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A Fond Reminiscence of David Sanborn

The alto sax great, who passed away on Sunday at age 78, was the subject of a Downbeat cover story I wrote in 1988 at a time when he was at an artistic crossroads

photo by Alice Soyer

In 1975, Milwaukee’s premier fusion band, Sweetbottom, was covering just about every track off of David Sanborn’s popular new solo debut, Takin’ Off. I remember their renditions of Steve Khan’s “Butterfat” and “Duck Ankles” from that album went over particularly well with the sophisticated crowds that packed Sardino’s Bull Ring, Ltd. every week to hear Sweetbottom play. That same summer on ‘75, the airwaves were burning up with David Bowie’s “Young Americans,” which showcased Sanborn’s signature alto sax licks. Right on the heels of that release came the Brecker Brothers self-titled debut, which featured Sanborn’s alto alongside Michael Brecker’s tenor sax and Randy Brecker’s trumpet.

Sanborn’s familiar alto cry also appeared that year on Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years, Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, the Eagles’ One of These Nights, The Manhattan Transfer’s self-titled debut and James Taylor’s big radio play hit, “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” as well as on the fusion landmark, Beck & Sanborn

The following year, David’s alto sax could be heard on Jaco Pastorius’ funky “Come On, Come Over” from the bass phenom’s 1976 self-titled debut as well as on Mose Allison’ Your Mind Is On Vacation, Michael Franks’ The Art of Tea, Phoebe Snow’s Second Childhood, George Benson’s Good King Bad, the Brecker Brothers’ Back to Back and Ian Hunter’s All American Alien Boy. Then 1977 saw the first of his collaborations with Bob James on Heads, while he also appeared on James Taylor’s JT, Don McLean’s Prime Time and Gil Evans’ Priestess(featuring Sanborn playing an absolutely monumental solo on “Short Visit”). 

He also released his mega-selling third album, Promise Me the Moon, that year. Little did I know, I had already heard him in the horn section on records by the Paul Butterfield’s Blues Band (1968’s In My Own Dream), Muddy Waters (1969’s Fathers and Sons), Stevie Wonder (1972’s Talking Book), The Eagles (1972’s Take It Easy) and B.B. King (1972’s Guess Who) and Todd Rundgren (1973’s A Wizard, A True Star). Sanborn owned the ‘70s.

From 1988 to 1990, Sanborn hosted the eminently hip tv show, Night Music. Every Sunday night, an eclectic mix of guests was paraded across America’s tv screens, with Sanborn not only providing informative introductions but also sitting in with the bands. Here’s a rundown of just some of the incredible artists who appeared on Night Music during it’s run: Bootsy Collins, Sting, Eric Clapton, Rufus Thomas, Joe Cocker, Allen Toussaint, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Pharaoh Sanders, Phil Woods, James Taylor, Van Dyke Parks, Slim Gaillard, Eddie Palmieri, Dr. John, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Mavis Staples, Sam Moore, Ashford & Simpson, Milton Nascimento, Jack Bruce, Bill Frisell, Al Green, Elliott Sharp, John Zorn, Pops Staples, John Hiatt, Curtis Mayfield, Abbey Lincoln, Marianne Faithfull, Phoebe Snow, Fontella Bass, Aaron Neville, Al Jarreau, Leonard Cohen, the Kronos Quartet, his personal alto sax hero Hank Crawford and dozens more. And Sanborn not only sat in with all of them, he more than held his own in each setting.

My first interview with Sanborn for the August 1988 issue of Downbeat, in which he pondered about getting caught up in the seductive machinery of success (see below), took place at his apartment on the Upper West Side of New York. Years later, I conducted a joint interview him and Bob James in conjunction with their 2013 release, Quartette Humane (with Steve Gadd and James Genus). Most recently, he generously shared some very insightful (and hilarious) commentary about Michael Brecker for my 2021 book, Ode to a Tenor Titan: The Life and Times and Music of Michael Brecker (Backbeat Books). When I got word of his passing this past Mothers Day (Sunday, May 12), the news hit like a ton of bricks. He was a sweet, humble man with a genuine smile, a quick self-deprecating wit and an instantly recognizable sound on his instrument. R.I.P., David


You recognize it in an instant — the Sanborn squeal. Couldn’t fool anybody on a Blindfold Test with that. Or could you? 

So many Sanborn clones have come pouring out of the closet of late, appearing on everything from pop-jazz fare to jeans commercials on tv, that it’s getting harder and harder to tell the ripoffs from the real deal. A cursory twirl of the radio dial or channel selector might suggest that every commercial musician and would-be alto star out there is aping Sanborn’s sound. But if you take the time to really listen, you can hear the truth.

