John Coltrane versus Kenny G

My previous post began with a story about a performance by John Coltrane. Douglas Groothuis left a comment saying that he used the same story in his book Truth Decay. Before telling the Coltrane story, Groothuis compares the philosophies of Kenny G and John Coltrane.

Kenny G’s philosophy is as shallow as his music.

I just play for myself, the way I want to play, and it comes out sounding like me.

Coltrane’s philosophy, like his music, is more ambitious.

Overall, I think the main thing a musician would like to do is give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things he knows and senses in the universe. That’s what music is to me — it’s just another way of saying this is a big, wonderful universe we live in, that’s been given to us, and here’s an example of just how magnificent and encompassing it is. That’s what I would like to do. I think that’s one of the greatest things you can do in life, and we all try to do it in some way. The musician’s is through his music.

As Groothuis comments, Kenny G only spoke of expressing himself, while Coltrane “expressed a yearning to represent objective realities musically.”

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16 comments on “John Coltrane versus Kenny G
  1. EastwoodDC says:

    I have read (I think it was Winton Marsalis) that, unlike most soft-jazz performers, KG does not even try to understand the form of jazz. The respect he gets from the jazz community reflects this (ie: near zero).

  2. TomF says:

    I’m no fan of Kenny G, but I don’t attach much importance to this. As much fun as it is to slam Kenny G by these contrasting remarks, we should be reluctant to judge any musician by the words they use to explain their philosophy of music (if that phrase even has a meaning). Words are not their chosen mode of expression. Some of the best of them are embarrassingly inarticulate. I’ve read enough cringe-inducing interviews with musicians that I avoid reading them now. That doesn’t diminish their work. Most writers (and physicists!) are mediocre musicians.

  3. Pseudonym says:

    The Kenny G quote reminded me of a similar sentiment from Stanley Kubrick. I forget the exact wording, but he basically said that he made films that he wanted to see.

    The difference, and I might be reading too much into this, is that Kenny G makes the kind of music he wants to play, not the kind he wants to listen to. Kubrick made the kind of films he wanted to see, not the kind he wanted to make.

    I can relate to that. As a software engineer, I write the kind of programs that I want to use, not the kind that I want to write.

  4. someone says:

    No matter what KG says, his haters are going to hate him. At least, KG is being simplistic and straightforward – he is what he is and so is his music. It’s perfectly OK for anyone (Musicians included) to NOT have a profound reasoning for why they are doing what they are doing.

  5. Chase says:

    Re: John’s link, I wonder what Metheny would think about jazz samples in hip-hop. Granted, I haven’t heard any songs that use Louis Armstrong specifically, but there’s a popular Tribe Called Quest song that uses a Freddie Hubbard sample, and I know there’s an album floating around out there with turntable mixes of some other greats (Mingus, Gillespie, etc). Would that fall under the same umbrella as ‘defilement’?

  6. DaveT says:

    Metheny’s confusion (like many people’s) is that the public couldn’t care less how real jazz musicians feel about Kenny G, any more than they care how the Algonquin Roundtable felt about J.R.R. Tolkien, or Jackson Pollock felt about Norman Rockwell. They are evaluating the product on a totally different basis, and it doesn’t do any good to complain that it’s the WRONG basis.

    If Kenny G wants to call himself a jazz musician, other jazz musicians are free to give him the raspberry for that. I happen to agree, both that he’s a horrible musician and that his music would suck even if he weren’t. (And that what he did to “What a Wonderful World” is unforgiveable.) But only jazz musicians and groupies (like me) care; getting “genuine jazz” isn’t a criterion of interest to the people who buy his albums.

    Frankly, I stopped buying Pat Metheny albums a long time ago — not because they weren’t genuine jazz any more, but because I didn’t enjoy listening to them any more. Given a choice between authenticity and enjoyment, I will choose the latter.

    (First time poster here; came for the math, found the rest. Thanks!)

  7. DaveT says:

    Metheny’s confusion (like many people’s) is that the public couldn’t care less how real jazz musicians feel about Kenny G, any more than they care how the Algonquin Roundtable felt about J.R.R. Tolkien, or Jackson Pollock felt about Norman Rockwell. They are evaluating the product on a totally different basis, and it doesn’t do any good to complain that it’s the WRONG basis.

    If Kenny G wants to call himself a jazz musician, other jazz musicians are free to give him the raspberry for that. I happen to agree, both that he’s a horrible musician and that his music would suck even if he weren’t. (And that what he did to “What a Wonderful World” is unforgiveable.) But only jazz musicians and groupies (like me) care; getting “genuine jazz” isn’t a criterion of interest to the people who buy his albums.

    Frankly, I stopped buying Pat Metheny albums a long time ago — not because they weren’t genuine jazz any more, but because I didn’t enjoy listening to them any more. Given a choice between authenticity and enjoyment, I will choose the latter. I don’t enjoy Kenny G, but a lot of people do. Presumably the same people who like Cheez-Whiz.

