An alto saxophonist with a signature squeal, David Sanborn is a musician at the height of his career. Indeed, after spending years developing his own sound, the artist now finds that other saxophonists are trying to imitate him. “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,” observed Bill Milkowski in the introduction to his interview with the star for down beat. The Sanborn of the eighties, however—busy juggling live performing with studio playing as well as scoring films and hosting a radio show—has little time to worry about copycats.
The St. Louis native’s struggle to the top began during the 1960s, when he played with rhythm and blues bands in the midwest. After sharpening his skills with Albert King and Little Milton, he headed for San Francisco, where he joined the Paul Butterfield Blues Band around 1967. By the early seventies he was gaining visibility for his work with such stars as David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, and Bruce Springsteen, and in 1975 he cut his first solo album, Taking Off. Since 1981, when he received a Grammy Award for best rhythm and blues instrumental performance for Voyeur, Sanborn has found his career on a stellar trajectory.
Although his playing is rooted in rhythm and blues, the saxman has made a splash in jazz circles, with a number of his albums securing top spots on the jazz charts. Sanborn, however, denies that he is a jazz musician. When down beat interviewer Gene Kalbacher noted that Sanborn used “a certain amount of improvisation and jazz phrasing and swing, which are essential ingredients or components of jazz,” the musician agreed but qualified Kalbacher’s remarks, explaining: “I don’t see myself in a direct line in the tradition of jazz. I didn’t come out of that tradition…. Most of the contexts I’ve played in have been either blues-based or r&b or straight-out rock & roll. What experience I’ve had in playing jazz has been pretty sporadic…. And I’m not trying to distance myself from jazz in any way. I’m just trying to clarify how I think of myself. See, I don’t want to misrepresent myself, and I don’t want to misrepresent the music.”
Disinclined to be limited by any label, Sanborn has devoted himself to developing an individual style, and many critics and fans have credited him with success. But he has also eschewed his acclaim as an innovator, telling Milkowski that he sees himself not as an original so much as a synthesizer. “I’m not doing anything new,” he remarked. “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.”
Regardless of his tactics and his disclaimers, Sanborn
Born in St. Louis, Mo. (?), in 1945. Education: Attended Northwestern University and University of Iowa.
Saxophonist and composer. Began playing in rhythm-and-blues bands in St. Louis, including time with Albert King and Little Milton; started performing in the San Francisco area in 1967, including work with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band; has worked with many other artists, among them Stevie Wonder, 1970-72, as well as such vocalists as James Taylor, Paul Simon, and Rickie Lee Jones; solo recording artist, 1975—; tours with own band; has scored several films, including “Soul Man” and the unreleased “Stelle Sulla Citta”; host and co-producer of NBC-radio’s “The Jazz Show,” 1986—; regularly accompanies The World’s Most Dangerous Band on NBC-TV’s “Late Night With David Letterman.”
Awards: Grammy Award from Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, for best rhythm and blues instrumental performance, 1981, for Voyeur, and for best pop instrumental, 1989, for Close Up.
is generally regarded as a saxophonist who has managed to create his own singular sound. “He goes for the heart,” assessed down beat interviewer Robin Tolleson, adding that “a Sanborn contribution to an album may only be three minutes long, but always conjures up a range of feelings, and always leaves a mark.” Similarly, Albert de Genova, also writing for down beat, commented that Sanborn has the ability to communicate “intense musical emotion to a capacity crowd … with every scream, with every honk, with every crying blue note” he strengthens “the empathy between musician and listener.”
Discussing his technique with Tolleson, the artist explained that he enjoys experimenting with dynamics—gradations of volume—in his soloing not only because it’s “another element of music and improvising, and melodic creativity” but because he believes “you shape a line using dynamics—in terms of attack and crescendo, decrescendo, and phrasing, legato, and staccato.” In this respect, the saxophonist revealed that he has learned the most from Stevie Wonder, with whom he worked in the early seventies. “I picked up a lot of his little turns, and mordents, and appoggiaturas, and all that—things that he did on harmonica. And I think probably Stevie more than anybody else influenced some of the little grace notes—the mannerisms of my playing that I hear a lot of other people imitating when they’re trying to sound like me. Those little ‘da-de-aa-da,’ those turns and stuff.”
Indeed, because Sanborn’s sound is perceived as both original and commercially successful, it has spawned many copiers. But Sanborn, who lived through many impoverished years before finding financial success, believes that it’s fruitless to adopt a particular musical approach strictly for commercial purposes. “Because when you do that, you die inside,” he reflected in his conversation with Milkowski. He continued: “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.”
The saxophonist, who defines success in terms of opportunities to make music rather than in economic terms, confessed to Tolleson that for him, even becoming a musician was a calling rather than a conscious choice. “I don’t feel like I really chose to be a musician. I feel like it just happened, and that it almost chose me. It was part destiny, part free choice. Music became what I had to do. It was never something I thought about, nor did I have any goals or aspirations in that area. It was just my means of expression, my way of expressing how I felt about the world. It just became my voice.”
