by Paul Haar
Photo Credit Scott Chernis
David Sanborn is an American institution. Arguably the sound of a generation of saxophonists, Sanborn has been active for six decades. In this time he has produced 24 albums (8 Gold and 1 Platinum) and received 6 Grammy Awards. He has performed with the biggest names in music including, Miles Davis, James Taylor, David Bowie, James Brown, Kenny Loggins, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Gil Evans, Sting, Eric Clapton Al Jarreau, The Rolling Stones, and the Brecker Brothers to name a few. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Sanborn, between sets at the Jewel Jazz Club in Omaha, Nebraska. He was there as the grand-opening act for the new club. At 73 years of age, one might expect the saxophonist to be slowing down. If anything he is just getting warmed up. We talked about the past present and his new venture, Sanborn Sessions, a new web-based show that takes the viewer behind the scenes with some of today most creative musicians.
The Saxophonist: You know I was thinking, on the way here tonight, that you have played the soundtrack to my life. My brother was a huge Paul Butterfield Blues Band fan; you were ubiquitous throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s in just about every conceivable venue. You have been such a part of modern culture, how do you stay present and look to the future?
David Sanborn: I stay present. I live in the now. I don't think about the past; I don't think about the future. I just don't
TS: That seems very “ZEN” of you. Have you always been that way?
DS: No, I haven't always thought that way. In the end, what else do we have? We have the now. We can't fix the past; we can't control the future, what are you left with? It's just practical. The reality is that what we do as musicians; we are supposed to live in the moment. It’s in the job description. Be in the now, pay attention, communicate. Now that also happens to be consistent with Buddhist philosophy, but it’s just common sense.
TS: Do you ever find yourself getting nostalgic, be it a venue that you've played a lot, or an artist you worked with in the past?
DS: Ha, nostalgic! Yeah, for getting out of bed and not having shit hurt! (laughing).
TS: I understand that sentiment. Seriously, do you ever look back?
DS: Yeah, well, I don’t know. I certainly enjoy my life more than in the past. I have a beautiful wife and play music with amazing musicians. It’s fantastic! I have the opportunity to go out and make a living doing something I love to do. Really, what more do I need?
TS: There are many saxophone players out there that have been influenced, in some way shape or form, by your playing. Some have been more influenced than others, to the point to outright plagiarism. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery…
DS: Oh…yeah but there is a limit to that you know? What's the point of that? You can walk down the halls of the Berkley School of Music, and you can hear 20 great tenor players playing the hell out of Giant Steps, just like Trane. Ok, nice first act. Now what, now what are you going to do to internalize what you learned from Trane and tell your story. I don't want to hear John Coltrane's story from you. I want to hear it from him. So, come back when you have a story to tell. That's hard work! That's the shit you can't teach.
George Colman had an excellent technique for teaching. We would be playing a tune like All the Things You Are or something, and right in the middle of comping the changes, he would change keys. So I would look over at the piano to try to find out where he was, and he would say, "Don't look, listen. The object of practicing is to allow you to play what you hear!" That's the object, not to learn licks. Listen, we all have licks; we all fall back on them. However, they should be a breather, an apostrophe.
TS: I had heard that Lee Konitz would tell students that when they were going to play a lick to pull the horn out of the mouth and dump it out of the bell.
DS: That a great trick!
TS: One of the best compliments that I can give you is that growing up listening to you and your music, you made me dream. Who makes you dream?
DS: You mean players alive now or in the past?
TS: It doesn’t matter, whomever.
DS: The guys that inspire me now, Kenny Garrett. Always, consistently, let's say 99% of the time. There is a young alto player named Jaleel Shaw. Just an INCREDIBLE musician! Wow. On tenor, Chris Potter.
TS: You grew up in the era of the record deal. Could you talk about the challenges of being in this social media world and trying to market oneself?
DS: Well, you certainly have to be more entrepreneurial. I am in a fortunate position, well fortunate and unfortunate position that I have a track record. I may not be able to sell a lot of records, but I can go out and play gigs, generating ticket sales for promoters and such. You just have to change your economic approach, that's what you have to do.
Listen, I didn’t go into music as a business decision. In 1955 I didn’t suddenly wake up and say, "I want to sell millions of records as an alto saxophone player!" If I had said that out loud, you would have locked me up. Sure I could have aspired to be someone like Earl Bostic Jimmy Dorsey or someone like that or Louis Jordan. They were the alto saxophone players that were commercially viable.
TS: You have played with so many diverse artists, have you ever found yourself star struck by the experience?
DS: You mean where I look around and say, "I can't believe I am playing with this person."?
DS: All the time. I mean, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, David Bowie, Miles Davis, gosh…who wouldn’t feel like that?
