RIP: David Sanborn

Posted May 13, 2024 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

Legendary saxophonist and in-demand session player dies at the age of 78


Sanborn performing with Bob James and Marcus Miller

Sanborn performing with Bob James and Marcus Miller

Accomplished alto saxophonist and six-time Grammy award winner David Sanborn passed away on Sunday due to “complications after an extended battle with prostate cancer.” He was 78.

Born in Tampa and raised in Missouri, Sanborn is considered by many to be a titan in the contemporary jazz world, exposing his dynamic  horn playing to the masses as a solo artist and hot in-demand session superstar. His own style helped forge the foundations of smooth jazz,  a radio-friendly adult-contemporary genre that still dominates the jazz space to this day.

Sanborn is noted to be one of the jazz musicians to incorporate to make the saxophone sexy again. In the 70s, as an in-demand session player, Sanborn whipped up many credits stretching across a myriad of musical genres, from R&B to rock. After working on Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, offering a sax solo on “Tuesday Heartbreak,” Sanborn began making his rounds, prominently making a mark on David Bowie’s Young Americans LP on his notable appearance on the title cut. On the soulful track, Bowie stretches his “plastic soul” across a glorious landscape of gospel-tinged R&B powered by Luther Vandross and his background singers with Sanborn carrying the heavy load of horn blazing, so reminiscent of Junior Walker’s Motown hits. The song climbed to number 18 UK and number 28 pop. He also returned to Bowie’s side for the 1974 live album, David Live.

Another landmark performance can be heard on “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” Bruce Springsteen’s 1975 Steely Dan-esque rock gem. Here you can Sanborn playing in between Randy and Michael Brecker along with Clarence Clemons’ legendary tenor saxophone. The jam sounds like a Blues Brothers firecracker with a touch of Stax adrenaline.

The same year, Sanborn signed with Warner Bros. and struck out with his solo debut LP, Taking Off. Straight out the gate, Sanborn’s solo work captured a legion of fans. While working with names like Michael McDoanld, Marcus Miller (of Luther Vandross fame), his albums became jazz chart toppers, particularly in the late ‘70s and ‘80s. Other pop and rock artists used him mightily on their albums, including Elton John (Blue Moves) Linda Ronstadt (Living in the USA), Chaka Khan (Chaka Khan), The Eagles (The Long Run), Carly Simon (“You Belong to Me”), even landing a hot spot on Steely Dan’s mini opus Gaucho. On “Time Out of Mind,” he is sandwiched between a trio of harmonic sax players Michael Brecker, Dave Tofani and Ronnie Cuber.

Other jazz, rock, pop and AC greats including Bob James, James Taylor, George Benson, Kenny Loggins, Toto, the Rolling Stones, Al Jarreau, Gil Evans, Ron Carter, Brenda Russell, even the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, used Sanborn’s sax work on their recordings.

davidsanborn-00After a hot run with Warner Bros. as a solo act, even winning a Grammy for Best R&B Instrumental Performance for “All I Need Is You” and birthing his groovy classic “Chicago Song” in 1987, Sanborn moved to Elektra and much later to Verve and Decca throughout his 50+ year career, pulling off exceptional listening pleasures with LPs like Time Again. Although labeled an architect in the smooth jazz genre, Sanborn resented the link, often distancing himself from the label when presented. It didn’t stop most fans, including critics, from making the distinction.

Sanborn has earned eight gold albums, one platinum album and toured regularly up to his passing. Actually, he announced on May 3 via social media several canceled dates in 2024 due to “unbelievable pain” in his spine that prohibited him from walking, or even playing his horn. The week prior he had an unexpected spine surgery that would leave him in recovery for several weeks. Earlier this year, in March, Sanborn was honored in St. Louis and inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame for his contribution to the world of jazz. His sister, Sallie Sanborn, accepted the award on his behalf.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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