David Sanborn: Jazz saxophonist who transcended music genres bows out at 78

Jazz maestro David Sanborn

Jazz maestro David Sanborn performing on stage during the Safaricom Jazz Festival held at Kasarani Stadium on February 25, 2017. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

The death of the legendary American saxophonist David Sanborn last Sunday at the age of 78, following a battle with prostate cancer, is the end of an era for a man whose life might have turned out very differently were it not for music.

Sanborn started playing the saxophone while recovering from a polio attack in childhood after a doctor recommended playing the instrument to strengthen his chest. He went on to study music at university, released 25 albums and won six Grammy Awards over a glittering career spanning more than six decades

In an interview with the BDLife in 2017 while in Nairobi for the Safaricom International Jazz Festival, he celebrated the power of music in transforming his life. “Music led me through my life. I didn’t make many choices; I just said ‘this is what I want to do.’ Maybe I got lucky, I think I probably did, playing with other people, and being around during a golden age of recording.”

The objectives of the festival in supporting children in economically deprived areas to learn music resonated with his own experiences, when he had a conversation with fellow saxophonist Bob Collymore, then Safaricom CEO, about coming to play in Nairobi. “It is all about overcoming adversity, not letting it destroy you,” Sanborn explained. “Finding music as a tool to break your mind free of whatever difficult circumstances you might find yourself in from birth.

Although he was primarily a jazz musician, Sanborn transcended the confines of the genre and played with R&B, pop and rock artists. Among his most acclaimed projects was performing the alto-sax solo on David Bowie’s 1975 classic Young Americans.

“The sound of his saxophone came from deep down in his soul,” says Kenyan saxophonist Edward Parseen, who cites Sanborn among his main influences. “It was a natural style and his signature. Whenever he played, the horn sounded like no other”

The greatest reward from decades at the highest level of the industry and earning multiple accolades, was not the fame and glory, but the power of music to transform lives.

“Try and understand what music can be in your life,” he advised. “If your priority is to be rich and famous, rather than to look at music as a passion and as a never-ending quest for the next thing, you are going to be disappointed.

“It is a tough way to make a living but it can be very rewarding, spiritually rewarding if you commit yourself to approaching music with honesty and if you do that then music is a great teacher in life You will understand about the meaning of life which is about finding your place in the world.”

Sanborn singled out South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, Malian singer Salif Keita, Youssou N’dour of Senegal and Cameroonian bassist Richard Bona, as model artists who had propelled African culture globally. “What is difficult for me is to go to different parts of the world and hear people not representing their culture, musically. I understand the need to adopt a Western sound, but you need to combine it with elements of music from where you grew up culturally. That creates the richest music not only for the country that you are in, but the world at large.”

A musician who benefited from this advice was trumpeter Mackinlay Mutsembi who played on the same stage as Sanborn at the Safaricom Jazz Festival in 2017. “I was very lucky to have interacted with him during the festival,” recalls Mutsembi. “During the pandemic, his YouTube series Sanborn Sessions was one of my inspirations to create The LiveRoomKe, a platform for creating music, filming the process and sharing that with the audience.”

David William Sanborn born July 30, 1945 in Tampa, Florida and a polio attack at the age of 3 weakened his left arm, right leg and lungs. He took up saxophone at 11 on the recommendation of a doctor who said playing the instrument would strengthen his respiratory system.

He studied the saxophone at university and joined the Paul Butterfield Blues Band with whom he played at the famous Woodstock festival in 1969. In the 1970s, Sanborn was a much sought-after sideman on recordings by David Bowie, James Brown, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Chaka Khan among others. His debut solo album Taking Off in 1975 made the Top 20 on the Billboard Jazz charts.

It was not until the 1980s when Sanborn’s solo career took off, collaborating with composer Marcus Miller to create a distinctive sound that blended jazz with funk and R&B. He recorded and toured prolifically on his own and with other top artistes, and composed music for TV and film

“Music will always exist, whether on a chip, or a piece vinyl, because music existed long before recording did and it will continue long after,” he reflected in that 2017 interview.

“It is impossible to imagine a world without music. This is how we communicate not only with each other, but with God. Music teaches that life is beyond the day-to-day mechanical realities of success, failure, money, not money, this or that.”

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