TS: This leads into my next question. I loved Night Music on NBC. I know you are also coming out with a new internet show call Sanborn Sessions. What was your goal for those shows and what is your focus on the new show? Did your old show inform your new venture?
DS: Yes it does influence it considerably. What was your question about the first show?
TS: Well just the focus or intent. I grew up with parents that were a generation or two older than my peers. So I didn’t grow up with popular music I grew up with Sinatra.
DS: As did I.
TS: Well the first time I ever saw the Red Hot Chili Peppers was on Night Music. I remember thinking, "What the hell is this." Now I look back at those show as being so groundbreaking. For example, I just finished rewatching the Miles Davis episode, and I was wondering "Who thinks like this?"
DS: Yeah, the difference was, with Night Music we had a national network budget. This and the fact that Loren Michaels was the executive producer allowed us to attract a lot of diverse talent and do a national show based on music. It’s a long story on how it came about, but I was approached by a man named David Saltz who produced music for ABC Sports. I had known him for years, and we had always talked about doing a show based around music.
I used to watch this show called these shows called “The Robert Herridge Theater” and “The Sound of Jazz” on CBS. The TheatureHerridge Robert was a collection of jazz musicians, in a studio performing. I seemed very informal, just the guys hanging out and you could see the cameramen walking around getting shots. Again, it was very informal, and you got the feeling that you were a fly on the wall. That's where the idea of the show started, and then it became more formal, more of a proscenium, as it went along. We had a sponsor, Michelob and they left us alone. They said, "You do whatever you want to do, and you produce the show. Don't worry we will get our numbers." So, we got away with it for two years. We had all these adventurous acts.
I gatheredall my heroes like Hank Crawford, Stanley Turrentine, David "Fathead" Newman, Phil Woods, all these fantastic people. Then we had the off the wall stuff like the Chili Peppers, The Residence, The Pixies, and Sonic Youth. And then we had the downtown scene with Tim Berne, John Zorn, and Sting. I mean come on, Tim Berne and Sting playing together? Man, Sting was great. Hopefully, he is going to do the new program.
Now the transition to today. We have a wonderful sponsor, Sweetwater…
TS: Sweetwater Sound?
DS: Yes, exactly, and they have been so wonderful, supportive and accommodating. They have given us the freedom to do what we want to do. I am doing it in my home. With all due modesty, I have a beautiful home on the Hudson River, just outside of Manhattan. We have a terrific house band that features, Billy Kilson on drums, Ben Williams on bass, and Andy Ezrin on keyboards. Instead of having four or five guest artists we have two. We had Jonathan Brooke who is a wonderful singer/songwriter and Charlie Hunter the great guitar player. They do something individually, and then we do something together. And in between we talk about the creative process, the business side of things and the idea is, once again, is to have the viewer be a fly on the wall of the whole thing.
TS: I think it’s important for the average consumer to be a part of the process don’t you? So they understand the making of the music?
DS: Yes, absolutely and that's the entire point to the program. We keep it informal and show the listener that this is how we are when we are together. We are going to launch into producing shows the latter part of March or in early April.
TS: You have been equal parts bandleader and sideman. Let’s talk about being a bandleader first. What are you looking for in the musicians you work with?
DS: People who understand what it is like to have a conversation on the stage because that is what you're doing. You have to listen! It is about that ongoing conversation, where you listen, respond and do what you need to do to make the music move forward. It's not about getting the house. It's pretty much as simple as that. It's about finding people you have chemistry with and how do you describe chemistry right?
TS: Okay, now what about as a sideman? Because you are thrust into so many different musical situations, what do you as a sideman to get into their music and help them achieve their musical vision?
DS: The same things. Like playing with James Taylor, James what a fun person to talk to in life and on the stage. He is so great because where there is give and take, musically, like with James, it is everything. I played on a record of his called You Make it Easy. I was just listening to what he was talking about: "Gosh almighty baby, yes indeed. You supply the satisfy, I'll supply the need." (Laughing). I mean that is brilliant and everything you need to know for how to play the tune man. So you know Aaron Drake right?
TS: Yes, he was the person who put me into contact with your management.
DS: Ah man, Aaron is awesome. Those mouthpieces he made for me are absolutely fantastic!
TS: Is that what you are playing on tonight?
DS: Exclusively. That's MY mouthpiece, and I am totally committed. We have a great relationship. He came out to the house and worked with me, and we found what I was looking for and man, did he nailed it. Anyhow, if we get onto horns and equipment, we will be here for days.
TS: I understand. Whenever I am with other saxophone players and the subject of mouthpieces comes up, my wife starts to look around for someone to talk to. (Addressing David’s wife) So, if I get on that subject, please accept my apologies.
DS: Ha, no, she understands me and that this is what I do. She is very supportive. None the less we could be here for days, right?
