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Kenny G: One Bad Dude

If you’re thinking the sax man’s fans are as, er, mild as his music, you’re thinking wrong

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Clearly there are the fans: Kenny G’s seventh and current album, Breathless, has sold 3 million copies so far, putting the sax man in the top 10 of the pop music and R&B charts for the last 18 weeks, and making him the most successful instrumental recording artist of the last two decades. Past albums haven’t fared much worse. Ever since 1986’s Duotones, every G release has gone multiplatinum. The fans — our President being one of the most rabid — will tell you they love his sweetly melodious brand of pop-jazz because the music sounds like the guy playing it: Nice. Safe. Clean. ”It flows with his lifestyle,” says Kenny G’s fan-club manager, Joyce Logan. ”He’s not a drug-abusing, boozing woman chaser. He’s really in tune with the earth.” Critics prefer adjectives like ”banal” or ”gooey” and divide his fans between Jazz 101 students and mall-dwelling marshmallows who prefer the idea of jazz to the actual music.

The G-man’s public persona is, in fact, so relentlessly shiny and happy that he makes Mister Rogers look like Andy Rooney at his crankiest. As a goof, we decide to take Kenny out of his element and conduct our interview on a stroll through one of New York City’s scuzzier neighborhoods. You know, can Mr. Nice Guy handle a tougher room?

Turns out G (for Gorelick) has done time on the streets of the East Village; he lived there briefly while recording his second album, 1984’s G Force. He seems comfortable enough traipsing through the urban decay of Avenue B, though he’s virtually ignored by passersby. I’m beginning to think those critics were right about the mall fans. But when Kenny, sax in hand, obligingly blows a few bars of his current hit, ”Forever in Love,” the stares begin. Finally, a streetwise Robert De Niro type asks, ”He played at da presidential ting, right?” As a matter of fact, fella, he did.

Ever since candidate Bill Clinton named him his favorite musician last year, G, 36, has virtually been the country’s secretary of saxophone, performing at the inaugural celebration and even jamming with Clinton at a Los Angeles fund-raiser last August. Shortly thereafter he received a handwritten note from Clinton saying that he was ”really looking forward to (their) first White House jam session,” says G. ”I like that he goes to McDonald’s and walks around the neighborhoods. I don’t think a person has to put on airs that supposedly coincide with his job description.”

Well, if G likes the common touch, he’ll love our next stop: the Hell’s Angels headquarters on East 3rd Street. The place is a forbidding, run-down building with a ”doorman” to match. Spotting our camera, the fashionably denimed and chained bruiser barks, ”No photographs!” This sends us scurrying down the block, apologizing profusely.

As we press on toward Second Avenue, a food-service truck screeches to a halt. The driver yells, ”Kenny G, wha’s hap’nin’, man?” G beams and waves. ”Yo, Kenny G, where do ya get the good stuff?” shouts a suspicious-looking dude further up the block. Without a trace of guile, the bright-eyed G answers, ”All over the place!” Four seconds later, his eyes suddenly widen with horror. ”Wow!” he exclaims, ”I honestly thought he meant inspiration for melodies, not drugs.”

Okay, so Kenny has become accustomed to surroundings slightly less common. Like his plush, 48-track digital home recording studio in Seattle, where he records most of his music himself. Or his elegant house in Los Angeles, where he and his wife of one year, stage actress Lyndie G. Benson, 29, also spend their time. Places where it’s a little easier to see the world through rose- colored glasses. Because Kenny G of the sunny attitude is obviously not sharing the same space as angrier fellow chart toppers Dr. Dre and Naughty By Nature — although he does listen to them. ”I listen to all the top 20 songs, and top 20 albums, even the rap albums,” says Kenny. ”But I don’t like negative messages. If somebody is putting a lot of ego out there, I don’t like it. When I make my records I want it to be sincere.”

He blames his wealth of positivity on his mother, Evelyn, who died in 1990. ”I got such positive reinforcement for doing things that are right, like delivering good report cards,” says G, who spent his formative years in Seattle with his parents (his father, Moe, is a plumbing-supply-house owner), older brother Brian, and younger sister Paula. ”Success got such a great response from my mother that you can react in one of two ways: One, you can give up as a child, or two, you can go overboard. And that’s what I did. It made me keep practicing.” The result: a perfectionist who graduated magna cum laude with a degree in accounting from the University of Washington, and backed up everyone from Barry White to Liberace as they passed through town. His solos while a member of the Jeff Lorber Fusion caught the attention of Arista Records, with whom he has recorded since 1982. And if anything, the perfectionism has only intensified. ”If I even lose my glasses or make a mistake,” Kenny half jokes, ”I become really disappointed in myself.”

For such a self-described control freak he’s surprisingly relaxed about his harsher critics. Maybe selling 13 million records helps him (unlike his good pal Michael Bolton) tune out the flak. ”I don’t think anyone has been exceptionally mean to me,” Kenny says. ”It’s the intellectuals who write the reviews. People read these things and think that these are the people who know the most. Maybe I’m a dreamer, but I think the ordinary guy has just as much right to say ‘This is a good song’ as somebody who is in the music business.”

As if to prove his point, we turn onto St. Mark’s Place, a busy punk-infested shopping street, and suddenly cries of ”KENNY G!” fill the air. Every hand seems to sprout pen and paper. Every pocket produces an Instamatic. The crowd gathers, a random collection of races and accents.

A sax player named Morgan wants to talk shop. A middle-class couple named Liz and Jose take at least a dozen photos. A very dazed Billy Idol look-alike sits next to G on the steps of a record store and asks, ”Who are you, man?” G politely answers and whips off a few bars of ”Songbird.” The guy smiles and rasps, ”Yeah, I know you, man.” A middle-aged Harlemite named Raymond plants himself in front of the star: ”God gave you a gift. Play me something from your heart.” As G obliges with ”Forever in Love,” Raymond closes his eyes and begins to sway.

A half hour later we escape around the corner to Kenny’s limo. He claims he has no problem accommodating fans. Maybe ballplayers get paid for their signatures these days, but not him. ”You can’t just walk away when somebody recognizes you,” says G. ”You have to take some time out and talk to them. It’s not a waste of time — I just love talking to people. And I don’t do this to sell records. The truth is, I do what I do because I love it.”

If you expect the theme from The Waltons to swell up as he drives off, you’re on the right track. Like that TV family, G is a trifle sappy but undeniably comforting. Even when the Waltons were having a bad day, they always remembered to say thank you.

Which Kenny G does in a thank-you note a week later.

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