Finding that voice has opened the door to many opportunities for the saxman. From his early days as a studio musician and member of rhythm and blues bands Sanborn has gone on to tour with his own band, score films, and host his own radio program, “The Jazz Show.” But above all he has earned a reputation, in Kalbacher’s words, for “rhythmic directness,” for becoming “the alto saxman whose semisweet-yet-mas-culine tone and rhapsodic rhythm & blues drive have endeared him to the doyens of rock and pop.”
Taking Off, 1975.
Promise Me the Moon, 1977.
Heart to Heart, 1978.
As We Speak, 1982.
Straight to the Heart, 1984.
Sanborn has also performed with many other musicians on a variety of albums, including Double Vision and Heads with Bob James, Undercover with the Rolling Stones, In My Own Dream, Keep on Moving, and The Resurrection ofPigboy Crabshaw with Paul Butterfield, Talking Book with Stevie Wonder, Gorilla with James Taylor, Young Americans with David Bowie, Svengali with Gil Evans, Electric Outlet with John Scofield, Pirates with Rickie Lee Jones, and Gaucho with Steely Dan.
down beat, March, 1983; August, 1984; August, 1986; August, 1988.
—Nancy H. Evans
Saxophone, composer, bandleader
Two-time Grammy Award winner David Sanborn, a highly visible and often emulated entertainer in America since the mid-1970s, has influenced saxophone players from an array of styles, especially popular music. Arguably possessing the most distinctive alto saxophone sound in the pop spectrum, Sanborn has contributed to the world of music his own passionate technique—complete with crying and squealing high notes. His emotional interpretations of melodies have always uplifted any recording or live performance, regardless of the specific genre. Although most of Sanborn’s own recordings take on rhythm and blues, dance music, pop, and rock and roll, he is also an accomplished jazz player. However, Sanborn has remained quick to contend that “I’m not a jazz musician,” as quoted by Down Beat contributor Howard Mandel in 1993, and “I sometimes get looped with jazz musicians because I play sax and improvise,” he told Los Angeles Times writer Bill Kohlhaase in 1996. “Not that I’m offended by the description,” he further explained to Mandel, “but I think the rhythmic orientation of what I do is not really jazz. Where I came from, the kind of musical context I grew up in, the kind of playing I did when I was a young player, and the way my playing formed was in more of a rhythm and blues context. The music that really made me want to become a musician was by Ray Charles. David Newman and Hank Crawford were the guys. They combined the sophistication, some of the harmonic sensibility, certainly the hipness, and the rhythmic undercurrent of jazz with the emotional directness of gospel and the structural elements of r&b.”
Although the majority of Sanborn’s output as a bandleader and soloist is indistinguishable from one album to the next, according to music critics, his sound never seems to wear thin. He has achieved longevity with his consistent technique by shining as a soloist, assembling top sidemen for his projects, and developing first-rate arrangements. His own brand of jazz fusion has always avoided the usual clichés, and he never plays down to the listener. Essentially a groove player, Sanborn has remained enjoyable over his 25-year recording history primarily because he is one of the few saxophonists of his generation who understands how to translate a soul singer’s sense of time and line to jazz. Whether performing soul, funk, pop, rock, or occasionally improvised jazz, Sanborn plays solid with each subsequent effort. During his musical career, Sanborn has led several of his own groups and participated in an eclectic number of others, including John Scofield’s Electric Outlet, Steely Dan, and Rickie Lee Jones’ band. He has also hosted and co-produced the NBC radio program The Jazz Show, hosted his own syndicated television series called Night Music to bring rarely seen players (like Sonny Rollins, Sun Ra, and James Taylor) to the public eye, and
Born David William Sanborn on July 30, 1945, in Tampa, FL; raised in St. Louis, MO. Education: Studied at Northwestern University.
Began playing in rhythm and blues bands as a teenager, including time with Albert King and Little Milton; joined Paul Butterfield Blues Band, 1976; worked with numerous other artists, among them Stevie Wonder, 1970-72; established solo career, 1975; scored music for films such as Soul Man; hosted radio program The Jazz Show and the television series Night Music; has appeared regularly on The Late Show with David Letterman.
Awards: Grammy Awards for best rhythm and blues instrumental performance for 1981’s Voyeur, 1982; with collaborator Bob James for Double Vision, 1987; and for best pop instrumental for 1988’s Close-Up, 1989.
