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

David Sanborn, one of the most influential saxophonists in contemporary jazz and pop, died on May 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.”

Throughout the 70s and early 80s, Sanborn was also a regular member of the Gil Evans Orchestra. Composer, arranger and bandleader Maria Schneider was able to experience for herself Sanborn’s comfort with and contributions to Evans’ music. “One of the greatest musical experiences of my life was touring with David, presenting music from Gil & Miles’ recordings, featuring David on Miles’ parts, backed up by the Danish Radio Big Band,” she wrote in a statement she sent to WBGO. “It forever changed that music for me into something even more extraordinary than what I’d known. There’s no describing David on “Blues for Pablo,” “My Ship” and beyond. I was absolutely floored by his sound and expression. It was heart-stopping, which of course is surely why Gil loved him so.”

Schneider was just as moved by the man himself and his unique personality and presence. “But even with ALL of that, when I think of David, the first thing that comes to mind is just how much ridiculous fun he was,” she said. “I never laughed more on a tour than that. When I’d subsequently run into him on the street, which happened fairly often as we lived in the same neighborhood, we’d just start laughing. It was SO much fun to work with him. Extraordinary on every level.”

For many years a regular in the Saturday Night Live house band, as well as a frequent guest on David Letterman’s show, Sanborn hosted in the 80s 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.

Sanborn was also known for his wit, both on and off the bandstand. Comedian Alonzo Bodden, who got to know the saxophonist during the many jazz cruises that they did together, said that Sanborn had a great sense of humor. “It was after Joe Sample had cussed out his band on an earlier concert,” Bodden recalled. “He was sitting in with Dave and Marcus Miller and Gerald Albright in a late night concert. And when Joe started playing the wrong song, Dave cussed out Joe Sample almost exactly the way Joe cussed out his band: ‘When an MF don’t pay attention, this is blah, blah, blah.’ It was so funny. Listening to those two go at it, you could tell these are two guys who had been friends forever. He loved comedy. He loved hearing about comedy and how I create. He compared that to jazz, which was a really nice thing and an honor to me.”

Bodden also appreciated Sanborn’s humility. “The other thing I loved about him was that he was always passing the credit on to someone else, whether it be Marcus for writing the songs or various singers he worked with,” Bodden explained. “He also talked a lot about his recovery and I too am in recovery. I think that is where a lot of the humility came from. He would joke that, ‘Hey, I was at Woodstock, and I don’t remember it.’ So coming from that to long term sobriety is a beautiful thing.”

Maria Schneider wrote that, “David’s light was a beacon of mammoth strength – incalculable lumens that will stay lit forever. What a loss. There’s only one David Sanborn. How sad to have to say goodbye.”

In a direct reflection of Sanborn’s impact in the jazz and music community, social media posts from friends and colleagues abound about his life and legacy. Here’s a sampling of the messages from X—

Ron Blake: David’s sound left an imprint on many genres and his influence drew new listeners to the beauty of instrumental music. Rest well and thank you for your kindness.

Tim Berne: Very sad to hear about David Sanborn today…beautiful person and incredible musician. I was lucky enough to work on a recording with him and witness his genius first hand. Amazing guy.

Bob James: The news of the loss of David Sanborn to the music world has deeply saddened me. I was so privileged to share major highlights of my career in partnership with him. His legacy will live on through the recordings. Every note he played came straight from his heart with a passionate intensity that could make an ordinary tune extraordinary. I loved David’s subtle sophisticated humor, which carried over into his music. And always made it inspiring to perform with him. He will be deeply missed.

Christian McBride: I have a lot of great stories about David, as everyone who knew him did, but I have an extra special one. David and I discussed purchasing a bar together in Montclair, NJ! I would have loved nothing more than to own a bar with David. We were going to call it “S & M’s”, but we realized that miiiiiight not be a good name.

Nate Smith: Rest in peace to the legendary saxophonist David Sanborn. I was lucky enough to play with Mr. Sanborn once, and he was as kind and soulful a person as he was a musician.

