Grammy Award-winning Jazz legend David Sanborn passes at 78

Jazz St. Louis President and CEO Victor Goines, St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O Jones, David Sanborn and actor/comedian Joe Torry. Sanborn was presented with a proclamation from the mayor – which declared Thursday, February 22, 2024 as David Sanborn Day in the City of St. Louis. He was celebrated as the inaugural recipient of Jazz St. Louis’ Steward Center Lifetime Achievement Award in Excellence at their Swing For Tomorrow’s Stars Gala at the Chase Park Plaza. Photo courtesy of Jazz St. Louis

by Kenya Vaughn | The St. Louis American

The remarks that St. Louis son David Sanborn delivered two months ago as he accepted Jazz St. Louis’ inaugural recipient of the Steward Center Lifetime Achievement Award in Excellence now have even deeper significance.

“I’m so glad I am alive to receive this,” Sanborn told the capacity crowd of the Khorassan Ballroom at The Royal Sonesta Chase Park Plaza on Thursday, February 22.

Though he framed the statement as a joke, his words held a secret truth. Few may have known that as Jazz St. Louis celebrated him, he was battling prostate cancer. Sanborn succumbed to the disease on Sunday, May 12.

“It is with sad and heavy hearts that we convey to you the loss of internationally renowned six-time Grammy Award-winning saxophonist, David Sanborn,” a statement read on his official social media channels.

He was 78.

The 2018 diagnosis didn’t stop him from performing until recently – and according to the statement of his passing, he had concerts scheduled into 2025.

“David Sanborn was a seminal figure in contemporary pop and jazz music,” the statement continued. “It has been said that he ‘put the saxophone back into Rock ‘n Roll.’”

He picked up a saxophone for the first time in the St. Louis region.

Born in Tampa, Florida on July 30, 1945, Sanborn was raised in Kirkwood. He contracted polio as a toddler and began to play saxophone at the age of 11 at the suggestion of a physician as exercise to strengthen his weakened chest muscles and improve his breathing.

“Little did the doctors know that it would turn into a lifetime path that I have been able to follow,” Sanborn said. “I have been able to find my way spiritually, creatively, emotionally – every way – through music. It opens doors you never imagine existed.”

By his early teens he was catching the bus with friends to Gaslight Square to play. It was here that made a name for himself locally thanks to stolen Sonny Stitt riffs – and was blessed with the opportunity to play with the likes of Albert King and Little Milton.

He studied music at Northwestern University and the University of Iowa. Soon afterwards, he joined the famed Butterfield Blues Band – and played the iconic Woodstock music festival with Paul Butterfield.

He then toured with Stevie Wonder – and recorded with him on his “Talking Book” album. He also toured with The Rolling Stones and David Bowie.

His solo on Bowie’s “Young Americans,” was the perfect springboard for Sanborn’s 1975 debut solo album “Taking Off.” Sanborn’s album was released a few months after “Young Americans.” “Taking Off” shot to the top twenty on Billboard’s Jazz Album charts.

In 1981, Sanborn won his first Grammy Award for “Best Instrumental R&B Performance” with “All I Need Is You.” Five more Grammy Awards would follow. In the nearly fifty years since he made his solo debut, Sanborn enjoyed the type of commercial success that transcended genres thanks to collaborations with artists such as Eric Clapton, Luther Vandross and countless others. His solo discography includes 24 studio albums and five compilation albums. Of those albums, eight were certified gold – and one was certified platinum.

In 2004, Sanborn was inducted to the St. Louis Walk of Fame.

He never forgot his St. Louis roots and was a mainstay on the music scene as a touring artist and supporter.

“I am deeply grateful and amazingly honored to receive this award in my hometown of St. Louis,” Sanborn told the audience of the Jazz St. Louis Swing for Tomorrow’s Stars Gala. Sadly, it would be his final appearance on a St. Louis stage.

“Music has sustained my life. As a matter of fact, it kept me alive on every level,” Sanborn said. “Music inspired me. I knew that whatever I did in my life, I had to be around music.”

Information from contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in the St. Louis American

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