    (First time poster here; came for the math, found the rest. Thanks!)

  8. tm says:

    “It’s perfectly OK for anyone (Musicians included) to NOT have a profound reasoning for why they are doing what they are doing.”

    Hmm, this would be a good way to avoid your code review, I suppose:

    “Why did you code it that way?”
    “I dunno. I just wanted to be me.”
    “… I mean, what’s your reasoning behind doing it this way?”
    “I don’t need to have profound reasoning…”

  9. Brendan Dowling says:

    If you don’t have a profound reason for doing something, why are you doing it?

  10. someone says:

    >> “Why did you code it that way?”
    { The explanation is simpler than you think and does not have to involve the ‘Universe’ or the big bang theory}

    “Because, it just works! ”

    {Why otherwise would Kenny G be the top-selling instrumental musician?}

    >> If you don’t have a profound reason for doing something, why are you doing it?
    When you are hungry, do you absolutely need a profound reason to eat? Somethings in life are instinctive and natural. What KG implies with quote: His music is what comes to him naturally and he doesn’t try to please the elitist crowd.

  11. tm says:

    >> “Why did you code it that way?”
    >{ The explanation is simpler than you think and does not have to involve the ‘Universe’ or the big bang theory}

    Actually, conceptually, the big bang theory and cosmology/astronomy is not that hard.

    >“Because, it just works! ”

    Then why even have a code review process if this is what it takes to pass it?
    This sort of answer should, at any decent software shop, not be acceptable. There are many examples of code that “works” that fails on important criteria:
    1. Being buggy
    2. Being unmaintainable
    3. Being incorrect

    If you were to submit a behemoth checkin for review for something that should have only taken 10 lines of code at most, I hope you’re not arguing that it’s “elitist” to reject that code.

    Acceptable reasons for having a big kludge would be things like, “this stupid library we’re using doesn’t let us code in the correct fashion, it needs an ugly hack as you can see here…” Or, “I know this is ugly, but we really need to look at refactoring a lot of this code because this is what we’re forced into doing for even minor feature requests…”

    A key difference between the Kenny Gs of the world and Coltranes is that producing something that is not correct is painful at a gut level for Coltranes, and they know why and can explain it, while the Kenny Gs are blissfully unaware of their contributions to the DailyWTF.

    Re: the hunger analogy. Hunger is the signal for a profound reason: Your body is asking to be nourished.

    Re: Elitism. We are all elitists in some regard. There’s something that you care enough about to demand a particular type over others. Be it music, software, luggage, trucks, beer or barbeque, there is something we all hold to be superior and we will not settle for something that “just works”.

    Given the current state of software engineering, I’d encourage a lot more of this so-called “elitism” if we got better software as a result. We can start by weeding out coders who claim “it just works” is a valid rationale to include their code.

  12. Chris says:

    “If you don’t have a profound reason for doing something, why are you doing it?”

    Simple answer: Why not?

    “Hmm, this would be a good way to avoid your code review, I suppose.”

    No, this is a false analogy. Programming is not music and vice versa. Programming is not an art either, but this holds true for Kenny G’s music as well, of course.

  13. Me, myself and Kenny G says:

    There’s one thing I must confess,
    Now, please don’t get upset with me.
    Every day I try my best,
    to play my sax like Kenny G.

    My teacher says my mind’s corrupt,
    he shakes his head and stands in awe
    He said one day I must wake up
    ‘cuz, Kenny G won’t get me far.
    But, I’m so happy, I’m so free,
    my horn has personality.
    People keep on telling me,
    that, I got chops like Kenny G.
    If Kenny ain’t your cup of tea.
    I’ll understand, but won’t agree.
    Call me “copycat” or “wanna be”
    I got chops like Kenny G.

    Ladies love the way I play,
    I’m getting better every day.
    It ain’t no baffling mystery,
    I got chops like Kenny G.
    Circular breathing ain’t no sweat,
    I harmonize with Silhouette.
    Songbird is my favorite song,
    I can play it all day long.

    I play along and have a blast;
    I used to think he played too fast.
    I listen to him all the time,
    I never ever fall behind.
    I can play in every key,
    my tone can match his perfectly.
    His licks and riffs come easily,
    I got chops like Kenny G.

    Ain’t no other way to be,
    I got chops like Kenny G.
    You don’t like it? Fine with me,
    I got chops like Kenny G.

  14. Imogen Xenghizi says:

    I feel that most of the denigrating talk about KennyG is a result of jeolousy. I doubt whether a single person here can play as well as Mr G.

    Kenny G is a great jazz player who knows how to extract warm vibrant and rich tones from his instrument better than most musicians.

  15. I don’t think postmodernism poses a challenge to Christianity; only to Biblical literalism (which wants us to read the Scripture as context-free text).