Dave Koz is Bringing Saxy Back

Written by | Entertainment, Music

When jazz musician Dave Koz takes the stage, there is an electrifying energy in the air that transports his audiences into a musical euphoria. Without fail, audiences jump to their feet in a standing ovation regardless of age, sex, orientation, race, or musical preference. With a recording career that spans just over three decades, Koz has racked up nine Grammy nominations, 11 No. 1 albums on Billboard’s Current Contemporary Jazz Albums chart, numerous world tours, 13 sold-out hosted cruises, performed for multiple U.S. presidents, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and appeared on a multitude of television shows, including Good Morning America, The View, The Tonight Show, Entertainment Tonight, and more. His compact frame belies an infinite amount of energy and his charming smile will either preclude a sassy story or an impromptu riff. From playing the saxophone in his school jazz band to recording 20 albums, his career has been a colorful journey – even if the sax wasn’t his first choice.

Well, sax was not my first instrument. My mom forced my brother, sister, and me to play the piano – which we all hated. I rebelled and chose the drums next. I was even worse on that instrument! Finally, at 13, I found an alto saxophone. I remembered how it felt in my hands, the way it sounded (rough at first, of course), but I knew this was different than the other instruments I tried before. Little did I know that relationship would become so primary in my life! Who knew?! It came easier. I felt almost as if I had found another part of my body, and it quickly became my voice to get out emotions I was feeling, but could not find the words.  

The biggest obstacle was wanting to get better FAST, and with the sax, it really takes a good year before you start to sound like anything. I remember my mom made me stuff a sock in the bell of the horn the first few months to mute the sound I was making. It wasn’t what I would call pretty in the beginning!  

Literally weeks after his graduation from UCLA with a degree in mass communications, he decided to pursue a career as a professional musician. He did not have to wait long before he was snatched up for touring and recording session work, mainly as a rock musician. He would segue to smooth jazz and earned a recurring gig as guest saxophonist on The Arsenio Hall Show. He clearly was a standout with his own unique voice. In 1989, he decided to go solo.

I was so green and had so much to learn. But fortunately, I was working with artists that brought me under their wing and were super patient while I learned the ropes. Jeff Lorber, the great jazz keyboardist, was the first to suggest I make my own music. Up until then, it really hadn’t crossed my mind. So, I am forever grateful to him for inspiring me on that journey. Those early demos we made way back when, got me signed to Capitol Records where I recorded for over 20 years. Amazing. I still make music with Lorber. He produced three tracks on my new album, A New Day. I have too many road stories. I’d have no idea where to begin! But one tour I was with Richard Marx, the pop singer. He and I looked A LOT alike at the time. And there was a period on that tour that I was his “double,” so he could escape from the throngs of female fans. Funny.  

His relationship with Capitol Records would be long lasting and would earn him a name in the Grammy world. Though green in the solo artist sector, he would hit the scene running. He had a story to tell and a song in his pocket.

I had a great time because this was all so new. Unlike a lot of artists who spend years writing the songs that appear on their debut album, I just jumped in cold.  I went in with both feet immediately, and it just clicked! I had wonderful friends at Capitol, who really cared deeply about the projects, so we all just rolled up our sleeves and tried to have as much fun as we could. The whole goal was to get just enough success under our belts to make album number two. I think I made about ten albums for Capitol during my tenure there. And still, to this day when I drive by that iconic round tower, I smile. It still feels like a dream that I was on that label for so many years. Even have a Hollywood star with my name on it out front. It is surreal.  

If you want something done, do it yourself.  Disillusioned by the Grammy Awards’ lack of nominations for musicians in Dave’s field, he took matters into his own hands.

My business partner and I decided in the mid-90s to petition the Grammy organization to adopt a new album category that would be a place where our type of music could get recognized. Well, amazingly, the petition got ratified on our first attempt, and the Best Pop Instrumental Album category began. That same year I got my first nomination (for a Christmas album).  I cannot recall how I found out, but I do remember how that felt – I was on cloud nine. Eight nominations later, it still is very special for me. Though, I’ve never won. Call me the Susan Lucci of the Sax!  

