Saturday, July 26, 2008


Within a four-hour span yesterday, I picked up two seemingly unrelated pieces of information about a couple of saxophone players. First, I learned that the great tenor-man Johnny Griffin passed away yesterday at his home in France. He was 80 years old. Mr. Griffin was born and raised right here in Chicago, but left the United States for Europe in the early 1960s, finding it easier to make a living as a jazz musician over there.

Second, while having a friendly chat with a seven year-old neighbor -- one of my daughter's playmates -- I learned that he listens to the soulless soprano sax stylings of Kenny G when he has a hard time falling asleep at night.

The strange confluence of my learning, within that four-hour window, about both JG's death and KG's role in my neighbor's life got me thinking. I'd wager that everyone in my office has heard of Kenny G and that most of my co-workers are generally familiar with his music. I'd also wager that no more than two of the roughly twenty people in that same office could tell you a single thing about Johnny Griffin. Sad but true.

If you never had the pleasure of seeing him play at the Jazz Showcase during his annual April visits to Chicago, you missed out. The little man had big chops. Check out this clip from a date at The Village Vanguard.

I don't know whether my little neighbor will ever learn about Griff (or Lockjaw, or Jug, or Long Tall Dexter, etc.), but his night-time reliance on the soporific sounds of Kenny G brought to mind Pat Metheny's screed -- from eight or nine years ago -- about the G-Man's decision to dub his own playing over a Louis Armstrong recording ("What A Wonderful World") and release the CD to his adoring public. (If you're a jazz fan who somehow missed this cyber-squabble years ago, click the link above.) Here's a taste of Mr. Metheny's invective:

Kenny G is not a musician I really had much of an opinion about at all until recently. There was not much about the way he played that interested me one way or the other either live or on records.

* * * *

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.

* * * *

Of course, I am aware of what he has played since, the success it has had, and the controversy that has surrounded him among musicians and serious listeners. This controversy seems to be largely fueled by the fact that he sells an enormous amount of records while not being anywhere near a really great player in relation to the standards that have been set on his instrument over the past sixty or seventy years. And honestly, there is no small amount of envy involved from musicians who see one of their fellow players doing so well financially, especially when so many of them who are far superior as improvisors and musicians in general have trouble just making a living. There must be hundreds, if not thousands of sax players around the world who are simply better improvising musicians than Kenny G on his chosen instruments. It would really surprise me if even he disagreed with that statement.

* * * *

But, like I said at the top, this relatively benign view was all "until recently".

Not long ago, Kenny G put out a recording where he overdubbed himself on top of a 30+ year old Louis Armstrong record, the track "What a Wonderful World". With this single move, Kenny G became one of the few people on earth I can say that I really can't use at all - as a man, for his incredible arrogance to even consider such a thing, and as a musician, for presuming to share the stage with the single most important figure in our music.

This type of musical necrophilia - the technique of overdubbing on the preexisting tracks of already dead performers - was weird when Natalie Cole did it with her dad on "Unforgettable" a few years ago, but it was her dad. When Tony Bennett did it with Billie Holiday it was bizarre, but we are talking about two of the greatest singers of the 20th century who were on roughly the same level of artistic accomplishment. When Larry Coryell presumed to overdub himself on top of a Wes Montgomery track, I lost a lot of the respect that I ever had for him - and I have to seriously question the fact that I did have respect for someone who could turn out to have such unbelievably bad taste and be that disrespectful to one of my personal heroes.

But 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, fucked up playing all over one of the great Louis's tracks (even one of his lesser ones), he did something that I would not have imagined possible. He, in one move, through his unbelievably pretentious and calloused musical decision to embark on this most cynical of musical paths, shit all over the graves of all the musicians past and present who have risked their lives by going out there on the road for years and years developing their own music inspired by the standards of grace that Louis Armstrong brought to every single note he played over an amazing lifetime as a musician. By disrespecting Louis, his legacy and by default, everyone who has ever tried to do something positive with improvised music and what it can be, Kenny G has created a new low point in modern culture - something that we all should be totally embarrassed about - and afraid of. We ignore this, "let it slide", at our own peril.

* * * *

There ARE some things that are sacred - and amongst any musician that has ever attempted to address jazz at even the most basic of levels, Louis Armstrong and his music is hallowed ground. To ignore this trespass is to agree that NOTHING any musician has attempted to do with their life in music has any intrinsic value - and I refuse to do that. (I am also amazed that there HASN'T already been an outcry against this among music critics - where ARE they on this?????!?!?!?!, magazines, etc.). Everything I said here is exactly the same as what I would say to Gorelick if I ever saw him in person. and if I ever DO see him anywhere, at any function - he WILL get a piece of my mind and (maybe a guitar wrapped around his head.)
Maybe my little buddy is making the best possible use of Kenny G's music by using it to put himself to sleep.

Rest in peace, Johnny Griffin.

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