In a recording career that spans nearly three decades, saxophonist Dave Koz has racked up an astoundingly impressive array of honors and achievements: nine GRAMMY® nominations, 11 No. 1 albums on Billboard’s Current Contemporary Jazz Albums chart, numerous world tours, 13 sold-out Dave Koz & Friends At Sea cruises, performances for multiple U.S. presidents, a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and appearances on a multitude of television shows, including “Good Morning America,” “The View,” “The Tonight Show,” “Entertainment Tonight” and more. A Platinum-selling artist, Koz is also known as a humanitarian, entrepreneur, radio host and instrumental music advocate. I had the pleasure of speaking with him on a beautiful summer afternoon and found that he, like his music, is infectious; full of energy and excitement. It is impossible to not to be drawn to Koz. And whether you are familiar with his music or not, there is no question that the saxophone community is fortunate to have him as an advocate. We hope you enjoy our interview with the amazing Dave Koz.
TS: I was reading up on your background, and I noticed that you grew up in a Jewish household, the son of a pharmacist, and a dermatologist. It made me think a lot about my own family. I can hear my aunt Helen saying, "you can play your saxophone, but you want to be a dentist." How did you end up being in the field you are in today?
DK: (Laughing). Yes, I get what you are saying. Coming from a Jewish family, you have those parental exceptions, you are right. I always played music growing up, and I loved it. Not to get too dramatic, but I feel discovering the saxophone at the time that I did, very well could have saved my life. As a kid, I was dealing with a lot of emotions that I didn't have a way of processing at the time. I found music, and music was my savior. I just put all of my emotions through the instrument. I think that is ultimately why I have my career because there was a lot of emotion going through my sound.
Growing up gay and not being able to talk about it with anyone, the saxophone became my best friend. But I never, ever thought of it as a career. I just thought it was fun. People seemed to react to the music I was making, and I got the opportunity to play on the weekends with my brother's band. He had a group that did weddings and bar mitzvahs and frat parties, and I just wanted to play in that band. I didn't even care what I played in the band. It was his suggestion that I play the saxophone. This was in the 70s and early 80s when every pop song had a saxophone in it.
After high school, I went to college as a communications major. But I made a deal with my parents. I would give music six months to see if I could make anything come of it. If nothing happened, then I would get a job. Two weeks after I graduated, I got a call from a singer, Bobby Caldwell, who invited me to audition for his band.
He was a tremendous inspiration to me and encouraged me to pursue my career in playing the saxophone. Through Bobby, I met Jeff Lorber who told me that I should be making my own records. I had never thought about that before he mentioned it. Jeff and Bobby were so special. I look at them as like the guides, when you are young and trying to find your way. Here they were on both sides of my path, guiding me forward. They both saw something in me that I didn’t even know was there; I am eternally grateful.
TS: You were in California at a time where there were a lot of high school honor bands, college programs, etc. Were you involved in that area as well?
DK: Yes, I was active in jazz band in high school, but it was also a time when music programs were being cut. I remember the only way we could have a jazz band was for it to meet at 7 am, before school started. So I remember biking to school in the morning to play jazz. Of course, we were all involved in high school and junior high school in competitions and performances.
TS: You talk about your time with Jeff Lorber, and it reminded me of another collaboration you had with Richard Marx. Can you talk about your experiences working with him?
DK: It was a fantastic experience from the standpoint that we were both with the same record label, Capitol Records. This was right before I did my first record. I was the saxophonist in his band, as well as the keyboard player when he wasn't playing keyboards. I remember we did our first gig in a small club for maybe a hundred people. This tour lasted for two years, and by the end, we were playing arenas for 10,000 plus. It showed me the power of a hit song and how it could propel a career forward. It is an entirely different experience than being a jazz musician. I still see him now and then, and he is still involved in the music business. I think that time taught me the importance of the collective experience. Nobody is more important than the whole when making music.
Recently I have had experience playing with The Foo Fighters. You can't imagine a more different experience than the one I am typically involved in. But it is wonderful. You can't imagine what it's like to be a saxophone player in a rock band like that. Likewise, they have never had a saxophone player, so it is unique to them.
