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David Sanborn, jazz great from Kirkwood, says the St. Louis scene shaped his style

Jazz great David Sanborn, a Kirkwood native, will receive the inaugural lifetime achievement award from Jazz St. Louis.
Alice Soyer
Jazz great David Sanborn, a Kirkwood native, will receive the inaugural lifetime achievement award from Jazz St. Louis.

Kirkwood-raised musician David Sanborn has won six Grammy Awards and sold millions of albums across a more than 50-year career.

Known for his warm sound on alto saxophone, Sanborn, 78, has won acclaim as a solo artist and as a collaborator with a long list of stars in the worlds of jazz, rock and pop.

Jazz St. Louis will honor Sanborn with the inaugural Steward Center Lifetime Achievement Award in Excellence at the second night of its annual gala on Thursday. Branford and Wynton Marsalis will perform at the event.

Sanborn fell in love with music as a teenager, catching bands at teen recreation centers and, a little later, the clubs of Gaslight Square. He joined the Paul Butterfield Blues Band at 22 and followed that up with a stint in Stevie Wonder’s band, later recording and touring with David Bowie. He also made key recordings with jazz mainstays the Brecker Brothers and famed composer/arranger Gil Evans.

He won his first Grammy in 1981, for best R&B instrumental performance. His most recent Grammy came in 2000, when “Inside” won for best contemporary jazz album. He’s remained a busy bandleader and collaborator, releasing his most recent solo album in 2018.

Sanborn also has a taste for performing on film and television. He spent 1980 as a member of the “Saturday Night Live” house band and with Jools Holland co-hosted “Night Music” for three seasons beginning in 1988. The show featured live performances by a wide range of musicians, many of whom Sanborn sat in with.

Last fall he launched “As We Speak with David Sanborn,” a podcast produced by WGBO in Jersey City, New Jersey. The podcast features his conversations with other musicians, including Pat Metheny, John McLaughlin and Samara Joy.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin asked Sanborn about how his St. Louis experiences shaped his style.

Jeremy D. Goodwin: You were a teenager when you were coming up through a music scene that doesn’t really exist anymore. Where were you going out to see music?

David Sanborn: They used to call them teen towns. There were these recreational centers in various places. Sunset Hill is one I remember that was near Kirkwood. They would have a big dance hall with a stage in it, and in the warmer weather the bands would set up around the swimming pool. All these great regional bands came through, people like Little Milton and Albert King. My friend and I used to hang out at the front of the bandstand, just completely hypnotized by this music.

I got up my nerves and I asked if I could possibly sit in. It was a fairly loose scene, and maybe just out of a sense of novelty they allowed up to get up onstage and play with the horn section. Just to be in that situation and be with these musicians and to feel the power of the music like that, it was astonishing to me. From that moment on, it’s not that I planned on being a musician, but there was nothing else that I really wanted to do. It was like, well, I’m doing this.

Goodwin: You graduated from the teen towns and that circuit to Gaslight Square, which is a neighborhood that isn’t there anymore. What was the scene like there?

Sanborn: It was kind of St. Louis’ version of Greenwich Village. It was just two or three blocks, but there were like 30 clubs and restaurants. It was like a carnival. It was bright lights, big city for us. There was this excitement going on and all these different kinds of music. Dixieland music, bebop, blues, then comedians like Phyllis Diller and the Smothers Brothers. All this great scene going on, and people wandering in and out of places with great music going on.

There was this little club around the corner, kind of down a back alley. It almost looked like a storage locker. It was maybe the size of a shipping container. There were maybe 10 or 15 tables. One of the regulars there was Rick Bolden, a piano player who we had met playing with Albert King and Little Milton. We listened to them a couple weekends, and I asked if I could sit in, and they said OK.

I had memorized a Sonny Stitt solo, and so I played it. They were impressed because they didn’t realize I wasn’t making it up. Apparently they had never heard the original. So they asked me to come back, and I learned more Sonny Stitt solos.

That’s when I met other musicians like the great drummer Philip Wilson, who became my lifelong friend; Lester Bowie, Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake.

Goodwin: This must have been just a few years before some of those musicians would start the St. Louis Black Artists Group, or join bands like the Art Ensemble of Chicago. So you were coming out of a scene with all this boundary-pushing stuff going on. When you got a job with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band next, did that show you that you could take your chops into lots of different-sounding places?

Sanborn: I don’t think I had that perspective on things at the time. I was just following opportunities. There was certainly no grand plan. There were some great players in that band, and there was a jazz kind of sensibility. So we really got a chance to stretch out and play in that band. And then I just ended up segueing into a situation with Stevie Wonder.

Goodwin: What impact did your early experiences as a musician in St. Louis have on you?

Sanborn: I think for me that spirit of discovery really comes from my early days in St. Louis. Guys like Lester Bowie, Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, Phillip Wilson – they didn’t discriminate in terms of genre. If it was good, it was good. Lester would do a gig with a circus, and then you do an R&B gig with the Temptations, and then you do a jazz gig and then a free [jazz] gig. It was the idea that you didn’t draw boundaries. I think that attitude, more than anything else that I brought from St. Louis, really shaped me. It was like: It’s all good. Just try this, try that. For better or worse, I just stayed with that.

Goodwin: What does it mean to you to be honored with this lifetime achievement award in St. Louis?

Sanborn: It’s always nice to be acknowledged for what you’ve done in your life. And the fact I’m getting this award in St. Louis, where I was raised and had my first musical experiences, is very meaningful to me.

I was really formed as a musician by the places and the people that were here when I was in my formative years, when I was being mentored by these older musicians. Some were my peers. But just having that playing experience was a great foundation for me. So I feel like this is a full circle kind of thing.

For an extended version of Jeremy D. Goodwin’s interview with David Sanborn, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify or Google Podcast, or by clicking the play button below.

David Sanborn reflects on the St. Louis jazz scene, genre-bending and changes in the music industry

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.