Music has given my life meaning - David Sanborn

David Sanborn during the Safaricom International Jazz Festival. He believes playing music is both a spiritual and humanitarian thing to do

He’s lean, not a physically imposing figure. His personality is laid back. If anything, he’s an unassuming person. David Sanborn is an American who has an impressive track record in the broad field of entertainment as a jazz musician.

He’s a multi-Grammy Award winner for various albums he recorded in a period that spans more than forty years. Eight of his albums went Gold and one is Platinum.

Indeed, I felt honoured to have met him recently in Nairobi, just a few days before his debut performance at the recently concluded Safaricom International Jazz Festival. There I was, so excited chatting with a great jazz figure, who expounded so elaborately and eloquently every statement I had made regarding his music – both as a composer, instrumentalist and bandleader.

In fact, it was as if we’d been acquaintances. Ours was mostly conversational, apart from certain insights that I was determined to get from him.

David Sanborn was born July 30, 1945 in Tampa, Florida, but was raised in Kirkwood, Missouri, near St. Louis. In a career that spans more than 40 years, he has recorded over 24 albums as a leader, and many more as an accompanist on the alto saxophone.

As both a jazz fan and commentator, I was very curious to hear from him how come I’d never heard him featured playing any other reed instrument in the saxophone family apart from the alto.

His narration was a sad one but, nonetheless, very illuminating and inspiring. He explained that he suffered from polio, a physically debilitating condition, at an early age of three and had to struggle with the disease for eight years.

On the advice of a doctor, he learned to play the saxophone as a therapeutic way that would help strengthen his lungs and chest muscles.

“I started out on the alto saxophone because it was ideal for my treatment. And the size, which is unlike the tenor saxophone which is taller and heavier,” Sanborn explained. And since then, he has hanged on to the alto with very impressive results.

What started out as a therapy would turn into a real music practice through his teenage and adulthood then, subsequently, into a full-time occupation as a professional musician.

But interestingly, even prior to playing the saxophone, he had enjoyed listening to music that featured saxophone players. And he was soon after to identify specific players that he admired.

But one saxophonist who stood out and even to this date inspires and has remained a major influence on Sanborn’s playing was alto saxophonist Hank Crawford, the soulful reed-man whose emotional tone he greatly admires.

Sanborn subsequently made his professional debut as a teenager, at the age of 14 in 1959, backing Chicago bluesmen, Little Milton and the left-handed guitarist-vocalist Albert King, when they visited his town.

Sanborn believes music has no borders.

But his most interesting observation while making his (valid) statement that “good music is without borders,” was when he went further and stated: “Without Africa, there would be no jazz.” He was actually hammering a historical and cultural fact that at times is ignored. Of course, jazz was created out of the music that Africans who were taken to America sung while working in fields.

Further to that, he said he was struck, while visiting Japan, when he got a CD that was compiled by a Japanese ethno-musicologist featuring some traditional music from parts of the central African forest, similar to that which is performed by the Pygmies who are found in the vast Congo region.

“I was completely struck by their music. They would sing and sound like salsa from Cuba and Puerto Rico,” Sanborn, who studied music at the Northwestern University and the University of Iowa, stated. “This music exists because of the human mind. This music is very complex.”

Sanborn, who has previously performed in South Africa, acknowledged that the music from Africa (by the Pygmies) inspired him for the material featured in his 2015 recording, Time and the River, which was produced by his friend and renowned bassist Marcus Miller.

“There’s something unique in the tone and colour of that music,” he added.

But despite all that admiration of Africa’s musical heritage, Sanborn believes each song has a story behind it and emphasized the need for a jazz musician to work hard to find his/her own individual sound. “It is important to develop your own voice and tell your own story.”

But he seemed lost for words in his admiration for the prolific Ahmad Jamal, a composer-pianist-arranger, a musician’s musician who literally influenced Miles Davis with his unique style of economy of sounds.

Sanborn said Miles was quoted saying the music contained in Jamal’s Poinciana album “inspires sound and space.”

“But it is a difficult thing to do. If your ego is too involved, it is very difficult to achieve that. Practice your instrument well to be able to hear and respond to the other people what they are doing. It’s supposed to be a conversation with the other musicians playing with you,” Sanborn explained.

Sanborn is very glad that he’s able to express humanity through the music he plays and, likewise, the music he listens to. “It strengthens my life. Music to me is my life choice; it’s more than a passion. It has given my life meaning. Music is a teacher thaat teaches you how to live in the moment. I am grateful what happened for me as a kid.”

David Sanborn believes playing music is both a spiritual and humanitarian thing to do.