This is a situation that both befuddles and frustrates Dave. Of course, it’s happened over and over again throughout the course of music. There have been Bird clones, Wes clones, Charlie Christian clones, Trane clones, Jaco clones. But the humble Sanborn refuses to think of himself in the same company with those jazz greats. In fact, he’s not comfortable being called a jazz musician at all. Suffice it to say, the man is confused. On the eve of his 11th release for Warner Bros. — the typically funky, hard-blowing and eminently well-crafted Close-Up (produced by Marcus Miller, co-produced and engineered by Ray Bardani) — Sanborn confesses, “I don’t know what’s happening to me right now. I dunno . . . maybe it's midlife crisis, maybe I just need to make a clean break, make a change. I'm just at a point now where I’m kinda reassessing what I do. I’m going back and listening to a lot of music, mostly bebop. I'm working a lot with Nicholas Slominsky’s Thesaurus Of Scales And Melodic Patterns. I’ve got some Mozart flute duets, I’ve got an Oliver Nelson book, the Joe Viola Berklee books, a couple of fake books. I guess I’m just doing research, is what it comes down to. Just shedding.”

There are long pauses between sentences, occasional sighs. Clearly, the man is at odds with himself. What will come out of this sudden change of heart is uncertain. He hinted at getting away from the technology of drum machines and studio manipulations by embracing an all-acoustic context, maybe record something live in the studio like in days of yore. But that’s just thinking out loud. Maybe this frame of mind will pass. Maybe Dave just had a bad day/week/month/year. Whatever the reason, he’s suddenly second-guessing his direction, though you couldn’t tell it from listening to Close-Up. Sanborn blows with typical conviction and fire on funky fare like “Slam”, “J.T.” and “Pyramid.” And the signature Sanborn squeal is back in full force on such soul-stirring ballads as “Goodbye,” Randy Newman’s melancholy “Same Girl,” and the hit pop love song of some years ago, “You Are Everything.” In short, another hot Sanborn album, destined to sell well.

We spoke in Dave’s Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan a day before he split for London to perform at a birthday bash for Nelson Mandela.Meanwhile, he continues to make regular guest appearances on the Late Night With David Letterman Show, featured in the house band alongside Paul Shaffer, Will Lee, Anton Fig and Sid McGinnis. And he continues to broadcast his weekly program, The Jazz Show, which is broadcast on the NBC radio network. Down the road, there are plans for Sanborn to co-host a fall television program with Saturday Night Live regular, Dennis Miller. This music and comedy show, to be seen on Sunday evenings beginning in late September, is tentatively called Sunday Night. Besides sharing banter with Miller and other guests, Sanborn will lead the house band that (as of this writing) will include such formidable talents as bassist Marcus Miller, drummer Omar Hakim, guitarist Hiram Bullock and keyboardist Don Grolnick. But that’s down the road. For now, Dave’s got some things to get off his chest.

BILL MILKOWSKI: Talk about establishing a voice on one’s instrument.

DAVID SANBORN: Yeah, that’s one of the great things about music, to me. It’s somebody’s personal statement. Ultimately, that’s what you end up with. You refine your craft but the object is to express yourself. And if you’ve got nothing to express, you have no character, no humanity to express, then what good is all the technique?

BM: So how do you feel about yourself in that regard?

DS: I have no technique and I’m rapidly losing my personality [laughs]. I don’t know what’s happening to me right now. I’m going through a transition that I don’t quite understand; so, consequently, I can’t articulate it very well.

BM: But you’ve made your mark over the years in the sense that your sound is immediately identifiable.

DS: I guess I…and I don’t mean to be naive or humble about it, you know, but I guess I have. And it’s a little bit uncomfortable for me to think about that because I don’t think of myself as an innovator, in the slightest. I think when people tell me that, it’s harder for me to grasp what that means. I mean, I think more than anything else, I just happened to be the only guy around playing alto in mostly a pop and r&b idiom during the early ’70s. And I think that because of the exposure that I got through David Bowie [YoungAmericans] or Stevie Wonder [TalkingBook] or James Taylor [“How Sweet It Is”] or Bruce Springsteen [Born To Run], I was very lucky. ’Cause I’m not doing anything new. I never was doing anything particularly new or innovative. I was just distilling a lot of my influences. You know, I was always trying to sound like Cannonball or Phil Woods or Jackie McLean or Hank Crawford or other people I greatly admired.

A 16-year-old Sanborn on the bandstand with baritone saxophonist Hamiett Bluiett in St. Louis

BM: But you established something, a signature quality. I never really cared for David Bowie that much until that sax in “Young Americans” caught my ear. Not the line so much as the sound.