I have also had great experiences with this 'internet phenomenon' group called Vulpeck. They are originally out of the University of Michigan. They have just exploded; so much so that they will headline Madison Square Garden this fall. Again, fresh, new fans that I get to experience, who also get to experience my playing. This is an audience that maybe hasn't been exposed to the saxophone. So that is a win, win for them and our instrument.
TS: Do you find that this young generation seems to be open to breaking down norms and walls? I see it in the classical saxophone world where old "schools" of playing are now cross-pollinating.
DK: I agree. This is a very exciting time for music, even though it's been an uncomfortable time for the music business over the past ten years. But I think it is moving toward a very democratic place. You don't have to have a record label or manager etc. Anyone who is making viable music can, with the flick of a button, get their music out to the world and be discovered. Now you still have to promote your music, so people know it is out there. That is always a tricky piece of the puzzle. But I have been completely blown away by music, especially over the last few years, in a way that I haven't been for quite some time.
I think this next wave of music is fueled through the medium of streaming media. How anyone can have music out there at any time and how exciting it is for music as a whole. I think for an instrumentalist, be it saxophone or whatever, this medium makes the music better.
TS: Now, this may seem like a strange question, but as someone who has a recessive promotion gene, I have to ask. Do you find it challenging to promote yourself or your music?
DK: (Laughing). I am with you, but I don't think my gene is recessive. I am fascinated by marketing. Remember, I was a communications major, so it comes a bit more naturally. For the better part of my career, I have been a radio host. I have hosted cruises and a lot of things where I am presenting music. I love being a cheerleader for my own music as well as for other people's music. When it comes to instrumental music, this advocation is particularly essential. We don't get the mainstream media attention other forms of music do, so I love being able to share this great music with the world. Even if you are a rap fan or listen to pop vocal music strictly, I feel there is room on your playlist for instrumental music, because music is all about mood.
TS: One of the things I find particularly interesting about your cruise events is that you invite a lot of fellow saxophone players. From the community, the musical side it certainly makes sense, but I frankly don't know many players who would be so open to hosting so many fellow players.
DK: Yeah, the last cruise, we had nine saxophone players. That's a record for us.
TS: And I think illegal in Iowa, correct?
DK: (Laughing) Yeah, maybe, not too many cruises in Iowa. But I was so happy to have those players be a part of the event. It was everyone from the megastars like Gerald Albright and Richard Elliot to brand new up-and-comers like Jazmin Ghent, who is a brand new voice and a fantastic talent. We have had the pleasure of watching several young talents grow and develop over time. It's a special thing for me to see.
TS: I have kind of a double-sided question. I know you were discovered by the great Bruce Lundvall and thrust into a career as an artist. But as time has progressed, you have also gone behind the microphone as a radio host and as a onetime owner of your own record label. How has your past as an artist influenced your future in these areas?
DK: Well, concerning the label, my partners and I saw an opportunity, at the time, to promote jazz music. There weren't a lot of labels dedicating themselves to the promotion of instrumental jazz. We had a window to try it. Sadly, it was just not the right time in the "smooth jazz" industry but is still a venture I am grateful to have been a part of. I got to be behind the scenes, put on that promotion hat, and work with amazing artists. So it developed me and informed me even more as an artist.
As for the radio show, it is just about being with other creative people and talking. I enjoy promoting and sharing their work with the listeners. Likewise, I learn more about them and ultimately get inspiration from their experiences and their music.
We just made an album, Live from the Dave Koz Cruise, which was a way to bottle the experience of the cruise so people who have not been on it can sense the vibe and excitement of what we do. There is something that happens when you take two-thousand people, from all walks of life and live and coexist on a ship for the time we do. It’s indescribable.
TS: So, you are trying to capture the excitement of a live performance.
DK: Yes, but more so than just a recording of a live show. It is tough to explain, but you take all these people; black, white, gay, straight, young, old, Republican, Democrat, and you live and play every day with one another. We are all on vacation with one another. So there is a level of intimacy the exists that is much more palpable than just performing a live show. You get to know people, and they get to know you. It's so much of a different experience when you are with friends, performing for friends. There is a warmth and trust that exists. There is no line between the performers and the audience. We are all in it together, and that is an extraordinary experience. So when the music is made, there is a vitality to it and an extra level of energy that everyone feels.
