David Sanborn, Grammy-Winning Jazz Saxophonist and 'SNL' Bandmember, Dies at 78

Celebrating a Storied Career in Music and Entertainment.

by Nouman Rasool
David Sanborn, Grammy-Winning Jazz Saxophonist and 'SNL' Bandmember, Dies at 78
© Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

David Sanborn, the groundbreaking alto saxophonist, six-time Grammy winner, has died at 78. He passed away from prostate cancer after a long battle. Part of what makes his death the end of an era for his fans and fellow musicians is the tremendous impact he had on jazz and rock music.

Through a long career, not only was Sanborn himself a fixture at iconic music festivals like Woodstock, but he was also a prolific composer for film, including the "Lethal Weapon" series. His distinct saxophone tones laced the bands of both "Saturday Night Live" and "Late Night with David Letterman" through the flexible musical prowess that he had.

Sanborn played with all the musical heavyweights, from Bruce Springsteen to the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, and Miles Davis. Now, despite the "smooth jazz" tag that has been pinned to Sanborn's music, he would prefer it be remembered that he was re-inventing the sax in rock music.

Sanborn's Screen Contributions

He also did massive work for television and film. For instance, he served as the anchorman for the "Saturday Night Live" band from 1979 to 1980. The latter also saw the participation of other key musicians such as Howard Shore and Paul Shaffer.

It was only his charisma and talent that would bring Sanborn on-screen time and time again, for the composer acted in and wrote for several movies and series throughout the 1980s and 1990s. One of his more distinguished off-screen roles had been the co-host of the syndicated show "Night Music" from 1988-1990, which showcased jazz greats and contemporary musicians performing live on stage while complemented with interviews.

With an impressive discography, Sanborn has released 25 albums, many of them Gold and even Platinum status. His debut solo album, "Taking Off," was released in 1975 and instantly proclaimed him as a towering figure in the jazz fusion arena.

Receiving critical acclaim and several awards for works like this, he won his first Grammy for Best R&B Instrumental Performance in 1981. Sanborn had been attracted to music as a therapy for his polio since he was a young boy, and during his teens, he was already performing with the legends of blues.

Music was not just a job for Sanborn but a lifeline that saw him from the stages of Woodstock to the studios of Hollywood. As posted on his Facebook page, "It is with sad and heavy hearts that we convey to you the loss of David Sanborn, an internationally renowned artist who put the saxophone back into Rock 'n Roll." But even in his battle with prostate cancer that started in 2018, Sanborn never stopped performing as gigs were planned as far as 2025.

Sanborn's contribution to music is legendary and will make an indelible imprint on jazz and rock, which would influence generations of musicians.