Dave has had the honor of working side by side with his idols. Not only has he learned musically from them, but he has also learned about the business side of things as well as a strong work ethic.

I am so starstruck, still.  Probably because I have so much respect for the guys that have done it for decades, and at such a high level. I remember when Barry Manilow (a good friend) asked me to open for him in the UK – this was many years after establishing myself as a headliner. Now, I am in front of an audience who has no idea who I am, not particularly excited to see me, and all they want is to see Barry! It was such a great experience to be able to get that tool out of the shed again and prove myself with every note in every show. It worked. Of course, I had to say the name Barry Manilow in that 25-minute show a lot! The bigger they are, the nicer they are. And they all work VERY hard. That doesn’t just “happen.” These are truly hard-working people, who are so committed to their calling, and know exactly who they are.

Coming out as gay was never on Dave’s agenda. Almost 15 years after he released his first album, his sexuality was called in question. As with his music, he jumped in with both feet, not knowing how it would affect his career.

I was beyond scared. In fact, I never ever thought I’d do it – it was just too big of a leap for me as I saw it. Then in 2004, I was doing an interview and the question came up, out of nowhere. I thought about it for a minute and realized at that moment I really wanted to come clean, to finally inhabit my life, to play with a full deck of cards for the first time in my life. Petrified, but knowing it was the right thing to do, I came out in The Advocate Magazine, and never looked back. It was swift and immediate, the incredible outpouring of love and acceptance. It was such an amazing learning experience, and easily the best thing I’ve ever done for myself in this lifetime. Ironically, a week after publication, I was doing a photoshoot and interview with People Magazine to be included in their “50 Bachelors” issue that year. That would not have happened had I not come out. So, it was immediately shown to me in this way, that being authentic in one’s life has its rich rewards. Of course, I worried my whole life would change. The reality is none of it did. The only change was inside of me … now finally able to really be me. Ticket sales to concerts increased, album sales too. It was incredible! 

As COVID continued to ravage the music industry with out of work musicians, permanent closures of performances spaces, and lack of government aid for musicians, Dave released a new album, A New Day, on the 30th anniversary of his debut album, Dave Koz. Instead of releasing a nostalgic retrospective or another all-star Summer Horns or holiday project, he released one of the most purposeful, empowering, and exhilarating albums of his career. This album is the first set of all original tracks in ten years and includes an incredible roster of guests, including Brian McKnight, Bob James, Marc Antoine, Rick Braun, Paul Jackson Jr., Jeff Lorber, and several longtime “wish-listers” he had not previously recorded with – his all-time saxophone hero David Sanborn, legendary Earth, Wind & Fire percussionist Ralph Johnson, neo-soul great Meshell Ndegeocello, saxophone and flute player David Mann and R&B singer Antwaun Stanley (of funk band Vulfpeck). The album was recorded digitally, with musicians quarantined in their own space. Though not recorded live together in a studio, the energy and final product is just as potent – a true bullet point to add to Dave’s extensive successes.

Even as we were making very universal thematic statements about this unusual moment in history, I realized that A New Day is also a very personal statement about where I am in my life. There is a full-circle poeticism about looking back at a career I could never have expected when I recorded my first album. I’ve been doing this a long time, but I still feel I have something meaningful to express and still feel extremely passionate about playing the saxophone. This led me to write songs that will hopefully help people through these difficult times and provide some inspiration. Whether we are ready for it or not, this is a new day for human beings on this planet. 

We only had one purpose. All the musicians, singers, engineers who came together to do this with me had one intention … to uplift, inspire and restore the spirits of all these folks so bent out of shape in the pandemic. It gave a real point to this project and corralled us in a way I have never quite felt before. It’s like we all had this mission, and nothing was going to stop us from achieving it. 

How has Dave changed the most from his first release 30 years ago?

Well, I am fully gray now! I came out as gay in 2004, and then came out as gray in 2017. I am still not sure which one was more difficult. [Laughs] But truly, I think I am much more chill now. I am still a workaholic and love what I do, but I take it all in stride much better now, thankfully. I think that alone has allowed me to keep doing this, so many years later. I’ve always loved what I do, but I think I’ve made it work in my life better now than in the beginning, if that makes sense. 

