David Sanborn, one of the best-known American saxophonists of his generation, has died.  He was 78.

Sanborn’s distinctive alto graced hundreds of recordings, notably David Bowie’s Young Americans, Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, Gil Evans’ Svengali and eponymous albums by singers Gloria Gaynor, Chaka Khan and Aretha Franklin.

David Sanborn, 1945–2024

Born in Tampa, Florida, Sanborn took up saxophone as a teenager in order to strengthen his polio-weakened chest muscles. By 14 he was playing with blues musicians Little Milton and Albert King. His chief early influence was saxophonist Hank Crawford, whose piercing blues, soul, and gospel-drenched tone he emulated, then absorbed.

Sanborn joined The Paul Butterfield Blues Band in 1967 and appeared with the group at the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969. In 1972, Sanborn he soloed on the track Tuesday Heartbreak on the Stevie Wonder album Talking Book. His work in 1975 with David Bowie on Young Americans and on the James Taylor recording of How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You) made him a star among the ranks of session players

In the mid-70s, Sanborn became active in the jazz fusion scene, joining the Brecker Brothers’ band. With the Breckers as sidemen, Sanborn recorded his first solo album, Taking Off, now regarded as a jazz/funk classic.

Though his recorded output frequently veered toward the popular, Sanborn was an adventurer, too, studying with free jazz players Roscoe Mitchell and Julius Hemphill.

In the 1980s, Sanborn was a member of the powerhouse Saturday Night Live house band. In 1991, Sanborn recorded Another Hand, which restated his jazz credentials. The album featured Charlie Haden, Jack DeJohnette, Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot.

Sanborn had six Grammy Awards to his name, including for his albums Voyeur (1981), Double Vision (1986) and the instrumental album Close-Up (1988).

Joey Defrancesco and David Sanborn at the Newport Jazz Festival in 2014. Photo Wikicommons

In the 1990s, Sanborn played regularly with Hammond B3 organ player Joey DeFrancesco and drummer Steve Gadd. He was a member of Paul Schaffer’s Dave Letterman Show house band.

In the 2010s, he toured with bassist Marcus Miller and keyboardist George Duke.

Sanborn died of complications from prostate cancer on 12 May, at the age of 78. He had been diagnosed with the disease in 2018.

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