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On the Road With Vail Johnson: Kenny G: Setting the Record Straight…

Meet Vail Johnson

I’d like to take a moment to introduce myself in this, my first article written for Bass Musician Magazine.

First off, yes, I play bass for Kenny G. Even though I play with many other great artists, Kenny G has the most visibility by far.

That brings me to my first topic; Kenny G does not play jazz. There, I said it! The angry folks that slam Kenny G for not playing ‘real’ jazz have missed the boat entirely. That’s like ragging on Madonna because she’s not a ‘real’ Heavy Metal artist, for example. Of course she’s not, she never said she was, she never played any Heavy Metal, etc., etc.

Kenny is a pop/ R&B instrumentalist. That’s his focus and his self- described category. The genre ‘Smooth Jazz’ was created after Kenny’s popularity exploded back in the late 80’s. I know because I was there!

Kenny has had top-10 hits on the POP charts over the years. He had the number 2 album on the Billboard pop chart for many weeks, not quite able to knock Whitney Houston ‘Bodyguard’ off the top of the heap… Sold around 75- 80 million records world- wide, blah, blah, blah.

Hopefully, we can now avoid all the silly hate messages about “Kenny G is this-or-that”.

That brings me to the primary topic: “The Road”

Many of you may be wondering what it’s like out on the road with a major touring act, so I would like to offer some insight for enlightenment and entertainment purposes.

You can click the “Day in the life” link below and see a tongue- in- cheek video ‘smooth jazz-umentary’ of a day in the life of the Kenny G band. There’s some pretty funny stuff!

We have a great time on the road, lo these 20 some years together.

Sometimes the schedule is brutal, 4 countries in 4 days can really take it out of you. Sometimes we get a cushier schedule and have a day off in Mexico City like today and I’m taking advantage of it by writing this article!

Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, we traveled ‘large’. Several buses, a jet, 3 tractor-trailers filled to the brim…15,000 seat arenas sold out every night; unbelievable for an instrumental artist and may never be equaled.

Well, times have changed for us as they have for most everyone in the 21st century. It’s a study in contrast as I will illustrate:
Sometimes you’re stuck in a center seat on a commuter plane flying through a winter storm, praying the pilots know how deal with the ice on the wings. Other times you’re on a Gulfstream/ Citation/ LearJet and get to live the ‘high life’ for a bit.

There will be Ritz Carlton’s in Tokyo and dodgy hotels out in the middle of nowhere.

Luxurious Symphony Hall backstage arrangements, to ‘less than sanitary’ accommodations in some run-down old theatre.

Fancy dinner parties stocked with celebrities, to searches for McDonalds in ‘3rd world’ places where anything familiar is a blessing!

Royal Albert Hall in London or maybe a small Casino in the mid- west.

It really runs the gamut for us but we are very grateful to be working, so no complaints these days.

What it takes to be happy and ‘thrive’ on the road is flexibility and acceptance. The minute you start taking yourself too seriously, nature has a way of reminding you, but quick!

Stay humble, take music seriously but have fun and give yourself a break when things don’t quite work out as planned.

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed this first effort for BMM.

There are a lot of fun vid clips of my playing on youtube if you would like to check them out. Just look for ‘Vail Johnson’.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Macky Macaventa

    May 20, 2015 at 1:14 am

    Nice! Reminds me of how my band is on the road. I play for a pop band in the Philippines called True Faith. The band got famous in the Philippines during the 90’s and has been releasing hit songs and playing gigs locally and abroad since. I joined them last year and I must say, I saw quite a few similarities on how our bands are on the road. Needless to say, life in a touring band is full of laughs, great camaraderie and super-cool music-making. That’s what makes the long travel time, challenging hotel accommodations, equipment mishaps and occasional catering problems all worth it.

    Been a fan of your playing ever since I got a cassette of Kenny G. Live. Your playing on “Don’t Make Me Wait For Love”, in particular, has been influential for my development as a musician. And your solo on “Midnight Motion” still kills me.

    Keep it up with the stories, videos and most of all, the music!

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