DS: Well, I think that’s what you try to do as a player, in any form of self-expression, you find yourself. You refine your craft but whatever comes out is you. And when I say I tried to sound like Cannonball, what I meant was I would listen to him and emulate that quality, that energy. I couldn’t try to play those licks because I couldn’t do that. That wasn’t me. It’s like the reason I’m not a bebop player, necessarily. I mean, I can affect some of the mannerisms of bebop and I relate to the time feel and I understand a certain amount of it, but me trying to play that is, like…why? You step out of your idiom, your focus of expression, to learn. You do those other things to learn, to grow. But what you come back to is your…I don’t want to use the word “art” because I don’t necessarily think of what I do as art.

BM: It’s your voice.

DS: Yeah, you come back to your voice. And whatever avenue you choose, whatever you have to say to the world, it comes down to that basic thing. It’s your own voice, whether it’s as a painter, a sculptor, a writer. It’s like Hunter S. Thompson or John Updike or whoever. It’s their voice, their point of view. And in a more abstract way, that’s what music is — somebody’s point of view about the world. It’s all their influences, and you can maybe hear all the influences. But you distill all those influences and they come through, hopefully, in a very subconscious way. They make you what you are and they give you a connection to the tradition. But your voice is your point of view about that tradition.

BM: And once you find your voice, it becomes a question of application, the context. And that could be a difficult decision these days, given all the avenues you could take, not to mention the pressures that come to bear on artists from record companies.

DS: It can be a trap, in a sense. It’s what happens to a lot of sidemen when they finally make their solo record, or to studio players. All of a sudden they say, “Hey, I can do this and that and this over here.” Well, that’s fine, but what about YOU. I know you can play jazz and rock and r&b and whatever, but where are YOU in all of that? So I think it’s important to create the context, whether you actually create it physically or just generate it like a Miles Davis does. I mean, Miles doesn’t write music but he does create music. There’s no doubt that during the period when Wayne Shorter was writing all the music for Miles that it was still indeed Miles’ music. Even though Wayne wrote it and provided the raw materials, Miles shaped the context. And I’ve had that experience in the few times that I’ve worked with Miles. Same with Gil [Evans]. They’re both arrangers creating a context for the voices. When Gil did the arrangements with Miles for Porgy And Bess, they became Gil’s arrangements even though in a lot of cases what he did was just orchestrate Gershwin’s piano score. He told me that. But it’s how he orchestrated it, how he shaped the music that made it his personal statement. And the fact that he chose that particular score also helped to shape the context. It’s all of those things that go into it. There’s a lot more to playing than just playing. And it’s…I think I’m just having to re-evaluate the whole thing, the whole process, for myself right now.

BM: And what things are you thinking about?

DS: Just kinda getting a sense of what I want to do for myself from now on. I don’t want to think about what I’d do in an idiom. It seems like what I’m doing has become very stylized, as a result of my own actions and as a result of other people imitating me. I mean, it’s a little disconcerting to hear them. And in a lot of cases these guys play better than I do, with a lot more technical facility than I have. I hear some people who have my sound with Mike Brecker’s technique [laughs]. And they’re good players and I guess I should be flattered that people consider me an influence, just in terms of sound. I think that’s really where my influence has been on players, with the sound.

BM: While you may be flattered, you’re also leery of that whole copycat trip.

DS: Yeah, I don’t wanna listen to that stuff too much, you know? It’s a little distracting sometimes, but I don’t dwell on it. I don’t say to myself, “Well, gee, I gotta sound different now.” It’s all kind of funny to me, especially when I hear somebody copy mistakes I’ve made on record. There’s a guy who…I won’t mention his name…I shouldn’t actually say this…naw, forget it.

BM: There have been hordes of sax players who have imitated, or tried to imitate, John Coltrane or Charlie Parker.

DS: Well, how can you be a tenor player and not be influenced by John Coltrane or be an alto player and not be influenced by Charlie Parker?

BM: By the same token, how can you be an aspiring alto player in 1988 and not be influenced by David Sanborn?

DS: Yeah, but the difference is that Charlie Parker was an innovator and a genius whereas I’m just…I have a style of playing. Charlie Parker was an innovator rhythmically, harmonically, melodically. He revolutionized the instrument. And music. And, I mean, I’m closer to somebody that sort of came up with an interesting sound, and I was lucky enough to make a living with it and to have people want to hire me so I could play and continue to learn how to play my instrument better. But I think it would be a…I mean, it’s not even in the same…you can’t even say me and Charlie Parker in the same breath because there’s an abyss there between what he did and what I did. I just have a pleasing kind of sound and a style that happens to be…I’m not in any way an innovator. And I’m not putting myself down because I don’t think that’s my karma, to be a great innovator. I mean, I’d like to play better than I do and I’d like to continue to play better than I play now, but I also have to be realistic about what are the tools that I have to work with. I want it to be very clear what I’m trying to say. I get a little uncomfortable when people say that I’m an innovator, because I don’t think I am.

