David Sanborn, renowned saxophonist, dies at the age of 78

by 24USATVMay 14, 2024, 2 a.m. 22
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Saxophonist David Sanborn, one of the most influential saxophonists in contemporary jazz and pop, died on March 12 2024. He was 78 years old. His death was announced on his Facebook page, which stated that the cause was complications from prostate cancer. The post indicated that Sanborn had been dealing with that cancer since 2018. In addition, he had recently undergone back surgery.

Sanborn not only had a long career as a leader of his own groups and recordings, but also was one of the most iconic soloists on pop and rock records, including massive hits such as David Bowie’s “Young Americans,” Stevie Wonder’s “Tuesday Heartbreak,” and James Taylor’s “How Sweet It is,” amongst many others. His soulful sound, influenced by his heroes like Hank Crawford and David Fathead Newman, in turn influenced dozens of contemporary saxophonists. Sanborn was also active as a broadcaster, hosting the trailblazing music variety network TV show Night Music in the 80s, and most recently hosting the As We Speak with David Sanbornpodcast for WBGO Studios.

David Sanborn was born on July 30, 1945, in Tampa. Fla, but was raised in Kirkwood, Mo., outside St. Louis. Stricken with childhood polio, the young Sanborn took up the saxophone ostensibly to improve his breathing and lung capacity. Instead, influenced by the jazz and R&B sounds of Ray Charles with David Fathead Newman, Jimmy McGriff with Hank Crawford, and local St. Louis blues and R&B figures, the instrument became a central part of his life. Sanborn said that his own love affair with that style of groove-oriented jazz began very early, even before he started playing the saxophone. The youngster heard Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk” with Clifford Scott on tenor and he was hooked. “When I heard that, I thought, ‘I can’t ever imagine being able to play that,” he explained to me in 2022. “There was so much personality in his playing. In St. Louis where I started out there were a few organ groups and there was one in particular that featured an acolyte of Jimmy Smith named Don James, who played at a club there called the Blue Note, believe it or not. It was one of those clubs that opened up at 10 o’clock at night and stayed open until six in the morning. We used to play from midnight until three or four in the morning. That was my first experience playing with an organist.”

Sanborn also had one foot in jazz, thanks to the aforementioned organists as well as people like Horace Silver and Lee Morgan. Trumpeter Randy Brecker had known Sanborn since they were teenagers in the early ‘60s when they both attended the National Stage Band Camp in Indiana, along with other young jazz talents like Keith Jarrett and Gary Burton. “Randy and I bonded at that time,” Sanborn said. “We just kind of hung out together and had a musical affinity, and we remained friends over the years. Matter of fact, when I first came to New York, Randy was one of the first people I called. What little studio work I got was pretty much through him. And we’ve just been friends ever since.”

Brecker remembered that initial meeting and being impressed with the 15-year-old Sanborn. “He stood out,” Brecker remembered. “Even then, he was already Sanborn. He developed it further, but he’s always had a distinctive sound and overall conception since his teens. There was something in his sound and overall conception that was just different from everyone else. There’s no way to describe the sound other than it’s just soulful. He never considered himself a jazz player. He just thought of music expressly and that separated him from the pack.”

The two, along with Randy’s brother Michael on tenor saxophone as well as Ronnie Cuber on baritone saxophone and Barry Rogers on trombone, would go on to form one of the most distinctive and in-demand horn sections of the ‘70s and ‘80s, recording with a who’s who of popular artists of that time and applying their signature funky note-bending sound to songs like Steely Dan’s “Babylon Sisters” and Bruce Springsteen’s “10th Avenue Freezeout.” Eventually the horn section would get a record deal of their own, as the Brecker Brothers, a name Randy was initially opposed to because Sanborn was such a key part of the band's sound without the Brecker surname.

Even before the Brecker Brothers, one of Sanborn’s early high profile gigs was with the seminal blues-rock group, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, whom he joined in 1967. The saxophonist had already played with blues legends such as Little Milton and Albert King when he was just a teenager back in St. Louis. Sanborn recorded four albums with Butterfield and even played with that group at Woodstock.

Of course, Sanborn would go on to have much success on his own as a first-call studio musician and as a recording artist who redefined contemporary jazz. In the ensuing years, he recorded more than two dozen albums, won six Grammy Awards and had eight gold albums and one platinum album— Double Vision with Bob James. Although that album is often credited with launching Smooth Jazz as a genre, Sanborn always bristled at any association with that particular moniker, which he felt was created by radio programmers, not musicians.

Brecker got a little insight into the concept behind the unique Sanborn sound, when the two found themselves on the road in Stevie Wonder’s band. “Dave told me one night that he was trying to do what Stevie does on harmonica on alto,” Brecker recalled. “And that made a lot of sense.”

For many years, a regular in the Saturday Night Live house band, as well as a frequent guest on David Letterman’s show, in the 80s Sanborn hosted a now iconic music variety show for network television, initially called Sunday Night, but later renamed as Night Music. Produced by Hal Willner and others, the show featured a unique and eclectic mix of nearly every genre of popular music at that time, often performing with a stellar house band featuring Sanborn, Marcus Miller, Hiram Bullock and Buddy Williams. Among the guests who appeared on the acclaimed but short-lived show were Sonny Rollins (who performed a memorable duet with Leonard Cohen), Miles Davis, Eric Clapton, Santana and many others, both known and unknown.

In recent years, he hosted a web series called Sanborn Sessions, in which he played and talked with other artists whom he admired, including Bob James, Cyrille Aimee, Terrace Martin, Sting, Christian McBride, Marcus Miller and the late Joey DeFrancesco, with whom Sanborn performed and recorded for several years.

Last year, WBGO launched the podcast, As We Speak with David Sanborn, in which the host had long-form conversations with more artists he admired, including Sonny Rollins, Pat Metheny, John Scofield, John McLaughlin, Samara Joy and Don Was.

Listen to Gary Walker's 2018 interview with Sanborn here.

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