in defence of kenny g

by freya bennett

frankie x unidays

We’ve teamed up with the folks at UNiDays to bring you stories about all the stuff you go through when you're studying. Did you know UNiDAYS members can nab a 25 per cent discount on their frankie magazine subscriptions? Well, now you do. Check the bottom of the story for more deets.

in defence of kenny g frankie
Pic from Cavalier Magazine, 1965

Fresh faced and starry eyed, I was 19 when my dream of becoming a jazz star seemed to be on the right track. I had just been accepted into my college of choice, and was busy learning not only the practical rules of music but also the social rules of jazz, namely, what was acceptable listening material and what was absolutely, definitely a crime.

Let me take you back ten years ago to when I had just begun my music studies at uni (my instrument of choice was saxophone – thank you Lisa Simpson). Throughout my degree, I was overwhelmed and anxious, aware that I was studying at a prestigious music school, still surprised that I was accepted into the course in the first place.

The Melbourne jazz scene can be a bit of a pretentious boys club and I definitely didn’t have the maturity to realise that my feelings of not being good enough were more to do with the culture of the jazz scene itself, and less to do with my own abilities. As in any institution, there was a fair amount of sexism: female musicians were often assumed to be girlfriends of band members or dismissed as unable to play in the same way men can.

One summer afternoon, I was working on my improvisation in a practice room when I was abruptly reminded of my lowly ranking. I was enjoying myself and feeling proud of my sound when a fellow student (a guy) walked into the practice room uninvited. He listened for a while (as I uncomfortably kept playing), then made an assessment that scarred me for my entire uni career: “You sound just like Kenny G.”

In the jazz world, being compared to Kenny G is the equivalent of complimenting your grandma’s cooking by saying, “This tastes just like Light n’ Easy!” He sauntered out of the room; I am sure with the knowledge that he had just crushed my jazz-loving soul.

kenny g body frankie
Kenny G for Casio, 1988

I first heard Kenny G when browsing a bookshop as a teenager. I loved him on the first listen. I asked the person behind the desk who was playing and wrote it down to research later – and that was when I realised Kenny G was not someone I was allowed to enjoy. He played smooth jazz – a crime against real jazz – with many people describing his style as ‘Muzak’. Muzak, in case you didn’t know, is often described as ‘elevator music’, and Urban Dictionary defines it as “scientifically compiled… innocuous and insipid music that is calculated not to offend anyone.”

Back then, when I was trying to impress everyone with my taste in music, I didn’t allow myself to enjoy artists that weren’t considered cool or sophisticated. Only now can I admit that there is a part of me that loves muzak. Its happy, cheerful sounds make me feel as if I’m at the airport awaiting an adventure, or at a cheap massage parlour, excitedly anticipating the removal of knots from my neck.

And sure, Kenny G doesn’t speak to my soul, but damn, there are some tasty little frills he throws out there. Kenny G is necessary in the seriousness of the jazz world. He is unashamedly kitsch; enjoying his music is my own ‘up yours’ to the jazz snobs. He’s also worth a cool fifty million dollars (and was Kanye West's Valentines gift to Kim Kardashian), so obviously I’m not the only one indulging in some easy listening.

While I graduated uni with high distinctions, my sparkly dream of becoming a jazz star began to fade as I realised I wasn’t interested in the politics and egos surrounding the scene. At 31, and with a toddler running around, I’m embracing easy listening in a whole new light. These days, there is less of Kenny G and more of Carly Rae Jepson. (My daughter even shares a birthday with Carly Rae). And I find myself thinking, can’t we love a bit of cheesy saxophone or a boppy pop song once in a while, without feeling like we’re committing a crime against music? I’m certainly beyond caring what’s cool. I say we embrace whatever tickles our ear hairs without guilt.

Thanks to the kind types at UNiDAYS, uni students can nab 25 per cent off their frankie subscriptions. Just click here, then register or log in using your UNiDAYS member details. Easy as!

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