BM: I’m just suggesting that kids emulate you…

DS: Because I’m what they hear.

BM: Right, but they might be emulating you…

DS: Because that’s all they hear. They don’t hear Charlie Parker on the radio.

BM: But in some cases, ambitious kids coming out of conservatories may choose to emulate you because they read Billboard and see that your albums are charting.

DS: They look at me and say, “Here’s a guy who’s making money doing it so I’m gonna sound like him so I can have a lot of money too.” Yeah, I think that’s got a lot to do with it too, and that’s discouraging. It’s like, “Sure, Charlie Parker’s great, but where is he now? I gotta pay my rent somehow.” Yeah, that’s a little discouraging, which is why I think it’s great that somebody like Wynton Marsalis came along and said, “You can play this music and make a living.”And he not only inspired a lot of young players with that attitude but he also helped to create that kind of reality for the record companies to say, “Well, people are listening to this music. People are buying these records.” And they are, and they do. But that whole financial aspect cannot be the primary motivating force behind what you do. I mean, that’s not why I’m doing what I’m doing. That’s not why I started. I didn’t go into a business. I became a musician because I love the music. And the business part is what came up later, because you have to make a living like everybody else. And I got very lucky because I was able to make a good living doing what I’m doing. But, I mean, I don’t have a mansion and a limousine. I don’t sell millions of records, but I do OK. My rent is paid here but this is not a palace, and I’ve been living here for 15 years in a rent-stabilized building so my rent is fairly low. But I’ve got 10 saxophones and I’ve got mobility. I can make records and go out on the road and play. I have opportunities. And that, to me, is the greatest reward. That’s the tangible reward of success: being able to afford to go out and play music and make records. Everything else is gravy. If you get an extra couple of thousand dollars for Christmas to buy a special gift for somebody, or if you wanna buy another instrument and you don’t have to think about it before you do it, that’s great; to say, “Yeah, I want that new alto,” and take it. But I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’m 43 years old. I didn’t even make a record on my own until I was in my 30s. And I haven’t really been economically successful up until the last few years.

BM: There are a lot of misconceptions about what you're making?

DS: I get it all the time. I used to get it from jazz players who would have an attitude about me because they thought I was making all this money. 1 mean, some people think I’m incredibly wealthy. Now Kenny G…he’s got a lot of money [laughs], but he sold 2.5 million records. I don’t sell in those kinds of numbers. I don’t make that kind of money.

BM: People see a face on an album cover and right away assume the guys rich.

DS: Yeah, there’s that association. And when people see you on tv, forget about it. If you’re on tv they’ll say, “This guy’s got a place in LA, he lives on Park Avenue, he’s got limos and bitches,” you know, the whole nine yards. But, it’s all fantasy. So right now, I’m rearranging my priorities and not getting caught up in the machinery of success, because it’s so seductive. You know, the urge to say, “Well, let’s just do this and it'll sell.” Because when you do that, you die inside. And the ironic thing is if you die musically then you die commercially too. I believe that. Maybe I’m naive in that regard. But I really believe that the true sense of being commercial in the long run is to be yourself and hope that people will buy that. But if you go into it thinking about trying to calculate what people are going to like and trying to figure out what they might buy and then you go and do that, then you’re screwed.

BM: Because trends change every two years.

DS: Not only that but…why do this? Why not go out and be a commodities trader if you wanna make a lot of money quick. I mean…I guess there is a lot of quick and easy money in music. It hasn’t occurred to me to do it that way. I’ve been a working musician for 25 years and I’ve gone through a lot. I’ve been on unemployment a lot. You know, I’ve had times where I didn’t have enough money to pay the rent or whatever. I’ve gone through it. And it’s definitely better not to have that kind of pressure hanging over you from month to month. But relieving that doesn’t necessarily make your life better. Sometimes if you’re really doing something that you really love, being broke can be a minor inconvenience. Sure, you gotta make a living, but you gotta do this [make music] because you love it. And you gotta play the music you love or there’s no point to it. You gotta care about what you do, you know? And it has to be more than some calculated way to make a lot of money. You gotta enjoy it. And I do enjoy it.

BM: And this change you're going through?

DS: I have an early warning system. If I get to the point where I start to see that I’m going in the wrong direction, I put the breaks on. And so, it’s not necessarily something that 1 do that I’m dissatisfied with that causes me to say, “OK, now it’s time to change.” It’s just that I sense that, “Oh oh, there’s some rocks up ahead. I better pull off the road a little bit and think this over.” And that’s where I’m at now, I guess.

photo by Alice Soyer

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