Addresses: Record company —Elektra Records, 345 N. Maple Dr., Ste. 123, Beverly Hills, CA 90210, phone: (310) 288-3800. Booking information—ICM, 8942 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90211, phone: (310) 550-4000, fax: (310) 550-4100. Website— David Sanborn at Elektra Records, http://www.wlwktra.com/jazz_club/sanborn/sanborn.html.
appeared on a regular basis with Paul Schaeffer’s band on CBS television’s The Late Show with David Letterman (previously known as Late Night with David Letterman on NBC).
Born on July 30, 1945, in Tampa, Florida, and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, David William Sanborn started playing the saxophone as therapy for a case of polio he suffered with as a youngster. Sanborn gravitated toward the blues tradition, he believed, because at the time that was the context he found himself in. “What was available to me in St. Louis was rhythm & blues bands,” he remarked in a 1994 interview with Ed Enright of Down Beat. “I also think that emotionally I went there because of the directness of the music.” He began playing in rhythm and blues bands in St. Louis, including time with jazz greats Albert King and Little Milton while still a teenager, and also studied music at Northwestern University—one of the few schools with a saxophone department at the time—under Fred Hemke. While at Northwestern, located near Chicago, Illinois, Sanborn developed an interest in the city’s rich blues tradition, a form that would help shape his work as a composer and solo recording artist. Playing with King, as well as with Gil Evans and his orchestra, in jazz and blues clubs around St. Louis taught the aspiring saxophonist to play with conviction and emotion all the time. Along with Evans, King, and his primary influence, Crawford, Sanborn also cited Lou Donaldson, Jackie McLean, and Charlie Parker as important figures in his own development.
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, Sanborn had become a much sought-after sideman and session musician. In this capacity, he participated with an array of artists from across the musical spectrum. Not only did Sanborn further explore his rhythm and blues roots during his days as a sideman, but he also extended his talents to rock, soul, funk, and pop. Some of his most significant connections early on included stints with Paul Butterfield (aside from recording several albums with the bandleader, whose band he joined in 1967, Sanborn also performed with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band at the original Woodstock), the Gil Evans Orchestra, Stevie Wonder (1972’s Talking Book ), James Brown, David Bowie (the 1975 soul classic Young Americans ), Paul Simon, B.B. King, the Becker Brothers, the Eagles, and numerous others.
As a solo artist and bandleader, Sanborn accumulated a long list of popular successes. His debut solo outing arrived in 1975 with Taking Off, which included the memorable wah-wah pedal track “Butterfat” and helped spur major-label record company interest in fusion music. After recording his 1976 self-titled effort, Sanborn returned in 1978 with the acclaimed Heart to Heart. Here, Sanborn made changes and took chances, such as augmenting the usual pop-fusion rhythm section with horns (courtesy of the Gil Evans Orchestra) that earned him critical praise. His fourth effort, the breakthrough rhythm and blues album Hideaway released in 1980 placed Sanborn at the forefront, establishing him as one of pop’s premier saxophonists and cementing his mainstream appeal. With this release, Sanborn garnered the first of his several Grammy Award nominations.
In 1982, Sanborn took home his first Grammy for best rhythm and blues instrumental performance for his goldselling album Voyeur (released in 1981). His next album, 1982’s As We Speak, brought Sanborn further acclaim for his chance-taking and musical experimentation. Rather than focus solely on alto saxophone, As We Speak saw the composer switching from alto to soprano for several numbers. Continuing to investigate a myriad of styles throughout the remainder of the decade, in 1984 Sanborn released one of his greatest critical achievements, Straight to the Heart, which used a live studio strategy to add extra fire to the instrumental interplay. In 1987, Sanborn, along with collaborator Bob James, earned another Grammy for the platinum-selling Double Vision, and in 1989, Sanborn earned a third Grammy, this time for best pop instrumental for 1988’s Close-Up.
Sanborn maintained his popularity throughout the 1990s as well. In all, Sanborn boasted album sales exceeding the six million mark, netting one platinum and six gold albums, including the urban funk album Upfront released in 1992. Occasionally, he surprised the music industry with non-pop ventures such as the acclaimed Another Hand released in 1991. A complete departure that earned critical overwhelming approval, the album matched Sanborn with an eclectic mix of new-jazz artists such as guitarists Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot, as well as traditional jazz heavyweights like bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Likewise, Sanborn guested on a 1993 album entitled Diminutive Mysteries, recorded with avant-garde alto saxophonist Tim Berne. A tribute to Berne’s teacher and main influence, Julius Hemphill, Mysteries collected seven Hemphill compositions, plus one Berne piece, played by a group fronted by Berne on alto and baritone saxophone and Sanborn on alto and soprano saxophone. In 1995, Sanborn revealed another side of his musicianship with Pearls, for which he was accompanied by a string orchestra arranged by Johnny Mandel.
