Famed Saxophonist David Sanborn dies at age 78

By Michelle Dumas

David Sanborn performing in 2008. By Noticaribe, CC BY 2.0, https commons.wikimedia.org


David William Sanborn (July 30, 1945 – May 12, 2024) was an American alto saxophonist. Though Sanborn worked in many genres, his solo recordings typically blended jazz with instrumental pop and R&B. He released his first solo album Taking Off in 1975, but had been playing the saxophone since before he was in high school and was a session musician long before its release. He was active as a session musician, playing on several albums by various artists.

One of the most commercially successful American saxophonists to earn prominence since the 1980s, Sanborn was described by critic Scott Yanow as “the most influential saxophonist on pop, R&B, and crossover players of the past 20 years.” He was often identified with radio-friendly smooth jazz, but expressed a disinclination for the genre and his association with it.

Sanborn was born in Tampa, Florida, and grew up in Kirkwood, Missouri. He contracted polio in his youth. He began playing saxophone on a physician’s advice to strengthen his weakened chest muscles and improve his breathing, instead of studying piano. Alto saxophonist Hank Crawford, at the time a member of Ray Charles‘s band, was an early and lasting influence on Sanborn.

Sanborn attended college at Northwestern University and studied music. But he transferred to the University of Iowa where he played and studied with saxophonist J.R. Monterose.

Sanborn was a highly regarded session player from the late 1960s onwards, playing with an array of well-known artists, such as James BrownBryan FerryMichael StanleyEric ClaptonBobby CharlesCat StevensRoger DaltreyStevie WonderPaul SimonJaco Pastorius, the Brecker BrothersMichael FranksKenny LogginsCasiopeaPlayers AssociationDavid BowieTodd RundgrenBruce SpringsteenLittle FeatTommy BolinBob JamesJames TaylorAl JarreauPure Prairie LeagueKenny GLoudon Wainwright IIIGeorge BensonJoe BeckDonny HathawayElton JohnGil EvansCarly SimonGuruLinda RonstadtBilly JoelKenny GarrettRoger WatersSteely DanWeen, the EaglesGrateful DeadNenaHikaru UtadaThe Rolling StonesIan Hunter, and Toto.

Many of his solo recordings were collaborations with the bassist/multi-instrumentalist/composer and producer Marcus Miller, whom he met in the Saturday Night Live band in the late 1970s.

Sanborn won six Grammy Awards and had eight gold albums and one platinum album.

Sanborn won Grammy Awards for Voyeur (1981), Double Vision (1986), and the instrumental album Close Up (1988).

In 2004, Sanborn was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame.

Sanborn died of complications from prostate cancer in Tarrytown, New York, on May 12, 2024, at the age of 78. He had been diagnosed with the disease in 2018.

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