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Home » International Musician » David Sanborn: Crossing Genres and Generations

David Sanborn: Crossing Genres and Generations


It almost seems like it would be easier to list the people that David Sanborn of Local 802 (New York City) has not played with than those he’s performed or recorded with. His long list of memorable collaborations began when he was just a kid sitting in with Little Milton and Albert King at a St. Louis, Missouri, youth center that he frequented. Before launching a solo career that has spanned three decades, he’d already played with The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Gil Evans, and David Bowie, among numerous others.

From the very beginning he’s been an AFM musician, signing up while still a teenager. “It kind of represented a transition into adulthood to have a union card,” says Sanborn. “I’m a firm believer in organized labor. I think the union is a strong advocate for musicians’ rights, establishing fair pay and a pension fund.”

“They’ve done a tremendous service for me,” he continues. “Just representing my rights as a musician in particular. When I was starting out there was union scale. You knew you were always going to be guaranteed fair pay for the work you did. That gives you a tremendous amount of comfort, security, and self-respect. Music is a hard profession to survive in. Without the union it’s every man or woman for themselves, and that’s just not a way to live.”


Sanborn’s life of music began as a therapy. At age three he contracted polio and spent a year in an iron lung, plus another year of paralysis. As he slowly recovered, music became a part of his life, and what he heard would later influence his musical sensibilities.

“I used to listen to the radio late at night with all the lights off,” he recalls. “Growing up in St. Louis I heard blues, country, jazz—all different kinds of music. With all the lights off hearing the music late at night was a cinematic experience. Because the music blended together, the context was much broader. There was no separation [by genre]. And as I was growing up, most of the musicians that I ended up playing with pretty much shared that attitude.”

At age 11, a doctor suggested he pick up a wind instrument to improve his lung function. “It was 1956 and the popular music—Jimmy Dorsey, Little Richard, Fats Domino—had a lot of saxophone in it,” he recalls. “Saxophone was the solo instrument of rock and roll. The final catalyst for me was hearing the Ray Charles Band with Hank Crawford and David ?Newman—two great saxophone players. That music meant everything to me. It was jazz, gospel, and rhythm and blues, all rolled up into one.”

“I guess at one point I realized that I really didn’t want to do anything else,” says Sanborn, whose first big break was joining the Paul Butterfield Band in 1967. The group performed at Woodstock and toured with The Rolling Stones. Then came other opportunities, like playing with Stevie Wonder of Local 5 (Detroit, MI). Sanborn even had simultaneous gigs with Gil Evans and David Bowie, going back and forth between the two—a real tribute to his versatility.

“It was great,” he says. “I really enjoy jumping around like that. I think it keeps you fresh and prevents you from getting locked into doing things one way. It gives you an understanding that music is a continuum; there’s no separation with pop music over here and jazz over there.”

Taking Off

In 1974, Sanborn decided he wanted to start “calling the shots” and making music that reflected where he was at the time. He launched his solo career after getting an opportunity to make a demo for Warner. “I think Mo Ostin [at Warner] owed my friend John [Court, producer of the Butterfield band’s albums] a favor or something and they signed me as a solo artist. I produced my first record [Taking Off] and it did well enough that they agreed to keep me on the label,” says Sanborn.

“The guys that I used on the CD were people I had been playing with, Mike and Randy [Brecker], Will Lee, Steve Gadd [members of Local 802],” says Sanborn, recalling his smooth transition to a solo career. “I felt I was doing what I always did, but I was able to shape the music and choose the songs; so it wasn’t much of a leap. I continued to work as a sideman for a long time.”

In the late ’80s Sanborn even hosted his own radio program, The Jazz Show with David Sanborn, and a late night music television program, Night Music. “The radio show was kind of an outgrowth of a lot of things that I had been doing at the time,” says Sanborn.

Lorne Michaels, whom Sanborn knew from guest appearances on Saturday Night Live, produced the television show. “It was very rewarding,” says Sanborn of the show that ran for two seasons on NBC. “We were able to draw some great talent and we put a lot of music on television that had not gotten on television before.”

Part of the premise of the show was bringing disparate musical influences together, something Sanborn has done throughout his career. He quickly dismisses efforts to classify him and his music genre-wise, recalling the melting pot influences he started out with in St. Louis.

Sanborn says that, even today, with the wide range of music that many popular artists play, there are still some that insist on strictly categorizing music. “I still see a bit of camps; people being very protective and exclusionary about music,” he says. “I’ve never felt that way.”

When asked how his own music has evolved or changed over the years, Sanborn insists that it’s been more of an organic ebb and flow process than a conscious effort to evolve. “I’m probably the worst person to judge that,” he says. “I am not aware of the incremental changes. It’s just like getting older; you don’t see it yourself because you see yourself every day. You are not as aware of the process as someone looking at it from the outside who may only see you occasionally.”

Quartette Humaine

David Sanborn’s latest project, Quartette Humaine, reunites him with pianist Bob James also of Local 802, about 27 years after the pair recorded the platinum-selling Grammy-award winning album Double Vision. It was a reunion long overdue.

“We never really had a chance to perform that music live,” explains Sanborn. “We were at the Tokyo Jazz Festival two-and-a-half years ago, and had an opportunity to play together live for the first time. We thought, ‘You know, we need to seriously think about getting together to do an album and go on tour.’ The idea gathered steam and one thing led to another. We were able to make a record and now we are planning to go out on tour to play the music from the new record, and maybe some of the older stuff as well.”

Quartette Humaine is an all-acoustic project, which Sanborn says was spontaneous, and at the same time, challenging. “It’s a straight quartet record,” he says. “There’s no sweetening of the tracks with additional synthesizers or overdubs. It was all done live in the studio. It was a lot of fun to do and kind of reflects where Bob and I are at these days. So, we have kind of tried to bring our musical relationship up to the present day.”

“The point of departure for us was the idea of the Brubeck quartet,” continues Sanborn, who adds that the album became somewhat of a tribute following the pianist’s death last December, one week before the recording sessions. “Both of us loved that quartet, and particularly the interplay between Dave Brubeck and saxophone player Paul Desmond. But, rather than trying to do versions of Brubeck’s music, we just kind of took on the spirit of the quartet.”

Looking back at the 24 albums he’s released, Sanborn says his favorite project is always the one he’s most recently completed. In this case, Quartette Humaine. It’s a sign of his optimistic and adventuresome attitude in a career in which he’s won six Grammy awards and had eight gold records.

“I think there are moments on each CD that I’m particularly happy with,” he adds, giving a few examples. “On the album Here and Gone [2008] I did ‘St. Louis Blues,’ and I like the way that came out. Also, on that record, there’s ‘Basin Street Blues.’ On my last album, Only Everything [2010], I’m very pleased with the title tune.”

Quartette Humaine will be released at the end of this month. This summer Sanborn will be touring in a quartet with Bob James, as well as with his trio. Sanborn’s next album, already in the works, will probably be released in 2014.

Sanborn attributes his success to a lot of hard work and a little luck. “I think I just kind of put one foot in front of the other and wasn’t discouraged by setbacks,” he says. “There are an awful lot of great musicians out there. It’s about hanging in there, working hard, and being ready for a break when and if it occurs. That’s really all you can do. Work hard and hope you get lucky.”

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