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David Sanborn, Soulful Saxophone Icon, Dies at 78

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David Sanborn, the alto saxophonist whose distinctively soulful sound graced countless iconic recordings over a six-decade career, has died. He passed away on May 12th at the age of 78 due to complications from prostate cancer, which he had been battling since 2018.

Born in Tampa in 1945, Sanborn first took up the saxophone as a teenager to help strengthen his lungs after a bout with polio. He later joined the revolutionary Paul Butterfield Blues Band, making his Woodstock debut with the group in 1969.

In the mid-70s, David Sanborn’s stellar reputation took him into the world of jazz fusion alongside the Brecker Brothers. His debut solo album Taking Off in 1975 is considered a seminal jazz/funk classic.

His unmistakable voice can be heard wailing on seminal works by Stevie Wonder (Talking Book), David Bowie (Young Americans), James Taylor, and Aretha Franklin, among many others. Throughout his career, he would continue straddling genres, studying with music greats while also scoring a string of popular instrumental hits.

Sanborn won six Grammy awards over his illustrious career, including for the crossover albums Voyeur, Double Vision, and Close-Up in the 1980s. He served as a member of the Saturday Night Live band and Paul Shaffer’s ensemble on The Late Show with David Letterman. In the 2010s, he frequently toured with Marcus Miller and George Duke.

While he disavowed the “smooth jazz” label his music helped inspire, David Sanborn’s accessibility and emotional resonance made him one of the most universally beloved instrumentalists of his era.

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