TS: Yes I agree. I was reading some old interviews and was read about a friend encouraging you to move to California. Any words of advice for young players nervous about taking the next step?
DS: Well, for me it wasn’t really a leap of faith as much as it was erratic 60’s/hippy behavior (laughing). I wish I could make it more solemn or spiritual but…
TS: (laughing) I am just thinking about how to spin that answer.
DS: Yeah, well it was peace, love and all that stuff, right. I was a student at the University of Iowa and my friend, Ted Stewart, whom I grew up with, called me from San Francisco. He told me I needed to come out to California because there was some wild shit happening out there.
TS: About what year was this?
DS: 1967, the Summer of Love! So I moved out there, my wife, and baby son. We lived in a commune in Haight Ashbury with this band. My wife and I had never been west of the Mississippi. So I am walking down the street one day, and I run into this guy name Phillip Wilson I grew up with in St. Louis. He has just joined the Butterfield Band and said, "Hey man you need to come check us out at the Filmore Ballroom.” So I went to the club and caught the show. Then he tells me they are going to L.A. and they are making a record. He invites me to come check it out. So I hop on a bus to L.A., hitchhike to the Sandy Colfax's Tropicana Hotel (laughing) and crash on his floor. The next day I went to a session and was introduced to Paul. He asked if I wanted to play on a tune, so I hitched hiked back to the hotel, got my horn and played the session. I went to Huntington Beach and played a gig there with the band, and they asked if I wanted to hang out. I didn't get paid for any of this work. It would be about a month before I would get paid for anything I did with them. I would borrow money from guys in the band, twenty bucks here or there. Gradually I got into the group. So this wasn’t something planned, but I was hungry, young and got out there.who
TS: My late brother Carl was a huge fan of that band. In fact, went to Woodstock to check it out. He heard your set, got back into his truck and headed back home.
DS: He didn’t catch Jimmy Hendrix?
TS: Nope. He came for what he wanted and left. Years later when I would play your records for him, he would cuss me out and say, "You idiot, that's the sax player from the Butterfield band!"
DS: (Laughing) Ha, you idiot…what didn’t you think of that, right?
TS: Right, for him Paul Butterfield was a big deal.
DS: Well it was a big deal, especially for its time. But that’s the whole “leap of faith” thing. I was just young, probably dumb or naïve to the realities of the day and just wanted to play. Sometimes life or a career is just that way. You don’t know until you know.
TS: So let me ask this. In I imagine you have looked out from the stage and seen some pretty amazing sites. Obviously, Woodstock but you have played all over the world, for presidents and other figures, etc. What are some of the moments that have caused you to pause and take a mental snapshot? career
DS: Oh…man. I don’t know if I could isolate one moment. There have been so many of them. Sure Woodstock was a memorable moment. But you have to realize that over my career this has been my reality. With the Butterfield Band, we had played the Miami Pop Festival, and there were a couple of hundred thousand people here. Sure, Woodstock was bigger but we didn't think it was going to be the watershed moment it turned out to be. I think the biggest revelation that came out of that, unfortunately, was that corporations now saw a way to make a lot of money.
I remember after Woodstock there used to be this series of ads that came from Columbia [records] saying "Don't let the man tell you what music to buy." Wait a minute, you ARE that man! They co-opted the music, and they broke up bands, etc. I think that music was a dream that came down to earth when people started asking, "What's in it for me?" My life was and still is guided by the search for the music.
I am not saying that those elements weren't always there, because they were. But when that sense of community was lost, man. Listen, that community continued into the 70s. But music in the 60s was an engine for social change. Call them protest songs or whatever; they were anthems. The music of the day was taken up by the people who would change the culture.
So if you want to know, that is the element of music I miss — that sense of innocence in playing and sharing music. But I don't think that goes away. It doesn't vaporize; it is still there in the world. Everything is so fragmented now that it is difficult to find a center. What was noticeable about that time was it felt more centralized. There was us and there was the establishment. It was much more binary. Now people are so adept at manipulating social media that by the time a music starts to develop some critical mass, someone is out there either tearing it down or trying to co-opt it, spinning it off into something else. Nothing has a chance to form. So, I'm not part of that generation that understands how that stuff works.
TS: What are your thoughts about such organizations like Lincoln Center etc.?
DS: I have great respect for Wynton Masallisand for everything he is doing with Jazz at Lincoln Center. He is talking about the tradition and that it is important to be maintained.
I would love to see people like Kendrick Lamar, Robert Glasper, Terrance Martin included.
TS: Don't you feel we seem to forget that jazz was the music of the time? Meaning, big band music was the hip hop of the 30s and 40s, bebop was the hip hop of the late 40s, etc. Hell Mozart was popular music.
DS: Yes! Duke Ellington was playing for dancers. Listen, jazz is the music of today. And as long as it is, it will always be around…ALWAYS!