Laraine Newman: David Sanborn was my houseguest when he was making his first album Hideaway. One night he played me a sound effect that was supposed to sound like the ocean. Afterwards he looked at me and said “that sounds like a toilet flush” and we laughed so hard. RIP dear.

Billy Harper: I am very sorry to hear about David Sanborn passing. David and I played together for a long while in the Gil Evans orchestra, and shared a special friendship. He was one of the soulful players and I think he got that soulful style from playing in a blues band.

Eric Darius: I’m completely heartbroken to hear the news of the passing of my childhood hero, friend and one of the most influential saxophonists in music history.

Michael Lington: The news I never wanted to hear! My hero David Sanborn passed yesterday This man is directly responsible for me (and every other sax player I know) wanting to become a sax player and musician. To know him was an honor, he held a very special place in my heart!

Blue Note New York: Today we mourn the loss of our dear friend, David Sanborn. We cherish the countless incredible moments at Blue Note over the last three decades. Our thoughts are with his family and the music community during this difficult time. David will be greatly missed!

And, from Facebook:

Randy Brecker: Man, how many gigs and sessions we played together since the Stan Kenton Band Camps… We met @Indiana U in ’62, when we were 15…Here’s an early tune of mine that I wrote with Sanborn in mind. He recorded it on his very first solo recording “Takin’ Off!’ ….”It took A Long Time”…you couldn’t imagine anyone else playing it.. that’s how it was with Dave…Heart goes out to Alice and his family..saddest of days..

Emmet Cohen: RIP to one the most influential modern saxophone innovators of our time, David Sanborn. I was incredibly fortunate to be welcomed into his world a couple of years ago. He was so generous, supportive, hip, always striving for perfection. And that SOUND! One note, and you knew it was him. We shared some beautiful moments on and off the bandstand, memories I’ll forever cherish.

Danilo Perez: It is with profound sorrow that I learned of the passing of David Sanborn. He was a legendary musician who touched the lives of many of us through his music; his legacy will continue to inspire generations. I still remember when, at 12 years old, I discovered the fantastic record Hideaway. I offer my heartfelt condolences to David’s family, friends, and fans. R.I.P David

Questlove: Respect To David Sanborn. A cat who managed to find his sound and leave an imprint whether you knew it or not (I consider his Sax the third co-Star of the Lethal Weapon franchise) We once did a show back in 2004 in Aspen Colorado & came a day early for a rare night off and we caught him in concert and man….i was floored.

High altitude shows are not my fav and I believe this particular weekend (X Games event) the venue was an addition 4000 feet in the air ABOVE places we normally play—-which I guess is 2000ish? So let’s just say a 5,000-6,000 ft in altitude is a musician/singers nightmare (it’s a wonder all Colorado home games aren’t all winners because as a visitor you have to acclimate your system to having less oxygen, the SECOND you touch down it would behoove you to consume a gallon of water just to keep an impending migraine away (Roots 97 tour taught us that lesson)

I was curious how he was gonna handle this show because of his condition and lack of oxygen…gotta say I came in kinda dreading the results…..no way this show will be an ideal show. Most people lose breath after the 3rd song and next thing you know they ask to “take 10” to run to the oxygen machine backstage——-David had a chip on his shoulder that night bol. He made me feel like a complete amateur. He played like his life depended on it. Backstage I asked him “are you always THAT intense or was it the challenge of blowing/lack of oxygen that pushed him…..

His band laughed “psssh hell yeah we were strugglin, that was energetic 5 or 6…..you should see a regular ‘no gasping for oxygen show!’”

He laughed & playfully scoffed “I always play at a 10 speak for yourselves” he told me that since being diagnosed w cancer he got a renewed vigor. An extra chamber & decided henceforth to play like his life depended on it.

Sonny Rollins: I’m so glad I got a chance to speak with Dave just recently. He and I were friends. I’m very sorry we have lost him. He was needed.

Jaleel Shaw: Rest in Peace, David Sanborn. I’ll miss our endless saxophone chats on the phone. Thank you so much for your friendship, wisdom, support and encouragement. I’m so glad I got to know you. A true hero.

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

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