This Valentine’s season, he partners up with Brian McKnight for a virtual live stream concert, A Romantic Night In, on Feb 13.

I love Brian. His talent speaks for itself. We have recorded a lot together including having him appear on the new album on a song called “Summertime in NYC,” but we haven’t done that much live – so I am really looking forward to doing this show with him. I mean … that voice for Valentine’s? Come on! Home run. And of course, I have learned volumes from him. I try to take that approach with all those I am blessed to work with. That’s when true collaboration happens.

And though Dave’s music inspires many romantic settings (and probably some conceptions), love and dating for Dave are still a bit allusive.

I love meeting new people, I love dating (back when we could do that a lot easier), and one day I look forward to creating something truly special with the right man. Until then, and through COVID of course, it’s a lot of window shopping.  

Can one be successful at a career and a relationship at the same time?

I hope so. It’s all up to the partners to make it happen. But of course, when two people love and respect each other and are kind to one another, anything is possible. 

What must a possible suitor exhibit?

Kindness. Warmth. Sense of humor. Generosity of spirit. Passion for what THEY love to do. Oh, and a beautiful smile doesn’t hurt! 

Dave’s most romantic fan meeting is one for the books:

A woman who professed her undying love for me over and over for years (though we never met) wound up at a meet and greet, face to face with me. I was nervous about what she would say, and she did not disappoint. She went for it right there in front of me. I have no idea what exactly I said but somehow got out of there before the situation devolved. 

If you have not seen Dave in concert, look up one of his many live performances on YouTube. He controls the stage even when sharing it with a sea of other musicians. Separate from his saxophone playing, he puts on a show with his energy and personality establishing audience rapport from the minute he grabs the mic. By the end of the show, he is a sweaty mess, or rather, a sexy sweaty mess. How does he gear up for a performance?

I wish I had a great story to tell you to make it all sound impressive, but there’s not much of a ritual at all. After soundcheck, I usually have a small bite with my band and crew and just chill until the show. Right before we go on, we usually have a pre-show circle where we come together, get our heads in the game, remember why we are there and what we are there to do, have a short prayer…then it’s GO TIME! 

After the show, you will have to compete with the throng of audience members waiting outside the stage door or his dressing room. A word to the wise, if you choose to wait for Dave after the show, bring a breath mint – confirmed rumor has it that he enjoys a tuna fish sandwich after a show.

Talking with Dave via Zoom was a complete joy. He is laid back, quiet, reflective, and slightly different from the winning personality you see on stage or TV.  His storytelling is as effusive as his sax playing, and trust that he did bring out the sax for a surprise phrase or two.

I am quite a loner. I LOVE people, but I am very happy being alone as well. Overall, though, what you see on stage at a show is basically the same guy you will meet offstage. Or at least, that is my aim. 

Though musical trends have changed and the way we listen to music has changed, the world of jazz is not going anywhere, and newer generations are joining the club. Dave’s mission is to keep on storytelling, keep on inspiring, and keep on playing. He has indeed brought “saxy” back.

I think we must remain mindful and vigilant to keep the music we love around. We all play a part in that. But radio is not music. Just because a radio format has fallen out of favor (as it has with Smooth Jazz), does not mean the fans aren’t there. It’s just that the format wasn’t working on radio anymore. Thankfully, there are now in the digital world, so many new ways of keeping that connection with one’s fans. And our world of jazz is really exploding, with a whole set of younger generation musicians and bands that are attracting HUGE crowds of younger people. In fact, this is where some of the most exciting music is coming from – bands like Vulfpeck and Snarky Puppy, artists like Kamasi Washington and Nubya Garcia, and even Jacob Collier, the UK whiz-kid whose latest jazz album was nominated for album of the year Grammy!  

I can’t wait to see what Dave’s next 30-year anniversary album has to offer!

You can check out everything Dave Koz at davekoz.com


Last modified: February 3, 2021