Featured Story

Just saying: He and me

We were high school classmates. We were fellow musicians — saxophonists. I was a student council sort of guy (not sure why). He was a fine fellow but a borderline loner.

I joined the high school band program and wound up as the prim and proper first clarinetist in the orchestra, one of the best in St. Louis County. He had a somewhat mysterious outside life gigging with local blues groups. I was rather ordinary.

He was, in my mind, something of a burgeoning legend.

He was a year ahead of me, but we both went to the music school at Northwestern. I studied with Fred Hemke, perhaps the best classical saxophonist in the world. He had other thoughts and left after his freshman year to hang out with J. R. Monterose, an obscure but well-respected jazz saxophonist in Iowa. (We called that “woodshedding.”)

He became David Sanborn. I remained me.

David died recently. The outpouring of reverence for his body of work over decades with some of the greatest modern pop artists is, even though I expected it, astonishingly rapturous. He changed people’s lives. They listen to him every night. They weep for his loss.

My second favorite Sanborn story is from 1972. I was in my Vermont ski bum mode and had just purchased two LPs from the local record barn (literally). I rushed back home to my rented farmhouse on Lincoln Gap Road in Warren to blast them. The first was “Talking Book,” by Stevie Wonder. I’m loving it and then on track four, “Tuesday Heartbreak,” there he was, David Sanborn, wailing in his unmistakable honking tone. (I had no idea he was on the record.) I played it, like, eight times in a mild form of ecstasy.

I then turned to album two: a B.B. King recording with a big band. On a middle track, David broke through again, honking his way into my welcoming brain. What are the chances that two random record purchases would yield two performances from my high school chum?

My third favorite Sanborn story is from a high school music competition run by the county. David and I rounded up a couple of fellow saxophonists to form a quartet. We somehow dug up a fast-paced difficult piece that we practiced maybe three times. Up on the stage, we totally nailed it. Somewhere I still have a copy of the judges’ comments on our performance.

All A’s except for “interpretation” — C or D because it was too ”jazzy,” which was like getting an A plus.

My first favorite Sanborn story is about the time he tried to hook me up with Little Milton. Little Milton was a well-known blues singer and guitarist in the Midwest, and David had gigged with him often (during his mysterious ramblings while I was trapped in the school orchestra hall).

Little Milton and his band, in some long-forgotten basement, ran through a few tunes with David filling in perfectly when called on. I stood aside, literally trembling, knowing that I would reveal myself as hopelessly unequipped to perform with Little Milton. I hadn’t the tone, the chops nor the soul to hang with Little Milton. I met my expectations perfectly.

Little Milton and his guys, and David, were gracious as I packed up my sax and headed home. As I thought it would be, it was a turning point. I was never going to be David Sanborn. I was glad to get that out of the way.

I last played my sax in 1980, at a Newspaper Guild event in Providence. It’s in our apartment. One of my last great questions is will I play it again? It’s totally possible.

David, thanks for Little Milton. One of my best memories.