In honor of Kenny G’s four-night stand at the Blue Note, which kicks off tonight, we thought we’d look back at some of the key moments in the life of smooth jazz’s most mysterious, misunderstood, and feared figure.
June 5, 1956: Kenny G is born Kenneth Bruce Gotti, the secret love child of future mafia kingpin John Gotti, in Ozone Park.
December 25, 1964: Eight-year-old Kenny, already showing a predilection for mayhem, gets a baseball bat as a Christmas gift and quickly proceeds to smash car windows on his street and send three of his elementary school classmates to the hospital. His mother, hoping to steer young Kenny away from a life of violence, wipes the blood off the bat and trades it in for an alto saxophone.
July 17, 1967: Sitting down to dinner, Kenny feels an odd, tingling sensation enter his body and travel up his spinal cord into his brain. Although he doesn’t realize it at the time, the 11-year-old has been entrusted with the soul of John Coltrane, who’s just died from liver cancer at a hospital in Long Island.
January 8, 1971: Having dropped out of high school and playing some of Manhattan’s hottest jazz spots, Kenny’s live performances earn a glowing write-up in Downbeat magazine, which reads, in part: “An intimidating figure on stage, due in no small part to his shaved head and terrifying scowl, young Kenneth Gotti attacks his instrument with the fiery zeal of a thousand Viking invaders, creating a chaotic tempest that’s scarier than the Nixon Administration and easily the most thrilling, exhilarating thing to happen to jazz in decades.”
April 14, 1972: Kenny finds a way to merge his prodigious musical talents and his burgeoning life of crime by forming a crew to rob the clubs he’s playing. He unlocks Birdland’s back door, then distracts the crowd and staff with his brutal, mesmerizing sax runs while his associates slip in, clean out the safe and the bar registers, and swipe everyone’s wallets and purses.
October 22, 1976: With his bare hands, Kenny kills for the first time. It happens in an alley near the Blue Note after a man approaches Kenny and sneers, “You think you’re so fuckin’ good, but you ain’t no Chuck Mangione.” It turns out the man is Lucchese capo Salvatore “Two Anuses” Fartulo, a blood rival of Kenny’s father. Fearing for his son’s life, the elder Gotti spirits Kenny to Seattle and orders him to grow out his hair, stop using his real last name, and to concoct a cover story that he’s the mild-mannered son of Canadian Jews who’s studying accounting in college while playing the saxophone on the side. And to smile a little.
August 2, 1981: After moving to Los Angeles and taking a job at an accounting firm while overseeing a clandestine drug-and-prostitution ring and occasionally busking on street corners to keep his sax skills sharp, Kenny’s shopping for hair-care products at a Sally Beauty Supply one day when he’s approached by a man he’s seen many times in the relaxer aisle. The man introduces himself as Michael Bolton. They strike up a quick friendship, and Bolton soon reveals that he, too, comes from a background of extreme lawlessness and intense, aggressive music and recently changed his last name from “Bolotin” to throw off his enemies. The duo vows to form both a new crime syndicate and a shrieking, experimental splatterjazz combo “that’ll show that John Zorn asshole what’s what.”
March 23, 1982: On his way up to the penthouse of a Los Angeles high-rise to carry out a hit on a rival kingpin, Kenny undergoes a stunning conversion when the elevator stalls on the 37th floor and he’s trapped for nearly 48 hours with only the Muzak piped through the speakers to get him through the near-death ordeal. Inside his being, he can feel the vapid melodies wrestling with the spirit of Coltrane for control of his musical soul, and when Trane’s essence finally exits his body, Kenny crumples in a heap as rescue workers finally pry the elevator doors open. March 24, 1982: Eager to see his father again for the first time in years and share with him his transformation, Kenny flies back to New York only to find that the elder Gotti is disgusted by what his son has become and declares, “You’re dead to me, you wuss!” Despondent, Kenny steps into traffic and is grazed by a limo carrying Arista honcho Clive Davis. Noticing the alto sax sticking out from Kenny’s coat pocket, Davis implores him to play something and he reluctantly obliges with a nascent version of “Songbird.” Struck by how remarkably lifeless it is despite Kenny’s deep personal despair, Davis immediately signs him to a 10-album deal.
December 1, 1986: Long estranged from his friend Michael Bolton, who felt abandoned and repulsed by Kenny’s dramatic about-face, Kenny visits the recording studio where Bolton’s in the middle of laying down vocals for his new grindcore album. Kenny shows him his plaque commemorating Duotones‘ multi-platinum sales, and the pair embraces. Bolton pledges allegiance to Kenny’s artistic vision and immediately records a soulless version of Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”
November 22, 1994: Kenny issues Miracles: The Holiday Album, which was originally to include the track “All I Want For Christmas Is To Knock Out Your Two Front Teeth”–Kenny’s sly ode to his violent past and that Christmas Day of 30 years earlier–until he decided to pull the song at the last minute. It goes on to become the biggest-selling Christmas album of all time.
May 18, 2000: Kenny briefly considers cutting Pat Metheny’s head off after the jazz guitarist criticizes Kenny for overdubbing his sax playing on the original recording of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”: “Kenny G has created a new low point in modern culture–something that we all should be totally embarrassed about–and afraid of,” Metheny insists. But Michael Bolton urges Kenny not to risk everything by returning to a life of crime, convincing him instead to do a co-headlining tour of Napa Valley wineries.
June 10, 2002: Learning that his incarcerated father is gravely ill with throat cancer, Kenny rushes to a federal medical center in Missouri but is dismayed when the elder Gotti refuses to see him. Kenny stands outside the facility, bathed only in moonlight, and attempts to play an especially somber version of “The Moment” that winds up conveying absolutely no feeling whatsoever. Not a single tear drops from his father’s eye as he passes away.
June 11, 2011: Lost in a sea of confusion in the decade following his father’s death–hardly comforted by his enormous wealth, a half-dozen more holiday albums, nearly twice as many greatest hits compilations, Weezer collaborations, and by mocking his own public persona–Kenny finally reaches what he believes to be his personal and artistic pinnacle when he appears (alongside Hanson, Corey Feldman, Debbie Gibson, and several other walking punchlines) in Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” video.
October 2, 2012: Just a few months after the U.S. release of Namaste, India–on which he teamed up with Indian santoor master Rahul Sharma to create yet another collection of negligible background music–Kenny falls asleep and dreams he fell down, hit his head, finally came to his senses after three decades, went out and snapped the necks of two complete strangers just for fun, then let Death Grips snap a photo of his dick for their album cover. He sits up in a cold sweat, looks around his bedroom, settles back into his pillow, and with an ever-so-slight pang of regret, falls back asleep.