Louis Armstrong is one of the most important figures in the history of music. Critic Gary Giddins says he “invented modern time.” Kenny G is one of the most polarizing figures in jazz. Although he sells records by the zillions, critics and serious jazz fans dislike his work mostly for its sugary sweetness, but also because the man doesn’t improvise—which, some say, means he’s not a jazz player at all.
In 1968, Armstrong cut a sugary sweet record of his own: “What a Wonderful World,” which became a hit in the UK, although it wasn’t until 20 years later that it became widely known in the States thanks to its inclusion on the soundtrack of Good Morning Vietnam. And in 1999, Kenny G decided to give the record his own stamp. On Classics in the Key of G, he overdubbed himself on the Armstrong recording of “What a Wonderful World.”
The original “What a Wonderful World” is sappy enough, and it’s only the grit in Armstrong’s voice and the charm of his performance that saves it. But Kenny G’s additions far outweigh the positives Armstrong brings to it.
The Kenny G version of “What a Wonderful World” did inspire one of the great rants of all time, however. A journalist asked jazzman Pat Metheny for his opinion of Kenny G, and in his response, Metheny took out after “What a Wonderful World” in particular. The whole thing is worth reading, but here’s the key paragraph:
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 [sic] 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.
Shorter Pat Metheny: “What a Wonderful World” is one of the World’s Worst Songs. Would you want to be the one to tell him he’s wrong?