In 2010, I suffered a brain hemorrhage that initially paralyzed my right side. I was primarily a pianist back then and thought that my musical dreams were shattered. But saxophonist Walle Larsson knew different. He told me, “David Sanborn had polio as a child and spent a year in an iron lung. Like you, David experienced paralysis, yet he went on to become one of the most influential sax players of our time. If he can do it, so can you!”
Hugely inspired, I dug deep into the Sanborn catalogue, learning to use my right hand again on the sax under Walle’s watchful eye and spending endless hours playing along with David’s music at home.
In 2015, I got to see my hero live in Omaha, Nebraska. When I told my sax professor Jon Gordon that I was going, he made some calls and arranged for me to meet David. I thought that I’d be lucky to simply say hello and shake his hand. But when he heard a bit about my story, he was curious to know more. Incredibly, we sat down for over an hour together backstage talking recovery and music. I couldn’t believe it!
You might think that the advice I received would be technical or sax specific, but it wasn’t. David’s words of wisdom, gained from playing alongside such legends as Gil Evans, Christian McBride, Stevie Wonder, David Bowie and the Eagles, apply to any musician.
David told me that his style was actually a result of his limitations—a real blessing in disguise. He couldn’t be the loudest or play the longest notes because of his shallow lung capacity. He couldn’t be the fastest due to his slow left hand, and he couldn’t be the flashiest because the effects of polio restricted his movement on stage. But within those boundaries David discovered the raw, soulful sound that makes every note he plays so compelling.
“Find what works for you,” Dave told me. “Not everyone is going to like your style, and really, you can’t be concerned about how someone feels about your music anyway. You can’t control what people think and everyone’s tastes are different. So you have to play the style that’s true to you and tells your story best. Be honest. Tell your story truthfully. Tell it from your soul. Copying other people and not playing what’s inside you may fool some people initially, but they’re eventually going to see through it. Audiences know when it’s not real.”
“You know you can go by the practice rooms at Berkeley and hear people tearing up ‘Giant Steps’ but the thing is, Coltrane’s already told his story, it’s already out there. When I play, I tell my story. You don’t want to tell my story or Trane’s story—you want to tell your own.”
I asked David how he brings so much emotion into his playing. He said, “Every time I pick up the horn, I just think about how grateful I am to be here. I’m grateful to be alive and blessed to be able to do this for a living.”
Music heals and truly is the best therapy. David’s shown that with a deep passion for music, anything is possible. “Gratitude, humility and patience,” David said. “I remind myself of those words every day.”
It sure is cool when your hero not only sounds as great as you knew he would, but is also the awesome person you’d hoped he’d be. I feel so fortunate to have met him. Thanks David!