kenny g

World’s Worst Songs: “What a Wonderful World” by Kenny G with Louis Armstrong

Kenny G, from the cover of “Classics in the Key of G.” (Arista)


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?




  • Scott Peterson

    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.

    I couldn’t disagree more. It’s a pleasant enough lyric and a lovely melody. But when an unsurpassed and groundbreaking—to put it mildly—African-American artist of Louis Armstrong’s cailbre, who’d paid the dues he’d paid, at the time he’d paid them, sings a seemingly superficial lyric like this one, I’m afraid I feel it’s facile in the extreme to not look deeper and consider how cuttingly ironic it is for a black man in the late sixties to be singing such an optimistic song.

    Or he could have meant every word, of course. In which case, considering again the bona fides of this greatest of all American artists, it’s worth listening and thinking and wondering, rather than generally dismissing it.

  • Quiet Wyatt

    It’s worth seeking out Richard Thompson’s two cents on the subject, “I Agree With Pat Metheny”…

    A meeting of great minds, how nice!
    Like Einstein and Sporty Spice,
    Digitally fused in an abortion.

    Kenny fans will doubtless rave
    While Satchmo turns inside his grave —
    Soprano man’s bit off more than his portion.

    Full lyrics at http://www.richardthompson-music.com/song_o_matic.asp?id=611, or look for the live vid on youtube.

  • Scott Peterson

    You and ol’ Pat are absolutely right about Kenny G’s abysmal take on it, of course.

  • Curt Shannon

    Love reading the original rant. Richard Thompson did a “tribute” with his song: “I Agree with Pat Metheny.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ucgZQGPZOpk