‘Music Box: Listening to Kenny G’: 3 Things the HBO Documentary Reveals

Listening to Kenny G HBO

“Kenny G is the bestselling instrumentalist of all-time. He’s probably the most famous living jazz musician. And I made this film to find out why that makes certain people really angry,” says director Penny Lane at the start of Music Box: Listening to Kenny G, a fascinating probe into the minds of music critics and scholars and the famed saxophonist himself. Here are a few high notes:

Listening to Kenny G HBO

(Credit: HBO)

Kenny G went rogue on The Tonight Show, and “smooth jazz” was born.

Promoting his fourth album in 1986, Arista Records still wouldn’t let Kenny release a single without guest vocals. Booked to play his latest R&B collaboration for Johnny Carson, he simply decided to perform his moody instrumental “Songbird” instead. The booker gave him the finger offscreen during the performance, Kenny recalls, but the song won over the wife of Arista’s head of promotion.

China loves Kenny G.

For more than 30 years, businesses there have played his track “Going Home” to signal closing time to the masses. “Is Kenny G’s music a weapon of consent? Does it make people agree to comply?” asks New York Times critic Ben Ratliff. A rep from the Chinese State Music Association explains that he happens to compose in the same scales that are popular in China, and his melodies are catchy.

Cue his next run-in with “the Jazz Police”?

Two decades after his hotly debated virtual duet with Louis Armstrong, Kenny reveals his new album features the late Stan Getz.

Music Box: Listening to Kenny G, Documentary Premiere, Thursday, December 2, 8/7c, HBO