Touring together, two saxophone greats – David Sanborn and “out and proud” musician Dave Koz – will perform at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 4, at the Kauffman Center in Kansas City, Mo.
“I can tell you it’s going to be a night of incredible music,” Koz says. “We’re two people who really admire and respect each other. This is a first for both of us to come together and bring our music side-by-side, backed by one band made up of musicians from both our organizations.”
Koz, a nine-time Grammy nominee, has charted nine No. 1 albums on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Album chart, most recently with his Collaborations: 25th Anniversary Collection. Sanborn has released 24 albums and won six Grammy Awards. His first solo album was released in 1975.
Koz is enthusiastic about all kinds of music, and he has many great stories to tell.
“Last year, I celebrated 25 years of being in the music business, and in a million years, I would never have expected that I’d be doing this back 25 years ago!” he says. “Making records and traveling the world and playing for presidents and getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame—it’s often like a big mystery to me how it all happened.”
As a child, Koz says, he studied piano and drums without much success. He credits his older brother with salvaging his hopes as a musician by igniting his interest in the saxophone.
“My brother is a fantastic musician, and he had a band that was playing weddings and bar mitzvahs and fraternity parties, and I just wanted to be in that,” Koz said. “One day, he just sort of let it slip that the only way I would ever get into that band was if I played the sax, because they didn’t have a sax player.”
The suggestion was particularly well-timed, because he was 13 and entering the seventh grade.
“That was a big time for kids to take up instruments,” he says. “I picked up the saxophone, and it was a wholly different experience than any of the others I had played before! I practiced constantly, until finally I drove my brother crazy and he let me in the band.”
Over the years, he says, he has had several mentors and role models as a musician, but David Sanborn — the man he’s touring with — has always been at the top of his list of musicians he admires.
“This has been a tour I’ve hoped and dreamed about since I was a young kid,” he says. “… He took the saxophone from being more traditional and jazz-oriented and put it into a different musical landscape — a more pop, R&B, and funky landscape.”
Practicing the sax as a boy, Koz says, he would “devour” Sanborn’s music, learning every phrase or musical “lick” that the veteran would perform. When he was in high school, he even got to meet Sanborn.
“Like anyone who finally meets their idol, I was such a blubbering fool in front of him,” Koz says with a laugh. “I said something along the lines of ‘Mr. Sanborn, I just want to be exactly like you and sound just like you.’”
Sanborn gave the teen the best advice he’s had yet: “He looked at me and said, ‘Kid, there already IS a me. You should just be you.’ And those words stayed with me to this day.”
Koz says with a smile: “Getting to play along with someone that I grew up listening to and idolizing, at this point in my career is pretty special, I gotta say!”
Over his long career, Koz has been able to collaborate with numerous other impressive musicians.
For example, Stevie Wonder played on his recent Christmas album, The 25th of December.
“He came in there to play the harmonica and sing on this one track, and he gets to the end of the first take — it’s PERFECT! But he said, ‘No, not good — let me do it again. … He probably did 10 takes each with his harmonica and vocals, and each time tried to be more and more of a perfectionist. No matter what he’s doing, he is completely committed to making it the greatest it can possibly be. It really showed me who he is – and why he’s garnered such incredible respect.”
Yet no matter how many legendary performers they’ve worked with, artists are bound to have a list of those with whom they would have loved to work. Koz says he got the chance to work with one such luminary — at least posthumously — the great crooner Dean Martin.
“It was for a ‘duets’ album, where they used Dean’s tracks from the old Capitol Records vaults,” he explained. “They asked me to do a duet with him to a song called ‘Just in Time’ from the musical Bells Are Ringing.”
As Koz recollects, it was “like an out-of-body, out-of-mind experience,” with everyone in the recording studio playing live with Dean’s recorded voice.
“But it was in our headphones, so it felt like he was in the room singing this while we were all playing,” Koz says. “I’m so proud to have been able to do something like this with one of my idols.”
But, he says, his most memorable performing experience was the time he was asked to appear before President Bill Clinton, himself a saxophone player. Koz says it happened during Clinton’s re-election campaign. The President sponsored a series of musical events all across the country called “The Saxophone Club,” and at every event, the featured entertainment was a saxophonist.
“It was a very fun thing,” he recounts fondly.
Undoubtedly, though, he says, the most special part was that he was able to introduce his parents to the then-commander-in-chief.
“Because of what I do for a living, I was able to introduce my parents to a sitting president — that alone remains such a quintessential moment of pride for all parties, and I’ll never, ever forget that,” he says.
Koz was candid in talking about his potentially life-altering decision in 2004 to go public with his sexual orientation.
“I worried about this forever,” he confesses. “When I was just starting out – which was a very different time than it is now — for someone who was gay and in the public eye as a recording artist, that was just not something that you did.”
Nonetheless, he realized that if he was going to continue his life — personally or professionally — this was simply something he had to do in order to maintain his integrity.
“I was expecting a big change — and I was going to be fine with whatever happened,” he said. “If my career ended, I told myself ‘OK, I’ll do something different, but at least I’m being me in an authentic way.’ So I made my announcement — and not only did nothing happen … everything got better! It was a real amazing truth again I discovered — that there are rewards for showing up authentically in life, no matter who you are!”
Koz recognizes that people are likely to view him as a role model, considering the success he has achieved as an openly gay figure.
“I don’t fashion myself as that — I never have,” he said. “But I do hear from plenty of gay kids — male and female — and musicians questioning, ‘should I be who I am?’ and I always like to answer them and encourage them to follow their dreams and their passions. … And if I can, in that way, be a role model to ALL young musicians, I’m very happy to do that.”
When it comes to expressing this optimistic outlook, perhaps the best place to see it is in his music.
“Some musicians — especially young musicians — whenever they’re playing, [they] look like they’re having the worst time in the world. … That kind of bothers me,” he says. “I wish they’d try a little bit more ‘lightness,’ because these days, with everything that’s going on in our world, we need music to lighten our load. In fact, I look to my music as a force or a mission to lighten people’s load a little bit — even if just for an hour during a concert.”
He again alludes to the kind of music he enjoys treating listeners to most.
“If you look at my history or past success, it’s been primarily with very melodic material,” he says. “My music tends to be very melody-driven. Yes, sometimes it’s got a funky beat to it, but for the most part, it’s been really about communicating melodies. Nothing for me is more appealing or more satisfying than taking a great melody and just pouring my heart and soul into it.”
Happily, this melodious way of expressing harmony — both musical and otherwise — plays into the themes he and Sanborn most want to express during their concert tour.
“My hope is that people come, and whether they get it that straightforwardly or it’s just a vibe or feeling that they go home with, it’s that the spirit of collaboration really works — not just onstage, but in our lives in general — and that working and collaborating with others with open arms is really how we all move forward,” Koz says.
Tickets for the Dave Koz & David Sanborn: Side by Side concert can be purchased by visiting http://kauffmancenter.org or by calling 816-994-7222.