The D.C. Jazz Festival may be over, but the genre still echoes in our area. On Thursday night, Dave Koz comes to The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, with his annual Summer Horns tour.
This year’s edition includes Kirk Whalum, whom Koz calls “my favorite living tenor saxophonist,” along with original Summer Horns member Mindi Abair and “the young wunderkind” Vincent Ingala.
Koz returned to touring in July, and spent much of 2020 making “a 100% virtual album” with parts sent in by collaborators from all over.
“Everybody had this pent-up energy they wanted to utilize and we’d get these tracks filled with joy,” Koz remembered. He then made an album in the studio with the young Minnesota guitarist Cory Wong last September. “So I feel like I put the pandemic to good use.”
Born in Encino, California, in 1963, Koz grew up surrounded by all types of music.
“My parents were fans of the great American songbook,” Koz said.
While his brother listened to progressive rock and jazz and his sister was “a pop music fanatic.” His brother had a band “playing weddings, bat mitzvahs, fraternity parties … and I just wanted to be in that band.”
His brother said there was only one way to join.
“He said the only way you get in is if you play saxophone,” Koz said. “I was going into seventh grade, I was 13 years old, and that’s when I picked up a sax for the first time. Admittedly, it just felt right in my hands, I practiced my you-know-what off for two years — it drove my brother crazy — until finally one day he relented and said you can come play this wedding with us. He paid me $10.”
Soon, he was touring with Jeff Lorber, Bobby Caldwell and Richard Marx, and the latter experience was educational. His first show with Marx was in “this tiny little club for 100 people,” and by the end they were playing to arenas for 20,000 fans. “It was watching the anatomy of a hit song and a follow-up and another hit after that — watching a career grow in front of my eyes.”
As for his own career, playing in late-night TV bands with Pat Sajak and Arsenio Hall was instrumental. Hall, “a huge music fan,” especially of jazz, signed him up to do one night a week for about a year at the height of Hall’s popularity. “The timing of that with the start of my career — you couldn’t ask for a better opportunity to be on national television once a week.”
Koz released his self-titled debut album on Capitol Records in 1990, a time for the record business that Koz calls “unrecognizable [compared] to the way it is now.”
“When I was making my first record,” Koz added, “all I wanted to do was have enough success to make a second record. … That first record had a hit on it; it got me to make a second record for Capitol. That blew up and went gold, and all of a sudden I was off to the races.”
That second album was “Lucky Man” (1993), followed by “The Dance” (1997). Grammy nominations followed for “A Smooth Jazz Christmas” (1999), “Saxophonic” (2003), “At the Movies” (2007), “Hello Tomorrow” (2011), “Live at the Blue Note Tokyo” (2013) and “Summer Horns” (2014).
“It’s always been a quest to find new layers to my musicality,” Koz said. “It’s a great honor to still have people interested in the music that I make. … It’s a pinch-me moment that I still get to make albums. I’ve made 20 of them now, and each one of them is like a chapter in my musical life.”
Starting in 1994, he began hosting “The Dave Koz Radio Show” on syndicated FM radio. Today, he also hosts a Sunday show on Sirius XM called “The Dave Koz Lounge.” Being a radio host has also been a learning experience.
“We all have this idea of what a radio host should sound like, but in reality, when people are listening, it’s a very intimate relationship,” Koz said. “If you can be as authentic as you can be, be who you are and not put on the airs of somebody else, that’s where the success comes.”
His personal stamp, he said, is the ability to connect “musician to musician.”
“I was interviewing George Benson on the phone,” Koz remembered, and he was “giving me two-word or three-word answers — I’m just not connecting. Finally, he says, ‘Is this the Dave Koz who plays the saxophone?’ I said, ‘Yeah, George, it’s me.’ He said, ‘Hey man! I didn’t know this was you!’ Then I could not get this guy to shut up!”
The hosting gigs give him a chance to be “a champion and a cheerleader for these great artists in this format. Our music doesn’t really get written about or talked about too much in the media, so this is an opportunity to celebrate these great artists that are making the music.”
He said it’s his way of giving back and highlighting his fellow artists around the world.
“We’re in a time right now where musicianship is celebrated in a way it hasn’t been for decades,” Koz said. “It’s all on the internet. … There’s no gatekeepers. If you have something to say, you can put your music up and distribute it to the world with one keystroke on your computer. It’s democratized music to where you now have so much amazing musicianship out there. It’s overwhelming.”
In 2009, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
“It’s in the frickin’ sidewalk!” Koz said. “I grew up in Los Angeles and we used to go to the Hollywood Walk of Fame and walk it … so to have a star, it doesn’t even seem real.”