You likely recall Kenny G as the curly-haired musician who inexplicably made the saxophone and smooth jazz a pop staple of the late ‘90s. If you don’t recognize the name, know that his music has undoubtedly soundtracked an elevator ride or visit to a hotel lobby at some point in your life. In 1998, Kenny G was a guest on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and made the bold statement he was going to set a world record for the longest sustained note. When quizzed by Leno about how long this note may be, Kenny replied, “about 20 minutes.” Leno promptly lost his mind.
The secret Kenny G kept behind his confident, wry smile as he spoke to Leno was that it would be possible to exceeda 20-minute sustained note with a breathing method known as circular breathing. Circular breathing is accomplished by breathing in through the nose while simultaneously pushing breath out through the mouth using air stored in the cheeks; think of the sustained sound of an indigenous Australian playing a didgeridoo. The same effect can be performed on any wind instrument.
The claim of a 20-minute sustained note didn’t sound so outrageous to fellow saxophonist Vann Burchfield of Hoover, Alabama. As Vann describes, “I had already learned how to circular breathe back in junior high, so I thought, shoot, I’m going to set a personal challenge and see if I can go twenty minutes.” The next year Kenny G went before the Guinness judges and set a record at 45 minutes and 47 seconds.
Burchfield first picked up the saxophone at his grandparents’ home. “When I put the mouthpiece on and started to play,” he recalls, “it felt different to playing other instruments. The saxophone let me express myself, and I literally felt something deep in my soul when I played it. The saxophone is the instrument that most emulates the human voice. Which means, if I want, I can play hauntingly beautiful melodies. If I’m in a different mood, I can play some upbeat, groovin’ kind of music.”
Describing himself as “a man on a mission when I set my mind to do something,” he knew he “could break Kenny G’s record.” Over the next six months, Burchfield worked his way up to 20 minutes, then 40 minutes; he claims to have once played a note for one hour, eight minutes and 22 seconds. But no record is complete, of course, without the seal of the Guinness World Record committee, and on February 17, 2000, Burchfield made his formal attempt.
“During the Guinness record,” he tells me, “you have to stand the whole time and the note has to maintain constant pitch and volume. You can’t go five decibels above or below your note. And the note can’t go sharp or flat. After about 30 minutes, your mouth fills with saliva; on a trumpet, you’ve got a spit valve and you can release that saliva. But on the saxophone I had to learn the art of circular breathing while swallowing saliva. I had to tilt my whole body back, swallow the saliva, maintain note and pitch—all while circular breathing.”
Burchfield managed to hold his C# for a new Guinness World Record time of 47 minutes and five seconds, surpassing the mark set by Kenny G by almost two minutes. He wants to be clear, however, that his pursuit of the record was never to be perceived as anything but honoring Kenny G’s contribution in raising the profile of saxophone musicians everywhere. “I never did this to be like, ‘You’re not as good as me,’” he posits. “I have so much respect for Kenny G. He saw me playing one time, and he literally walked across the arena and was clapping and encouraging me. He said, ‘Do you mind if I see your horn?’ And I thought to myself, ‘It ain’t the horn, brother!’ He said, ‘Well, you have a great tone. And you’re very good.’ That was in my twenties—he encouraged me to do great things. One of them was to go on and surpass his record. But breaking the record was never to knock off his crown.”
Subsequent to Vann’s record, Kenny G told HuffPost Livethat he planned to regain his title by partnering with an airline, and hold a note for the entire length of an hour-long flight to raise money for charity. But these plans were scuttled when Guinness World Records decided to rest the category. According to Elizabeth Montoya, Assistant Public Relations Manager at Guinness World Records, “When a category is rested, it means that we are no longer monitoring it for new record holders. As the category is rested, Vann Burchfield is now the former record title holder.” When asked why the category was rested, Montoya confirmed, “This category has been rested due to the dangers associated with circular breathing, as confirmed by medical examiners.” She then cited an article published in the British Medical Journal, which concludes that circular breathing for extended periods of time can be dangerous, as the brain is depleted of oxygen.
But for Burchfield and Kenny G, there’s still hope to find their way back into the Guinness Book of World Records. Montoya confirmed that a new category exists: “Longest sustained note on a wind or brass instrument, in which the musician must employ a nose plug during the attempt, as circular breathing is not permitted.” The current record holder is Philip Palmer, who played the longest sustained note of one minute and 13 seconds on a clarinet. Vann Burchfield might be ready to set himself another personal challenge. “I have it documented that I’ve gone one minute and 45 seconds on a saxophone,” he notes. “People can deep dive for up to four minutes—that record has a long way to go.”