After sharing personal anecdotes about his storied music career, and advice for California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) students, Grammy Award-winning saxophonist Kenny G performed a special holiday concert for the campus community during the virtual 2020 Presidential Distinguished Lecture Series on Dec. 9.
Kenny G is among the world’s most acclaimed instrumental musicians and one of the biggest selling artists of the modern jazz era with worldwide sales of more than 75 million records. The opportunity to have him as a Presidential Distinguished Lecture Series speaker came about after the president was invited by CSUDH Philanthropic Board Chair Maria Villa (’82, B.S. business administration) and her husband, Steve Lathrop, to play a round of golf with Kenny G.
The couple won the golf match at a charity auction, which also included a Kenny G autographed saxophone. Villa and Lathrop donated the autographed saxophone to the CSUDH Music Department.
“Kenny G’s melodic rhythms tickle our ears, ignite our emotions, and help us all create mental representations of those happy thoughts that align with his instrumental style,” said Parham as introduction to his 30-minute exchange with the smooth jazz icon during the online event. “His outstanding success stems largely from the connections he makes with his audiences, and he is known for the close attachment that he feels with those who love his music.”
CSUDH President Thomas A. Parham created the Presidential Distinguished Lecture Series in 2018 to engage the campus and surrounding community in thought-provoking discussions on some of society’s most pressing issues. Prior speakers have included 1968 Olympic gold medalist Tommie Smith, and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. The Kenny G lecture and performance had originally been planned for March 17, 2020, but was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The conversation began with a question about where Kenny G draws inspiration.
“I really wish I could answer that because then I would just go there when I want to write music,” he said. “It just kind of comes to me. I feel like I’m one of those lucky people who recognizes when something special happens. It could be just a feeling inside that suddenly comes out as a melody, listening to a record, or hearing that great melody that Dr. Teo Avery played.”
Kenny G was referring to Teodross Avery, assistant professor of Jazz Studies and Commercial Music at CSUDH and an accomplished saxophonist who launched the lecture series with a rendition of his song “Perception” from his album “Life and Musik.” CSUDH Music Department Chair Scott Morris and Associate Professor of Music Chika also performed during the lecture series. The duo recently released their debut album “Unfettered.”
Parham told Kenny G that he hopes that CSUDH students in the audience will “take note of the commitment it takes to have a career like yours.”
“I’m just lucky that I love to do this. I can’t wait to wake up in the morning to get that sax out of the case, and I can’t wait to start my practice session,” said Kenny G. “Of course, in the middle of it when I’m working on things, it can get a little frustrating when I’m playing something and I can’t get it. But with my experience, I know that if I can’t get it today, I may get it in two months, or even six months. Then it will be part of my repertoire forever.”
It’s “soul” that attracts people of all demographics to his music, Kenny G shared. “There must be a certain soul in the music that they can connect to, and I’m just really lucky that when I play the saxophone there is something in my heart and soul that comes out through it – that is touching people in their heart. It’s a blessing and I’m very lucky. I do not take it for granted, but it’s not something that I calculated. It’s just how the stars lined up. That is why it’s magical.”
When asked what advice he would give students pursuing careers in music, Kenny G said “Just be great at what you love.”
“If you want a career in music, the world will have trouble turning their back on someone who is phenomenal. If you’re mediocre, you may need a little luck, and maybe some networking to get gigs, but if you’re phenomenal, you’re going to get those gigs, and you’re going to be sought after. So the simple thing is to practice,” said Kenny G before grabbing his sax and playing some notes. “Now that’s what it takes. It’s consistent practice at whatever you want to be good at.”
When asked to share a transformational experience, Kenny G took the audience back to high school.
“I was first chair in my junior high school band, which typically means you’re better than whoever else is playing saxophone. When I went to high school, I was excited about being part of the jazz band, but when I auditioned, I didn’t make band. So, I went home, and thought, I guess I just need to practice,” said Kenny G, who still practices three hours each day. “When I went back in the 11th grade, I was so much better than everybody else who had already been playing in the band that I immediately became first chair. It was like a light bulb turning on. I realized that if I always practice, I will just get better. That seems to be my theme of the conversation tonight. Practice!”