December Makes Me Feel This Way: Dave Koz Talks ‘Smooth Jazz’ Prior to South Florida Tour
What is it about this saxophone that I find to be so reassuring…so curing?
For weeks prior to my conversation with saxophonist, Dave Koz, I attempted to comprehend both the captivation and the enchantment…the allure of his work. Much like the Recording Academy who nominated Koz for nine Grammy Awards…much like the tens of millions of listeners who continue to fill venues and attend his performances around the world…I recognize his proficiency and virtuosity.
But, there was something more. Despite my hopes to identify the gravitation…wishing to deliberate and include it in my upcoming article…I failed to clearly identify the robust appeal.
It was, however, an unsolicited statement, made during that conversation, that definitively clarified my uncertainty.
“Music is so powerful now,” shared Koz. “Maybe now more than ever…to provide this elixir to people that they may not even know they need right now. But to deal with all the craziness of our world…the topsy-turviness of every aspect of life right now. And music is a place where people can go to find that comfort and solace.”
During these times of political and social upheaval, his music…thatsaxophone…is a soothing hug; a genial memo restoring our faith and patience.
For those less familiar with the sounds of “smooth jazz” and/or the decades of Dave’s remarkable work, I earnestly prescribe this healing and medicinal “elixir.”
Beginning on November 23, Dave Koz begins his “Dave Koz and Friends Christmas Tour” here in South Florida. Performing in four nearby venues (Artis Naples, Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, Ruth Eckerd Hall and the Parker Playhouse), both zealous fans and those unfamiliar with his work should find it both easy and convenient to begin the holiday season by attending one of these local performances.
Dave was kind enough to put aside some time to chat prior to the start of his annual tour. Articulate and affable, Koz discussed his career, his family, his tireless charitable work and much more.
Gary Levine: Dave, you’re approximately my age (Dave turns 56 in March). It seems as if every kid that I grew up with, that found a passion for music, elected to learn to play the guitar. We grew up through the British Invasion of the 60’s and the great era of electric guitarists like Hendrix and Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton. What would you say attracted you to the saxophone and this genre of music?
Dave Koz:“Well, the saxophone was a very…I don’t want to say ‘commercial’ decision…but, it was basically fueled by opportunity. And, that was…because, I played piano and I played drums before I picked up the sax…and completely, you know, was so bad at both of those instruments. I was kind of crushed! I thought, OK, well I don’t have any musical ability.”
I quickly and inadvertently emitted a combination laugh/snort as my mind attempted to conceptualize this saxophone-laureate struggling musically.
“My family…I grew up in a pretty musical family. My older brother (Jeff) was playing in a band that was doing weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and that kind of thing. And, I just wanted to be in the band! So, he said, ‘You’re never’…typical older brother…’You’re never going to get in this band…but, the only way that you could…and, it will never happen…he reiterated.’”
Both Dave and I chuckled. “All big brothers are kind of the same,” Dave quipped.
“He said, the only way you can get in the band is if you could play sax…because, we do not have a saxophone player. So, that was the impetus…that was like ‘OK, pick up the saxophone.’ It came at the time when I was entering seventh grade…13-years-old…and it was the right time for the right instrument. And, unlike the others that I tried before, this one just clicked. It came into my life at a very difficult time where I was dealing with…like most kids…adolescent kids…lots to deal with in your life. And the sax just became my best friend. I could tell it anything…things that I didn’t have the words for. So, it was a kinship immediately and then I drove my brother crazy until he said…he relented.”
“I was 15-years-old, and he became my biggest…and, still to this day…my biggest supporter. That was a very good gift he gave to me.”
Gary Levine:I have had a number of conversations, in recent years, with people who claim to truly dislike “jazz,” referring, I suppose, to the New Orleans kind of blues sound of the 1920s or 30s but claim to absolutely love “smooth jazz.” What would you say are the components of “smooth jazz” that make it so appealing to those who never found enjoyment in traditional jazz?
