David Sanborn, Saxophonist Who Defied Pigeonholing, Dies at 78


David Sanborn, whose fiery alto saxophone flourishes earned him six Grammy Awards, eight gold albums and a platinum one, and who established himself as a celebrity sideman, lending indelible solos to enduring rock classics like David Bowie’s “Young Americans,” died on Sunday. He was 78.

He died after a long battle with prostate cancer, according to a statement on his social media channels. He had received the diagnosis in 2018 but had maintained his regular schedule of concerts until recently, with more planned for next year.

The statement did not say where Mr. Sanborn died.

Drawing from jazz, pop and R&B, Mr. Sanborn was highly prolific, releasing 25 albums over a six-decade career. “Hideaway” (1980), his fifth studio album, featured two instrumentals written with the singer Michael McDonald as well as “The Seduction,” written by Giorgio Moroder, which was the love theme from “American Gigolo,” the ice-cool Paul Schrader film starring Richard Gere.

“Many releases by studio musicians suffer from weak compositions and overproduction, including some albums by Sanborn himself,” Tim Griggs wrote in a review of that album on the website Allmusic. In contrast, he continued, “Hideaway” had a “stripped-down, funky” quality that showed off his “passionate and distinctive saxophone sound.”

Mr. Sanborn’s albums “Hearsay” (1994), “Pearls” (1995) and “Time Again” (2003) all reached No. 2 on the Billboard jazz chart.

While the records he made under his own name were often pigeonholed as smooth jazz, Mr. Sanborn chafed at the description. So did many of his fellow saxophonists, who found his tone and approach anything but mellow.

“The ‘Sanborn’ sound is more of an extreme sound tone wise,” the saxophonist and educator Steve Neff wrote on his blog in 2012. “It is very raw, bright, edgy and tough sounding. It’s right in your face.”

“What Michael Brecker did for the tenor sound, Sanborn did for the alto sound. It’s not a middle of the road type of sound,” Mr. Neff added. Mr. Brecker and his trumpeter brother, Randy, often collaborated with Mr. Sanborn.

Mr. Sanborn had little use for labels. “I’m not so interested in what is or isn’t jazz,” he said in a 2017 interview with DownBeat, the jazz magazine. “The guardians of the gate can be quite combative, but what are they protecting? Jazz has always absorbed and transformed what’s around it.”

“Real musicians,” he added, “don’t have any time to spend thinking about limited categories.”

While growing up in suburban St. Louis, Mr. Sanborn was influenced by the sound of blues in Chicago, and by 14 he was playing with Albert King and Little Milton. “I guess if push comes to shove, I would describe myself as coming out of the blues-R&B side of the spectrum,” he said in a 2008 interview with NPR. “But I mean, if you play the saxophone, you certainly can’t escape the influence of jazz.”

Among the jazz musicians with whom Mr. Sanborn recorded were the guitarists George Benson, Mike Stern and John Scofield, the bassist Ron Carter, and the arrangers and bandleaders Gil Evans and Bob James.

And his influence was hardly confined to recording. From 1988 to 1990, he hosted the television show “Night Music” (originally called “Sunday Night”), which presented an eclectic mix of music; its lineups featured jazz luminaries like Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and Pharoah Sanders as well as the likes of James Taylor, Leonard Cohen and Sonic Youth.

Starting in the 1980s, he also hosted a syndicated radio program, “The Jazz Show With David Sanborn.” He had recently begun producing the podcast “As We Speak,” which featured conversations with artists including Pat Metheny and Mr. Rollins.

A onetime member of the “Saturday Night Live” band, he recorded or toured with a constellation of stars, including Paul Simon, James Brown, Elton John, Steely Dan, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones.

“Anyone with a record collection more than a foot wide probably owns a piece of David Sanborn’s unmistakable sound but doesn’t know it,” The Phoenix New Times, an Arizona newspaper, observed in a 1991 article about Mr. Sanborn.

Mr. Sanborn was heard on landmark albums like the Eagles’ debut and Stevie Wonder’s “Talking Book” in 1972 and Bruce Springsteen’s 1975 smash “Born to Run.”

He had a memorable star turn on Mr. Bowie’s “Young Americans” (1975), on which his sunny yet sultry solo opens the memorable title track. “There was no lead guitar, so I played the role of lead guitar,” he told DownBeat. “I was all over that record.”

He also joined Mr. Bowie’s tour for the album, part of a crack supporting outfit that also included Doug Rauch on bass and Greg Errico on drums. “On the ‘Young Americans’ tour,” he recalled, “Bowie would sometimes let the band play for 20 minutes before he came on.”

David William Sanborn was born on July 30, 1945, in Tampa, Fla., where his father was stationed in the Air Force. He grew up in Kirkwood, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis.

His life took a fateful turn at 3 when he contracted polio, which ravaged his left arm, right leg and lungs.

He was in an iron lung for a year, and he took up saxophone at 11 on the advice of a doctor, who thought learning a woodwind instrument would help him build respiratory strength.

The disease had lasting effects, some of them particularly challenging for a horn player. As an adult, Mr. Sanborn still suffered limited lung capacity, and his left arm was smaller than his right, with compromised dexterity on that hand.

“I don’t think of myself as a victim,” he was quoted as saying in 2005 by the Salt Lake City television station KSL. “This is my reality.”

After studying music at Northwestern University and with the saxophonist J.R. Monterose at the University of Iowa, he headed to California and joined the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. He was 24 when the band played before hundreds of thousands at the Woodstock festival in August 1969.

Mr. Sanborn went on to tour with Stevie Wonder in 1972 and released his first solo album, “Taking Off,” in 1975. He earned his first Grammy, for best R&B instrumental performance, for “All I Need Is You,” a track on his 1981 album, “Voyeur.”

His 2008 album, “Here & Gone,” featuring guest appearances by Eric Clapton, Derek Trucks and Joss Stone, was a tribute to Ray Charles and his arranger and saxophonist Hank Crawford, who was a major influence on Mr. Sanborn’s playing.

“That music was everything to me,” he told NPR. “It kind of combined jazz, gospel, and rhythm and blues. It wasn’t any one of those things, but it was all of them kind of mixed together. And that, to me, is kind of the essence of American music.”

Information about survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Sanborn continued to tour into his 70s. With all the changes in the music business, he found, touring was a better way to make a living than recording.

“You make a fraction of what you used to make,” he said in a 2017 interview with The Tampa Bay Times. “There’s not a lot of options.”

He found life on the road increasingly taxing, but performing live remained a passion. Despite plans to cut back to about 150 gigs a year from 200, he nevertheless embarked on tour in 2017 that included Istanbul and Nairobi.

“I still want to play,” he said, “and if you want to play for an audience, you’ve got to go where the audience is.”





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