In the world of music, particularly the part that we love, David Sanborn is an icon. His story and life in music is the stuff of movies. His accomplishments are legendary. But, most importantly, he is a guardian of all that is great in the world of music.
David endured 8 years of polio as a child. Playing the saxophone began as therapy, but quickly became his passion and persona. How many musicians can say that they performed at Woodstock (as part of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band), starred in the Saturday Night Live band, and hosted a national television show (Night Music) that featured music stars such as Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Eric Clapton, Santana and Pharoah Sanders.
David has performed with virtually every top performer of the last few decades. If you think that statement is hyperbole, check out this list of folks who had the privilege of sharing a bandstand with Sanborn:
James Brown, Bryan Ferry, Michael Stanley, Bobby Charles, Cat Stevens, Roger Daltrey, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Jaco Pastorius, the Brecker Brothers, Michael Franks, Kenny Loggins, Casiopea, Players Association, David Bowie, Todd Rundgren, Bruce Springsteen, Little Feat, Tommy Bolin, Bob James, James Taylor, Al Jarreau, Pure Prairie League, Kenny G, Loudon Wainwright III, Marcus Miller, George Benson, Joe Beck, Donny Hathaway, Elton John, Gil Evans, Carly Simon, Guru, Linda Ronstadt, Billy Joel, Kenny Garrett, Roger Waters, Steely Dan, Ween, the Eagles, the Grateful Dead, Nena, Utada Hikaru, the Rolling Stones, Ian Hunter, and Toto.
With six Grammy Awards, eight gold albums and one platinum album to his credit, the tangible signs of his success are evident. I consider myself to be one of his biggest fans. Actually, I would claim the top spot if I could. His music has dimension, soul, heart and passion. His sound is instantaneously recognizable, an amazing achievement for an instrumental musician. We like to say that when you hear that “sound,” it is either Sanborn or someone desperately trying to sound like him. The music world is filled with saxophonists trying to sound like either Sanborn or Grover Washington Jr.
To me, the proof of his greatness is the reverence he commands from other musicians. Without doing a thing to cause it to happen, when he enters the room, walks on stage or begins to play, every other musician stops to look and listen. When asked why they do that, one musician said to me, “Because that is David Sanborn.” An expletive was inserted between “David” and “Sanborn” just for emphasis. His stature among the musicians of The Smooth Jazz Cruise borders on worship, as it should, but recognition of his greatness is not confined to that group.
Perhaps my most vivid David Sanborn moment was on The Jazz Cruise, a program that features the best “straight ahead” jazz players in the world. Their disdain for fusion type music is open and notorious, so I was curious as to their reaction to Sanborn performing on that cruise. Though confining Sanborn to any particular music genre disregards the reality of his ability and brilliance in all forms, having been tagged with being a “smooth jazz” performer for a few years could have been an issue with some of the “straight ahead” players. Yet, when David sat down in the corner of the old Queen’s Lounge (Holland America Line ship) for the customary pre-sailing musicians meeting, you could hear the murmur among them all. Not only did they recognize Sanborn, but their tone was universally one of admiration and excitement.
David Sanborn respects the music with all his heart and being. He is a student of its history as well as its performance intricacies. David Sanborn is a musician’s musician.
Recently, I had the privilege of sitting down with David to talk about various things. Below is a transcript of our discussion.
Lazaroff: I haven’t seen you in a while. How are you doing and what has been your “routine” during the pandemic?
Sanborn: Hey Michael. Been occupying myself with various things: reorganizing my sock drawer, Three Stooges marathons on TV … wait … too personal. Seriously, practicing, staying healthy, long walks, making music with my wife. Also I’ve being doing a series of masterclasses on Zoom, as well as producing my ongoing online show Sanborn Sessions. Before the pandemic, we did the shows at my house with a house band (Billy Kilson, Ben Williams, Geoffrey Keezer) and various guests like Bob James, Michael McDonald, Kandace Springs, Terrace Martin, Cyrille Aimée. Since the lock down, we’ve been doing it remotely with Jonatha Brooke, Cory Henry, Joey DeFrancesco, and have upcoming shows with Marcus Miller, Sting and Christian McBride.
Lazaroff: Your anxiety surrounding your fame and the adoration that musicians and fans have for you has always amused me. The only person in the world who does not know who David Sanborn is … is David Sanborn. Thoughts?
Sanborn: I think I’ve always been surprised that people find what I do interesting. But when you hear people tell you that your music helped them through a tough period in their lives, you can’t ignore or disrespect that by getting caught up in some ego/insecurity game. Just be grateful that your music could be of service.
Lazaroff: You consume and enjoy all kinds of music. In today’s world of music, what trends do you like?
Sanborn: I’ve always been a fan of mixing things up. Various types of music. Jazz, hip hop, R&B, folk put together in new ways. I particularly like what artists like Robert Glasper and Terrace Martin are doing.
Lazaroff: I admit that your first appearance on our cruises was an emotional experience for me. Your participation signaled a level of legitimacy and achievement that I never anticipated. Since that time, you have sailed with us numerous times and have hosted onboard events, led your own band and performed with a host of musicians. What aspects of performing on the cruises please you the most?
Sanborn: There are so many great things about the cruises … because all these great musicians are on the ship together at the same time, it presents a unique opportunity to put together new, interesting musical situations spontaneously.
Lazaroff: In this note, I list a long list of musicians with whom you have performed. Living or dead, are there musicians with whom you still dream of sharing the bandstand?
Sanborn: Living or dead? Well, Ray Charles, Charlie Parker, Otis Redding, Prince, the list goes on and on.
Lazaroff: Not only am I fan of your music, but I admire you as well. You are kind and compassionate, but you stand strongly for certain ideals. You enjoy the camaraderie of others, including poking fun, but you are always able to laugh at yourself as well. Were you always this wise and balanced?
Sanborn: Wise and balanced? Who are we talking about here? I take what I do very seriously, but I don’t take myself very seriously. I mean, music is a process, it’s not something that you master. The minute you think you’ve got this thing down, you’re done. You have to have a sense of humor about that fact.
Lazaroff: In closing, on behalf of a generation of jazz fans and music fans, I want to thank you for continuing to perform and create. You are an inspiration to us all and your music will live in our hearts and future generations forever. When the history of music is discussed, you will be mentioned with Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny and others as musicians who made a difference by being different. In your case, you created a whole new sound for the saxophone, one that is emulated today and will be forever.
Sanborn: If I was in a room with all those people, I think the question would be: How in the hell did he get in here? Regardless, thank you for those extraordinarily kind words, Michael.