Dave Koz: “Well, I think that ‘smooth jazz,’ which was a term applied to radio stations in the ’90s, and it became a very big radio station for about 20 years. It’s on the wane now…and has been for a number of years…but the music is still very popular…thankfully…and, I think it’s primarily the elements that you find in that music, that you may not find in more traditional jazz music, is an emphasis on melodies. Not to say that there are not melodies in traditional jazz, but the focus is often more on the improvisational aspects of those songs, and the blowing…the riffing…and showing expertise there. Smooth jazz for me…it wasn’t even what I called it back then…I’m a ‘melody guy.’ That’s what I love to do. I love to play melodies more than anything. I can solo…and I can improvise…and, there’s a lot of that in my music, but it’s sort of less important, really, on the hierarchy than writing and delivering a great melody. And, because the saxophone is such an emotionally-resonant instrument, people feel melodies even without the lyrics. That’s why I feel like I’ve been able to have the blessed career that I’ve had for so many years…because I think that’s what people gravitate to. And, then, if you have on the bottom end, you have a rhythm approach that is more consistent with Pop music and R&B music, so you get these great melodies and you have the tracks that are made to support the foundation…made to support those melodies have more of a Commercial-Pop feel to them. Those are kind of the elements that made for the explosion in this kind of music.”
Dave paused, for a moment, then continued.
“But, I love it all! I think that all Jazz is great! And… all instrumental music is great! I’m trying not to be a snob…but, a lot of people rake us over the coals for the music we make…the more Jazz ‘purists’ but, hey, people like it. People like it.”
Ya think? Artists such as Koz, Kenny G, Boney James, David Sanborn, Keiko Matsui, Lee Ritenour…the list is ceaseless…have accounted for tens of millions of record sales across the globe. And while the genre has a gathering of detractors and defamers, it maintains an even greater assemblage of loyalists and devotees.
“Musical taste…it’s hard to be a critic of musical taste,” Dave continued. “If something speaks to you, it speaks to you!”
Gary Levine: Unlike many solo artists and bands, you hit the ground running with your debut album. You did a number of really cool things prior to the release of your first solo album in 1990. You toured with some talented folks…Jeff Lorber, Bobby Caldwell and Richard Marx. Your debut album, in 1990, was just incredible. How would you say that your prior experiences with these people contributed to your immediate success?
Dave Koz:“Without them, I would not be talking to you…for sure! Those few people that you mentioned…and, to a lesser degree, Richard Marx, but primarily Jeff Lorber and Bobby Caldwell were two of the main architects of my career. I’m terribly indebted to them for the rest of my life…because they saw something in me that I didn’t know was there, Gary. It was like I was very shy…very happy to be like a guy in the background. They noticed something about me…and, I don’t even know what it was…but they just nurtured me to be more of a…to perform…to really get to the front of the stage. I remember my first gig with Bobby Caldwell. I won the audition and we were at this place doing two shows. And the first show goes down and, at the end of the first show, he (Caldwell) says ‘I need to talk to you.’ And, I could tell that he was angry with me.”
Dave paused for a moment, then continued.
“I thought, ‘Great! I’m in the middle of my first gig with this guy and he’s going to fire me.'”
Dave and I laughed for a moment.
“He (Bobby Caldwell) said, ‘Dude…what are you doing?’
“I was like ‘What do you mean?'”
“I’m moving away from the front of the stage when it’s your solo, so that you can come to the front of the stage and take over. I need you to take over! I don’t want you to stay in the back. Stay in the back for the song and, when it’s your solo, take over!”
“And, I’m like ‘Uhhh.ok. I didn’t know that I needed to do that.'”
“Second show, afterward, he said ‘OK…now you’re doing it too much!'”
Dave and I both laughed. Articulate with a reed as well as a story, conversation with Dave is delightfully metered and, like his music, quite pleasing.
“It was such a profound experience for me, like in the very beginning, to realize the power of that and the feeling that you get from being at the front of the stage…and, the guy in charge…and, the guy that can direct the feeling of a performance. That was very intoxicating for me at a very early moment. The same thing happened with Jeff Lorber. He was the first guy that said, ‘I think you should make your own record.'”
Dave responded to Lorber, “What are you talking about? I’m here to support you!”
“He (Lorber) said, ‘No, you need to be an artist!’ And we started making demos and those demos got me signed to Capitol Records. So, you know, you look back at that 30-year-arc, cause that started pretty much in the late ’80s, 30 years later, you’re right, it’s been an absolute magic-carpet ride. I can’t even believe it! It’s pretty much been 30 years uninterrupted, too…just constant moving and traveling…and, traveling the globe. I feel very grateful.”
Gary Levine: If you don’t mind, I’d like to chat, for a moment, about the Starlight Children’s Foundation. September 1stwas Childhood Cancer Awareness Day and you have done a great deal on behalf of the Starlight Children’s Foundation. The foundation is remarkable and is an absolute blessing for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families. Would you tell us why you chose to work on their behalf and how our interested readers can lend a hand?
