An Interview with Gay Jazz Musician Dave Koz
By Gregg Shapiro
For more than 20 years, gay saxophone player and songwriter Dave Koz has been taking his annual Christmas tour on the road. Regularly joined by other members of the smooth jazz world, including pianist David Benoit, Koz’s annual holiday concert is something his fans, far and wide, look forward to every year. Known for his distinctive saxophone skills, Koz has expanded his repertoire in recent years, including playing sax on the song “La Dee Da” from the Foo Fighters’ 2017 Concrete and Gold album. Now a full-fledged silver daddy, Koz took time out of his busy tour schedule to answer a few questions.
Gregg Shapiro: Do you remember the first winter holiday song that you can recall hearing from your childhood?
Dave Koz: [Laughs] The very first one, I’m not so sure. But the first thing that pops into my mind is “White Christmas.” It would have probably been the first one that I heard. Still to this day, it’s my favorite Christmas song. When I hear that song, there’s something about the melody and the lyric and the nostalgic aspect of it that always gets me.
GS: What was the first Christmas song you learned to play on saxophone?
DK: Probably “Winter Wonderland.” That’s going back so far. And I have the worst memory [laughs]. I do remember that “Winter Wonderland” was the first Christmas song that I recorded, back to the very beginning of my career. I was asked to make a Christmas song for a special collaboration project. That was the one that I chose. I’ve had a connection to that song for a very long time.
GS: Did you have a Christmas tree and a menorah in your home when you were growing up?
DK: No Christmas tree because we were a Jewish family. We always celebrated Chanukah in my house. My parents, God bless them, were good about continuing that tradition, even when we grew up with my brother and sister having kids. But I used to go to friends’ houses because I loved the whole trimming of the tree and things associated with Christmas; the music, the lights, the family dinners. I was always intrigued by that. That’s where I got a lot of my experience with the Christmas feeling that we put in our shows all these years later.
GS: You mentioned dinners. Do you have a favorite Christmastime treat?
DK: I love a beautiful roast turkey at the center of the table. There’s something about the time from Thanksgiving on, the quality of the food. I know it because when we’re on tour, people will constantly bake for us. Some people know that I like turkey, and fans will bring full, cooked turkeys backstage.
GS: How do they get that past security?
DK: They’re sweet-talkers, I guess [laughs].
GS: Is writing original Christmas music for your holiday albums daunting or fun?
DK: I would call it a challenge. You can maybe count on one or two hands, at the last 20 years of new Christmas material that has gotten through and connected with audiences. The (standard Christmas) songs are so much a part of who we are. We’ve heard them hundreds, maybe thousands of times, and they’re more than just songs. They’re guideposts to our lives. They remind us of times in our lives, and people who have come and gone. I think it’s very difficult for something new, even if it’s a great piece of music, to take the place of one of those songs. Whether it’s “White Christmas” or “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” or “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” These are songs that are so near and dear to people. It’s an amazing thing how much power they have. We’ve heard them countless times and every year, it’s like that sweater that you know you should throw out, but it feels so comfortable and you can’t throw it out because your Aunt Ida gave it to you and it feels so good. It’s the same thing with music. These songs feel so good and they remind you of the past. In that way, they’re very strong.
GS: You have also written an original song for Chanukah (“Eight Candles”). Do you have plans to write another?
DK: That’s the nice thing, because of my Jewish background, there’s a lot less Chanukah music. It’s maybe easier to write a Chanukah song that has the potential to stick around a little while longer. That song, “Eight Candles,” we play it every year in our Christmas show and there are people who are not Jewish who come up to me after the show and say, “That’s my favorite song. Thank you for playing it. That’s what we come here to hear.” It’s pretty funny how “Eight Candles” has grown in popularity over the years.
GS: Why do you think Jewish songwriters, such as Irving Berlin (“White Christmas”), Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne (“Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”), Mel Torme (“The Christmas Song”), Felix Bernard (“Winter Wonderland”), Walter Kent (“I’ll Be Home For Christmas”), Johnny Marks (“Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer”), and, of course, you and Richard Marx (“Another Silent Night”), were so good at writing Christmas music?
DK: I don’t know if it necessarily has anything to do with being Jewish. I think it has to do with understanding how to communicate. I don’t think it has anything to do with religion. You mentioned some of the greatest songwriters of all time. These were people who wrote what is now considered the Great American Songbook. A lot of the Christmas music was written during the same time period that these guys were writing these gems. They got into a groove. They were cranking them out and yet they were all so good. They just hit a nerve. They flowed with it.
GS: They’re timeless songs.
DK: Yes! (As) modern songwriters, we try as best as we can to live up to those wild expectations of what it means to be a great songwriter. It’s not easy to do, let me tell you.
GS: Your Christmas show has become an annual event. Did you know after performing it the first time more than 20 years ago that it would be a yearly occurrence?
DK: No. The first time we did it was the year my dad passed away, 1997. It was the same year that musician David Benoit, who is a great friend of mine, his mom passed away. We were commiserating, talking about everything, feeling bad about losing our parents. It was his idea, actually. He said, “Why don’t we go out (on tour) and make some music for our parents. Hopefully inspire some people along the way.” I said it was a great idea. We went out and it was a very small and short tour. I think we had six or seven shows. But they were great and heartfelt. The audience that did come really loved it. We got invited back the next year and the year after that and the next thing you know, here we are 21 years of a Christmas tour.
GS: In addition to your yearly Christmas tour, you do an annual Summer Horns tour, as well. Are summer and winter your favorite seasons?
DK: They turn out to be the seasons that we travel a lot. I’ve been on tour all over the United States. It’s been incredible. So much fun. Winter can be daunting in that we have something like 26 or 27 shows in 31 days. It’s a lot of travel and a lot of stress on the body. But there’s nothing better than being in front of people who are excited to celebrate the holidays every year. The energy that we need comes from the audience who, night after night, show up ready to have a good time and fill us up with good feelings. That propels us to the next show and those people propel us to the next show. Even though we may be dead tired, we’re very inspired and filled with positivity because of the audiences we’re playing for. It’s the most beautiful thing, buddy! I’ve watched kids come with their parents and now those kids are grown up and they bring their kids to our show. That doesn’t happen very often. That you can have something that’s been around this long that you see generations growing up right before your eyes. That’s very special for me.
GS: Finally, is there a new Dave Koz album in the works?
DK: We just released our Summer Horns album (Summer Horns II: From A to Z) which is number one as we speak. I’m going to start working on a new album probably after the first of the year.