The taping of NBC’s Sunday late-night hip parade, Night Music, is running late. No reason to alert the media; the show’s taping usually runs late. But tonight David Sanborn, the show’s host and star saxophonist, is concerned. Objecting to a beer-company sponsor, jazz musician Yusef Lateef, a Muslim, has canceled his appearance, and Sanborn is worried that the show’s chemistry may be affected. To Sanborn, 44, the mix of guests is as important as the music.
Night Music is a 60-minute grab bag of sound and style, and Sanborn “can play with anybody, the most avant-garde of the avant-garde, or the old R & B guys,” says Willner, the show’s music producer. “He is also willing to try anything.” Indeed, Night Music’s musical matchups have included fusion violinist Jean-Luc Ponty with rapper L.L. Cool J, the pop-funk Was (Not Was) with folksy Leonard Cohen and other unlikely combinations that Sanborn finds “texturally interesting.” Tonight’s lineup, even without Lateef, should fill the bill: Torchy Deborah Harry, a rock band from Cleveland, pianist-composer Philip Glass and the guest co-host, pop-folksinger Loudon Wainwright III.
Sanborn, dressed in his signature black, emerges from the wings to rehearse a Wainwright composition titled “Lullaby,” and suddenly his playing overcomes any anxiety remaining in the air. Each note, gently phrased, floats through the studio like smoke from burning incense. These aren’t the furious riffs that the five-time Grammy winner has contributed to dozens of albums (including 11 of his own), or the squeals he sounded on tours with Stevie Wonder, James Brown or the Rolling Stones. They are simply an expression of his joy of sax.
At one time, growing up in St. Louis, life for Sanborn was less joyful. At 3, he contracted polio, was put in an iron lung and “was in the hospital for three months,” says his mother, Carolyn. “It affected his left shoulder, his right foot and his lungs. He recovered enough to be taken out of the iron lung, but there were years of physical therapy ahead of him.” Even now, Sanborn is reluctant to discuss the ordeal, saying only, “I’ve probably blocked a lot of it out of my life.”
By 5, he was able to walk again (he still has a very slight limp). Then some six years later another phase of therapy began when his father, an advertising executive (who died in 1970), took him to a Ray Charles concert. “At one point the mike went out where [saxophonist] Hank Crawford was playing, and I could still hear him in the back,” says Sanborn. “It wasn’t that he was playing that loudly, but his sound really cut through. If I can point to one time where I said, ‘Gee, that’s what I really want to do,’ that was it.”
Although the sax was good medicine for Sanborn’s weakened lungs, he was booted out of his school band for lack of musicianship. “It was a minor humiliation,” he says. “I continued to play.” He eventually enrolled in the music department of Northwestern University, then switched to the University of Iowa, where he met a coed two years his junior. Their eight-year marriage produced a son, Jonathan, now a 23-year-old bass player who appeared on Night Music earlier this year.
While polio was the crucible of David’s childhood, drugs later became his companion. During his four years in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in the late ’60s, he began smoking pot, drinking wine—four to five bottles a day, he once said—and using cocaine. But his career never foundered. By the 1970s he was one of the most sought-after session players around, and because he often played key solos for well-known performers such as James Taylor, Carly Simon and David Bowie, he also had high visibility. Their records “were played on the radio a lot,” he says. “It gave the appearance of me being everywhere.”
Sanborn says he quit drugs seven years ago. “They just stopped working,” he says. “You’re not high anymore, you’re just on drugs. It’s a function of age, too, and I guess just being saturated.” Now, he says, he doesn’t even drink coffee.
He quit something else, too, last year: working. “People would call me and say, ‘Give me that thing you played on so-and-so’s record,’ ” he says. “I was becoming a caricature. I had lost that part of my life that every musician has to have. You have to be a student of music.” Sanborn began a four-month layoff, took lessons from tenor saxman George Coleman and started concentrating on “being a better player.” Thus rejuvenated, he jumped into Night Music (then known as Sunday Night) in October last year.
The syndicated show, which airs mostly in the late-Sunday or wee-hours-of-Mon-day time slot, keeps Sanborn in New York City during the TV season and close to his small two-bedroom West Side Manhattan apartment. While the schedule has slowed his social life, he does meet Jonathan for some father-son nights out, plays David Letterman’s Late Night show occasionally and swims regularly at a Manhattan health club. The exercise helps keep his once ailing lungs fit, and by doing so, says Sanborn, “it serves the music.”
And that, in a way, is a trip full circle: The pursuit, which Sanborn once turned to for therapy, has become his best reason for maintaining it. “Being a musician is more than a job,” he says now. “It’s how I lead my life. It’s what I care about.”
—Andrew Abrahams in New York City