TS: I imagine it also allows your audience to see the humanity behind the music, to see that you are just people like they are.
DK: That's the idea behind it. And I try to make the human element the thread in everything that I do. From the radio show to the performances, if you are with us a night or a week, its about the bond with the audience. It's about breaking down the wall and the barriers. The power of music is so special. Especially in this time, we are living in, with all the divisiveness and hate, music is the one element that is still pure and can unite everyone. I know that sounds cliche but it is true. You can have two people who disagree on conceivably every issue, yet you play one song, and you can create a connection, a bridge.
TS: I remember when you received your Hollywood walk of fame dedication. The reason I remember this wasn't so much because you're a saxophonist, but because Barry Manilow inducted you. I guess I was taken aback by this because we have certainly had a lot of famous saxophonists in our history, but not many who have crossed over to the popular culture arena. I think of people like David Sanborn, Kenny G, and of course, you. I mean, my 91-year-old mother may not know your name but show her your face, and she instantly knows who you are. Being in that popular spotlight, are there any pressures or demands you face?
DK: Well that's a really interesting question. I feel my celebrity is at the perfect level to be honest with you. It's in a way in which I can have my own life without it being infringed upon. I still have a lot of privacy in my life, but in the moments when it is necessary or needed, it is there, which is also great. I have a lot of friends, like Barry, who are big stars and you know what? I still get star-struck myself. Barry is a great friend. I can call anytime, but he's still a hero of mine. Ultimately it is really about being a citizen of the world. It's not about the celebrity for me.
TS: There is one final question I would like to ask. As an advocate for LGBTQ rights, I know you have a particularly important view of this cause. You alluded to earlier about knowing you were gay at an early age. I know you officially came out in 2004 in an interview for The Advocate Magazine. I know this must have been a life-changing moment for you, and I know there are a lot of people who are experiencing what you went through. Can you talk about this and how it has changed you?
DK: Thank you so much for asking me about this. When I look back at that time, it is a funny thing because I never thought I would come out publicly. I was born and raised at a time when it was inconceivable to let people know you were gay.
TS: Well, I also remember it was a time when a lot of people branded or viewed you as somewhat of a sex symbol in the industry.
DK: (Laughing). Well, if that happened, I guess I never paid much attention to it. I created this mountain of fear and put dirt on it every day. It got to the point where I just figured I could never scale it. I remember I was doing an interview for a gay magazine, and the interviewer was a friend of mine. He said, "Listen, I am not going to ask you any questions about being gay. We will do a piece promoting your album." I said "great," and that was it. So we did the interview,
and the editor said, "Listen, we know this guy is gay. You have to go back and ask him about it."
So my friend came to me and said that he was sorry, but he couldn't run the piece unless I commented on being gay. So, I noticed how I felt and it was an unusual feeling of freedom. I said, "Let me think about this a get back to you." At the time, I was being managed by the same people who were managing Melissa Etheridge, so they had a lot of experience with this. They were supportive but said that if I was going to do it, do it with The Advocate, who was like Time Magazine of the gay world. I called my friend back and said thank you for giving me this gift and that I wanted to actually do a coming-out interview with The Advocate.
I realized I had just got to the point where I was willing to risk everything just to live a full, normal life. I didn't think it was too much to ask for, to live life with a full deck of cards. So I make this announcement and looked back at this mountain, and I realized it was totally a figment of my imagination.
It doesn't matter what you are afraid of; everyone has their mountain of fears that they build up and let get more significant than it should ever be. You get on the other side and realize that there is nothing there. I thought everything would change, and nothing changed except me. And I was finally living an authentic life. If you can face your fears and get past them, you discover a power you didn't feel was imaginable. And that's what happened to me. I felt I could do anything. My life opened up, my music opened up, and everything became more majestic. None of what I feared would happen, came to be. Everything got better. So it was an excellent lesson; the lesson of authenticity.
TS: It's a fantastic feeling to look in the mirror and be appreciative of whom you see.
DK: Absolutely! You have to be who you are every minute of every day. It's the only way to be truly authentic as a human being, artist, what have you. You have to be you!