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Remembering alto saxophonist David Sanborn


This is FRESH AIR.


DAVID BOWIE: (Singing) They pulled in just behind the bridge. He lays her down...

DAVIES: That was David Sanborn's saxophone solo at the top of David Bowie's 1975 hit, "Young Americans." That same year, he was in the studio again, cutting this session with James Taylor.


JAMES TAYLOR: (Singing) How sweet it is to be loved by you. Whoa. Yeah. You were better to me than I was to myself.

DAVIES: Alto saxophonist David Sanborn died earlier this month on May 12, after being treated for prostate cancer. He was 78. Sanborn kept busy during his career, recording or touring with James Brown, The Rolling Stones, Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Elton John and others. He was also thought of as one of the major players in the smooth jazz genre, but he didn't love that description. Neither did many of his jazz peers. This is from a 2014 recording with Bobby Hutcherson on vibes and the late Joey DeFrancesco on organ.


DAVIES: Terry Gross interviewed David Sanborn in 1991. Here's an excerpt of that conversation.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Let's talk a little bit about your background. How old were you when you started playing the alto, and what made you choose it?

DAVID SANBORN: I was 11 years old. And when I was a kid, I had polio. And when I was - got to be about 11 years old, the doctors and therapists suggested that I play a wind instrument for therapy. And it was right about that time that I was, you know, starting to kind of really listen to music and know what it - you know, be able to associate a certain sound with a certain musician. And this was in the early days of rock 'n' roll and rhythm and blues music.

So the first music I remember hearing was, like, Little Richard and Fats Domino. And there was some blues - B.B. King and Albert King 'cause I grew up in St. Louis, so a lot of that music was being played on the radio. And I think the music that had the most profound effect on me and probably what really pushed me in the direction of wanting to be a saxophone player was the music of Ray Charles. The saxophone players were kind of like the instrumental counterpart to what Ray was doing vocally, and I just thought it was such a great sound. You know, it was so hip to me.

GROSS: In 1967, you started playing with The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, which...


GROSS: ...I've kind of come to think of as the blues band for the psychedelic era or something (laughter).

SANBORN: Yeah. Well, it was kind of - one of the only blues bands in the psychedelic area, although James Cotton was working at the time.

GROSS: Right.

SANBORN: And Michael Bloomfield was working with The Electric Flag.

GROSS: Remember those days for us...

SANBORN: Well...

GROSS: ...What it was like for you then touring with the band.

SANBORN: ...It was a very exciting time. I mean, you know, we were young and foolish (laughter). And we - you know, we were traveling on the road, you know, weren't making a lot of money. But we were working, and there was a lot of exchange among musicians, you know, people hanging out. Jimi Hendrix was around.

There was - the jazz - the whole jazz scene kind of went underground. The kind of overwhelming influence of electric guitars kind of eclipsed, you know, not only the rhythm and blues music that went before but also kind of eclipsed the acoustic sound, which included saxophones, trumpets and what have you. For example, I was one of the only horn players that was working in the - on the scene at that time. You know, I mean, there weren't a lot of horn players working.

GROSS: After your years with The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, you ended up playing - well, touring with, I believe, The Rolling Stones and with David Bowie.

SANBORN: Well, I was actually playing with Stevie Wonder in 1971 and 1972. And we were asked to open for The Rolling Stones in the summer of '72 tour, and so I consequently got to play with them, you know, on that tour.

GROSS: Were there things that you were - were there things that were really fun about, you know, like, a Stevie Wonder-Rolling Stones tour and, on the other hand, things that were really alienating about it?

SANBORN: Well, it was certainly exciting. You know, I mean, there was a lot of intense behavior. I don't know how else to put it. It was pretty, I guess you would say, Dionysian - you know, a lot of sexual activity, a lot of drugs, you know, not so much with them, but with the people that were around them, you know, the kind of entourage, the people that - you know, the thing that I always noticed about The Rolling Stones is that they pretty much, you know, in spite of everything, took care of business. And they may have partied heavy but certainly not as heavy as the people around them - you know, the hangers-on, the sycophants, you know, all the people that were in the periphery - on the periphery of that.

GROSS: How did you start recording solo albums?

SANBORN: Well, after I was - after I played with David Bowie - I was working with David Bowie, and I was also working with Gil Evans at the same time.

GROSS: Now, that's an interesting juxtaposition...

SANBORN: Yeah, it was.

GROSS: ...'Cause Gil Evans was one of the great jazz arrangers...


GROSS: ...And David Bowie a big rock star.


GROSS: So there's two different...

SANBORN: Well, I know that one of the oddest situations I can remember was I played - the last show of Bowie's tour was in Madison Square Garden, and I played the show in Madison Square Garden and left there, got on a plane and flew to Italy. And the next day, I was in Perugia, Italy, playing with Gil Evans, and that was - the juxtaposition of that was very odd.

GROSS: You know, I know you played off and on with Gil Evans for several years.

SANBORN: Yes, I did.

GROSS: I saw you once with him at a small club in New York, and this was in the early '80s, when - I mean, your solo albums, as I believe, were selling quite well then. So obviously you weren't sitting in with him for the money.


GROSS: Why did you want to keep playing with Gil Evans even though you were having your own successful solo albums and you'd done quite well playing on rock records?

SANBORN: Well, it was such a great experience playing with Gil. I mean, he was, you know, one of the great arrangers of the - of jazz in, certainly, this century to me. I mean, I can think of so many great things about Gil's music, you know? And it was like - when you were playing in the ensemble, every part was like a melody. And so you really - you kind of wanted to play. And, you know, you felt like, you know, the part you were playing was so melodic, yet it fit with everything else that was going on. And I don't think there - to my ears, there was never an arranger that had, you know, that kind of ear for color and texture and the atmospherics as Gil.

GROSS: You told us earlier that you first started playing the alto as therapy for your polio. Do you have any aftereffects from the polio now?

SANBORN: Well, I have - I don't have total use of my left arm, and I have some problems in my right leg.

GROSS: How does - does your left arm interfere with playing?

SANBORN: Well, I don't have total flexibility in my left hand, so, I mean, I have problems with certain technical - certain technical problems with the instrument.

GROSS: Fingerings?

SANBORN: Yeah, certain fingerings. And I have to kind of lean a certain way to play, which is - it's funny because sometimes I'll see - I saw a young player who was, like, kind of imitating me, imitating my sound. And I saw a picture of him, and he was standing like me and with his little finger kind of thrown up, which is the way I do. But it's not because I want to do that. It's because my little finger just does that, and he kind of stood crooked, and, you know, I wanted to find him and tell him and say, look. You know, if I could stand straight while I played, I would.

GROSS: Right.

SANBORN: You know, I wouldn't throw my little finger up like that if I could do it. So it was just kind of odd that, you know, I saw him imitating, you know, my compensating characteristics.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.

SANBORN: Well, thanks for having me.

DAVIES: Terry Gross interviewed David Sanborn in 1991. He died on May 12. He was 78 years old. On Monday's show, we remember Stax Records, the Memphis soul label that produced hits by Otis Redding, Booker T. and the M.G.'s, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes and others. It's now the subject of a four-part documentary series on HBO Max. We'll listen to some of our interviews with musicians behind the music - guitarist Steve Cropper, Booker T. and Isaac Hayes. I hope you can join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross and Tonya Mosley, I'm Dave Davies.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.