Dave Koz:“They got me on the first time that I went to go to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. I met the co-founder of Starlight…an actress named Emma Samms. I met her through my work with ‘General Hospital,’ the TV show. She was on it.”
Koz was asked, by ABC television producers, to perform on the daytime show. The series had been using the second track from Koz’s debut album, a song titled “Emily” that was written by Koz and the aforementioned Bobby Caldwell and Jeff Lorber. Dave was later commissioned to write the show’s new theme song. Koz composed “Faces of the Heart,” which served as the GH title song from 1993 until 2004.
“And I met her at an event and she said, ‘Can you come to do an event for my organization at a hospital for sick kids?’ I said ‘Oh, sure, I’d love to do that, thank you!’ And went there the next week…and got immediately hooked. I saw these innocent kids that just want to be kids. And I’ve been working with Starlight now for…that was 1993 that I got involved…so, we’re looking at 25 years now…just raising awareness and raising funds for them to keep their work going. Their work is so important! It’s very much behind the scenes but it’s really meant to create a little more normalcy for kids that are in a very abnormal environment. Kids just want to be children and yet they’re hooked up to tubes and can’t get out of bed and in hospitals. It’s just a very scary thing for the kids and their whole entire family organism that surrounds the kid. Through their various programs, we’ve connected with them and we’ve raised…through various things that we do at the generosity of my fans…and, I’m SO proud to say that we’ve raised close to three-quarters of a million dollars. That’s not chump-change! They’re very pleased…and so am I. And, I know that we’ve been able to help because I’ve seen it. We’ve been able to help thousands and thousands of children and their families through the generosity of our fans. It’s great when you’re able to connect with a charity that you really believe in…and, they check out on all the levels. A lot of charities, the ratio for monies raised to the monies spent is not admirable. Starlight always ranks in the top tiers of ranking for charities. And, if people are interested in finding out more, they can just visit the website which is starlight.org and I back it up one hundred percent. I think they’re a fantastic organization!”
The Starlight Children’s Foundation® is a 501(c)(3) organization that offers numerous programs that “turn a hospitalized child’s pain, fear and stress into laughter, fun and joy by providing them with the best in entertainment, education and one-of-a-kind experiences — because sick kids are still kids.” Readers wishing to donate can visit the site or click here.
Gary Levine: Last question, Dave. The Dave Koz and Friends Christmas Tour begins down here in South Florida. Fans will have four opportunities to see you perform locally in Sarasota, Clearwater, Naples and Fort Lauderdale. You’ll be here with South Florida-born, Mindi Abair. Here’s my question: you’ll be performing 27 times over a 30 day period covering all corners of the country. Emotionally, physically and logistically, and with all of the other business obligations that you appear to be involved with, how does one manage to muster up a smile and perform over such a stretch?
Dave Koz:“I’ll tell you…27 is the maximum that we’ve ever done. I think we’ve done 26 before…27 is…I’m scratching my head, but in our 21st year, people are still wanting to come. And, we’re also doing new markets, too. Every year we add a few new markets because it’s important to expand the base. But, the answer to your question is…I’ll give you a two-fold answer. One is sharing the stage with people I love and that I can rely on to not drop the ball when they get it. So, Jonathan Butler, my brother, Mindi Abair, Keiko Matsui…we’re introducing a phenomenal female vocalist by the name of Sheléa…she’s kind of like the closest I’ve heard to Whitney Houston. She is UN-REAL! So, these are people who are at the top of their game and great friends. And, then, we have this amazing band and incredible crew that sets everything up, so, when we walk in in the afternoon for sound check, it’s perfect. It’s about surrounding yourself with the very, very best to make the experience non-stressful from day to day. And then comes the magic at night. We’re in front of an audience. They’re excited. It’s Christmas-time, there’s all this great music, people are happy, people have open ears and open arms and open hearts and that’s what gives us the energy. That’s the boost that we look forward to every night.”
Dave paused momentarily.
“Admittedly, I’m not…when it’s all said and done…I don’t need to hear another Christmas song until next year (big chuckle) but, other than that, it’s a very inspiring experience from start to finish.”
Dave Koz and friends…Mindi Abair, Jonathan Butler, Keiko Matsui and Sheléa will be performing at the following venues:
November 23 (Friday) in Sarasota at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall (click here for tickets)
November 24 (Saturday) in Clearwater at Ruth Eckerd Hall (click here for tickets)
November 25 (Sunday) in Naples at Hayes Hall Artis-Naples (click here for tickets)
November 27 (Tuesday) in Fort Lauderdale at Parker Playhouse (click here for tickets)