Returning to traditional rhythm and blues textures and urban music influences in 1996, Sanborn released Songs from the Night Before, his fourteenth solo outing. “I’m lucky enough to really love what I do,” said Sanborn, as quoted on his website at Elektra Records. “I get to do an album every 12 to 18 months, and it always seems to be a reflection of where I’m at musically at that particular point. I’ve been listening to more R&B pop recently… like D’Angelo for example. It’s interesting how some of it goes back to some of the ‘70s stuff I grew up around. The production is different, but the vibe is there.”
In 1999, Sanborn returned with Inside, and also performed at Madison Square Garden in New York with a concert billed as “Eric Clapton and Friends.” The show, which also featured Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow, and Mary J. Blige and aired on television’s VH1, raised over $5 million for Clapton’s Crossroads Centre, a drug and alcohol treatment facility that the legendary guitarist/songwriter founded on the island of Antigua in 1997.
Taking Off, Warner Brothers, 1975.
David Sanborn, Warner Brothers, 1976.
Heart to Heart, Warner Brothers, 1978.
Hideaway, Warner Brothers, 1979.
Voyeur, Warner Brothers, 1981.
As We Speak, Warner Brothers, 1982.
Backstreet, Warner Brothers, 1983.
Straight to the Heart, Warner Brothers 1984.
A Change of Heart, Warner Brothers, 1987.
Close-Up, Reprise 1988.
Another Hand, Elektra, 1991.
Upfront, Elektra, 1992.
The Best of David Sanborn, Warner Brothers, 1994.
Hearsay, Warner Brothers, 1994.
Pearls, Elektra, 1995.
Songs from the Night Before, Elektra, 1996.
Inside, Elektra/Asylum, 1999.
Contemporary Musicians, Vol. 1, Gale Research, 1989.
Swenson, John, editor, Rolling Stone Jazz & Blues Album Guide, Random House, 1999.
Boston Globe, July 2, 1999.
Down Beat, February 1993; October 1994; March 1998.
Los Angeles Times, June 19, 1996; July 11, 1998; August 23, 1999; October 4, 1999.
People, December 18, 1989.
Washington Post, June 2, 1999.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 9, 2000).
“David Sanborn,” Centerstage Media, http://www.centerstage.net/chicago/music/whoswho/DavidSanborn.html (March 9, 2000).
David Sanborn at Elektra Records, http://www.wlwktra.com/jazz_club/sanborn/sanborn.html (March 9, 2000).
PRA Presents David Sanborn, http://www.prarecords.com/artists/sanborn/ (March 9, 2000).
Sanborn, David , hit-making jazz-fusion saxophonist of the 1980s; b. Tampa, Fla., July 30, 1945. Although born in Fla., David Sanborn grew up in St. Louis. Despite an early bout with polio as a child (that causes him to lean to one side when he plays), he developed a powerful, biting sound on his alto saxophone. By the age of 15, he was sitting in with local bluesmen such as Little Milton and Albert King. In the later 1960s, he became a member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, playing with them at Woodstock. During the 1970s, he became an in-demand session player working with artists ranging from Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, and Bruce Springsteen to Gil Evans. He played the sax on David Bowie’s hit “Young Americans.”
While he still continues to work as a session musician, since 1975 Sanborn has earned kudos for his solo work. He started releasing rhythm and blues- flavored dance music with jazzy improvisation, earning the Best R&B Instrumental Performance Grammy in 1981 for “All I Need Is You.” His 1985 record Straight to the Heart won him the Best Jazz Fusion Performance or Instrumental Grammy in 1985. He took the same award home a year later for his work with Bob James on Double Vision. A year after that, he took Best R&B Instrumental Performance, Orch., Group or Soloist for “Chicago Song,” taking the same award home the next year for Close-up, with its rollicking cover of “You Are Everything.” During this period of recording success, Sanborn also hosted the weekly late night variety show Night Music, which generally hosted an eclectic group of musicians and gave them the opportunity to play together. He also hosted a show for National Public Radio.
By 1991, Sanborn felt comfortable enough with his success to emphasize his love of jazz over his more pop-oriented hits. Upfront marked the first release Sanborn considered jazz. Even his follow-up, the more earthy, blues- oriented Another Hand included a cover of Omette Coleman’s “Ramblin’.” However, by the middle of the decade, he returned to more mainstream work. 1995’s Pearls found him playing ballads with an orchestra arranged and conducted by Johnny Mandel. He earned his sixth Grammy in 1999, taking the trophy for Best Contemporary Jazz Performance for his Inside album.
Taking Off (1975); Love Songs (1976); Sanborn (1976); Promise Me the Moon (1977); Heart to Heart (1978); Hideaway (1979); Voyeur (1980); As We Speak (1981); Backstreet (1982); Straight to the Heart (1984); A Change of Heart (1987); Close-Up (1988); Another Hand (1991); Upfront (1992); Hearsay (1994); Pearls (1995); Songs from the Night Before (1996); Inside (1999).