobat. Here, amid candlelit tables and many classic cocktails and ahi poke served in martini glasses, were feats of breath, bongo drumming, and hair product. Here was stage patter: “We’re going to have a lot of sax education,” Kenny said, before explaining his instrument. Here was a tambourine, like a Harlem Globetrotter’s ball, rolled across shoulders. Here was Kenny unleashing runs at the pace of Eddie Van Halen solos, as white-haired couples looked on with profuse glee. If performance is a metaphor for sex, the band’s flaunting of technique—look how long and fast they play!—felt less passionate than pornographic.
Which fits. Kenny is, at root, an industry. At that show, he slung CDs and touted his own line of saxophones, which run up to $4,000. You can also buy a “Saxy Christmas” sweater. Or the Keepin’ It Saxy board game, a two-to-five-player saga with “hectic events that Kenny G must overcome using jazz.” Mostly the mildest of rich man travails: “No Matching Socks” and “No Sax Dreams Last Night.” (No one has gotten more mileage out of a single pun.)
With how much irony should we approach this? On one level, Kenny seems charmingly aware of his place as a bygone sex symbol. In a Funny or Die video, after a character hallucinates Fabio, Kenny (as himself) appears in a cardigan, wailing a solo. Then they go to Starbucks. Last year, on a red carpet, Kenny went fanboy on his equally ringleted doppelganger Weird Al Yankovic: “Put me in one of your spoofs!” Yet when an interviewer asked him about touring with Miles Davis, he brandished the fact as a shield: “That should just shut everybody up about what they want to say about my music. I’m talking about some of the jazz purists.” In 1999, he took Louis Armstrong’s vocal from “What a Wonderful World” and dubbed in his own backing track to unintended Dadaist effect, as if the jazz great were doing karaoke to his own song.
Finally, last year, Kenny found a more appropriate (and living) collaborator—one whose brand equally blurs irony and sincerity. On Valentine’s Day, Kim Kardashian West tweeted a video of Kenny, in a rose-filled room, playing a sweet serenade. Kanye had hired him. Then in October, on the penultimate track of Kanye’s gospel-rap album Jesus Is King, Kenny G popped up for a solo.
Does any of this make sense? Not as a narrative of artistic purity. But under the logic of capitalism—which permits Amazon to sell books critiquing Amazon—it coheres. Kenny is now one of five artists with a Top 40 hit in each of the last four decades. The brand is optimized, a new audience demographic developed. Or as Jay-Z said, over another Kanye beat, “I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man.”
*Update: This article appears in our April issue and was written in February. The shows have since been postponed to October 8–11.