Born David William Sanborn on July 30, 1945, in Tampa, FL; raised in St. Louis, MO. Education: Studied at Northwestern University Addresses: Record company--Elektra Records, 345 N. Maple Dr., Ste. 123, Beverly Hills, CA 90210; Booking information--ICM, 8942 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90211 Phone: (310) 288-3800; (310) 550-4000 Fax: (310) 550-4100.

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 Beatcontributor 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 clichs, 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 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 gold-selling 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 more than $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.

by Laura Hightower

David Sanborn's Career

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.

David Sanborn's 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.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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over 15 years ago

Which actress was David Sanborn married to ?