Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Who defines jazz?

A couple of years ago the alto saxophonist Kenny G caused a stir in the jazz world when he decided to overdub his playing onto a recording of Louis Armstrong performing “What A Wonderful World.”

The brazen act brought a sharp rebuke from jazz guitarist Pat Metheny.

Metheny’s anti-Kenny G essay opened with the following declarative statement - “Kenny G is not a musician.” and pretty much went on from there to slam the pop artist in the most unkind terms:

“...when Kenny G decided that it was appropriate for him to defile the music of the man who is probably the greatest jazz musician that has ever lived by spewing his lame-ass, jive, pseudo bluesy, out-of-tune, noodling, wimped out,....”

OK, I’ll stop there because the rest of the quote gets a bit too profane for this family-oriented blog. But I think the gist of his unhappiness with Mr. G. is fairly clear.

Here Metheny describes his first impression of Kenny G’s playing ability:

“He had major rhythmic problems and his harmonic and melodic vocabulary was extremely limited, mostly to pentatonic based and blues-lick derived patterns, and he basically exhibited only a rudimentary understanding of how to function as a professional soloist in an ensemble...”

“But he did show a knack for connecting to the basest impulses of the large crowd by deploying his two or three most effective licks (holding long notes and playing fast runs - never mind that there were lots of harmonic clams in them) at the key moments to elicit a powerful crowd reaction (over and over again). The other main thing I noticed was that he also, as he does to this day, played horribly out of tune - consistently sharp.”

Now I am not a fan of Kenny G.’s music and I don’t particularly like the “smooth jazz” genre that he inhabits. I can also understand why a lot of jazz purists have lined up behind Metheny to cast aspersions at this affront to their musical tastes. But, nevertheless, I think Metheny’s tirade is just a bit over the top and represents a form of jazz snobbery that I believe has served to keep a large segment of the population away from experiencing jazz music.
The sad fact is that for many listeners, Kenny G may be the first and only example of jazz music they have ever heard. And it is quite possible too that the overdub version of “What a Wonderful World” was there first exposure to the great Louis Armstrong. This is not a bad thing because perhaps it might just encourage them to go out and find more Louis Armstrong music that doesn’t have Kenny G on it.

When I was a kid my first exposure to the Beatles was through the Sgt. Peppers’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie that came out in 1978 starring Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees. Most Beatles fans then and now considered it an abomination, but I loved it. And when I found out that every song in the movie was by one band I was completely blown away and soon became a huge Beatles fan. So one should not knock the form of exposure that a type of music gets because it may just be the only route available to reach some people.


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