RIP David Sanborn: See Him Play Alongside Miles Davis, Randy Newman, Sun Ra, Leonard Cohen and Others on His TV Show Night Music

It’s late in the evening of Sat­ur­day, Octo­ber 28th, 1989. You flip on the tele­vi­sion and the sax­o­phon­ist David San­born appears onscreen, instru­ment in hand, intro­duc­ing the eclec­tic blues icon Taj Mahal, who in turn declares his intent to play a num­ber with “rur­al humor” and “world pro­por­tions.” And so he does, which leads into per­for­mances by Todd Rund­gren, Nan­ci Grif­fith, the Pat Methe­ny Group, and pro­to-turntab­list Chris­t­ian Mar­clay (best known today for his 24-hour mon­tage The Clock). At the end of the show — after a vin­tage clip of Count Basie from 1956 — every­one gets back onstage for an all-togeth­er-now ren­di­tion of “Nev­er Mind the Why and Where­fore” from H.M.S. Pinafore.

This was a more or less typ­i­cal episode of Night Music, which aired on NBC from 1988 to 1990, and in that time offered “some of the strangest musi­cal line-ups ever broad­cast on net­work tele­vi­sion.” So writes E. Lit­tle at In Sheep­’s Cloth­ing Hi-Fi, who names just a few of its per­form­ers: “Son­ic Youth, Miles Davis, the Res­i­dents, Char­lie Haden and His Lib­er­a­tion Orches­tra, Kro­nos Quar­tet, Pharoah Sanders, Karen Mantler, Dia­man­da Galas, John Lurie, and Nana Vas­con­ce­los.”

One espe­cial­ly mem­o­rable broad­cast fea­tured “a 15-minute inter­view-per­for­mance by Sun Ra’s Arkestra that finds the com­pos­er-pianist-Afro­fu­tur­ist at the peak of his exper­i­men­tal pow­ers, mov­ing from piano to Yama­ha DX‑7 and back again while the Arkestra flex­es its cos­mic mus­cles.”

“San­born host­ed the emi­nent­ly hip TV show,” writes jazz jour­nal­ist Bill Milkows­ki in his remem­brance of the late sax­man, who died last week­end, “not only pro­vid­ing infor­ma­tive intro­duc­tions but also sit­ting in with the bands.” One night might see him play­ing with Al Jar­reau, Paul Simon, Mar­i­anne Faith­full, Boot­sy Collins, the Red Hot Chili Pep­pers, Dizzy Gille­spie, — or indeed, some unlike­ly com­bi­na­tion of such artists. “The idea of that show was that gen­res are sec­ondary, an arti­fi­cial divi­sion of music that real­ly isn’t nec­es­sary; that musi­cians have more in com­mon than peo­ple expect,” San­born told Down­Beat in 2018. “We want­ed to rep­re­sent that by hav­ing a show where Leonard Cohen could sing a song, Son­ny Rollins could play a song, and then they could do some­thing togeth­er.”

Hav­ing want­ed to pur­sue that idea fur­ther since the show’s can­cel­la­tion — not the eas­i­est task, giv­en his ever-busy sched­ule of live per­for­mances and record­ing ses­sions across the musi­cal spec­trum — he cre­at­ed the YouTube chan­nel San­born Ses­sions a few years ago, some of whose videos have been re-uploaded in recent weeks. But much also remains to be dis­cov­ered in the archives of the orig­i­nal Night Music for broad-mind­ed music lovers under the age of about 60 — or indeed, for those over that age who nev­er tuned in back in the late eight­ies, a time peri­od that’s late­ly come in for a cul­tur­al re-eval­u­a­tion. Thanks to this YouTube playlist, you can watch more than 40 broad­casts of Night Music (which was at first titled Sun­day Night) and lis­ten like it’s 1989.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Watch David Bowie Per­form “Star­man” on Top of the Pops: Vot­ed the Great­est Music Per­for­mance Ever on the BBC (1972)

Chuck Berry & the Bee Gees Per­form Togeth­er in 1973: An Unex­pect­ed Video from The Mid­night Spe­cial Archive

How Amer­i­can Band­stand Changed Amer­i­can Cul­ture: Revis­it Scenes from the Icon­ic Music Show

All the Music Played on MTV’s 120 Min­utes: A 2,500-Video Youtube Playlist

When Glenn O’Brien’s TV Par­ty Brought Klaus Nomi, Blondie & Basquiat to Pub­lic Access TV (1978–82)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (6)
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  • James Terakazis says:

    The best ver­sion of his late night T V show was co host­ed by Jools Hol­land ( The leg­endary Squeeze pianist) and the great­est episode of that show was when, indeed Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze brought down the house play­ing “Tempt­ed” with David San­born on sax.

  • Marty says:

    Loved the one with Dr. John!!

  • Bob Luna says:

    This was the BEST music show ever! The Leonard Cohen episode was phe­nom­e­nal.
    Dis­cov­ered it when I returned home from Israel! My col­lege roomies had it on!
    David and Jools ‚although didn’t have much humor, they made up with great guest,music,and vin­tage reels. Miss this show !
    Thanks for the mem­o­ries!
    And the last real man on the plan­et weed­ed!

  • Kyler Mosely says:

    The Car­la Bley com­po­si­tion “Heal­ing Pow­er” per­for­mance with her, her daugh­ter Karen Mantler, Steve Swal­low, San­born, killer gui­tar from Hiram Bul­lock, Two Tons of Fun on choir like vocals & Boot­sey Collins pro­vid­ing com­men­tary plus the rest of the amaz­ing “house band” is one of my all time favorite pieces of music/ per­for­mances in my 60+ years of enjoy­ing a very eclec­tic mix of music. I stayed up late to vcr tape every episode I could. You nev­er were quite sure when it would start because NBC had Sun­day Night Foot­ball & the local news after­wards but it was always worth the wait. God I loved that show. RIP to David & so many of the oth­er folks involved.

  • Joe Nunez says:

    I loved watching/recording episodes of Night Music back in the day;always saw/discovered some amaz­ing artists across so many gen­res that i still enjoy to this day. Par­tic­u­lar favorites were Has­san Hak­moun and Zahar(“Morroccan-roll”,as San­born him­self described it),and Son­ic Youth,Indigo Girls,David San­born and oth­ers with a won­der­ful­ly anar­chic ver­sion of The Stooges’ “I Wan­na Be Your Dog”.
    Thank you and Rest In Peace, David.

  • Antonio Clark says:

    Such a great jazz artist. My favorite song of All I need is you to love

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