Dave Koz’s career spans a couple of decade. Though that may seem like a long time, once you learn of all his accomplishments, it’s amazing he’s been able to do them in such a short time. With numerous albums under his belt, several radio shows and his own record label, Koz could easily be considered the king of the Jazz world—only without a king-sized ego.
Koz is, by nature, an easy-going guy who not only loves what he does, but has totally enveloped himself in every ounce of the musical process. His most recent celebrations of the craft were just part of the reason C Magazine wanted to chat with him. His recent album release At the Movies, pays homage to classic movie songs, with an added twist of his own here and there. With a 40-piece orchestra behind him, Koz recreated such favorites as “Moon River” (eloquently sung by Mr. Barry Manilow himself) and one of his most beloved songs, “Over the Rainbow.”
And because he’s not busy enough, Koz recently released another album of time-honored songs, just in time for the holidays. Memories of a Winter’s Night was released in September 2007 and features a dozen holiday standards, including two duets by Kelly Sweet and Kimberley Locke of the famed American Idol.
On December 8th, Locke will join Koz as he plays selections from both albums on the Dave Koz and Friends A Smooth Jazz Christmas 10th Anniversary Tour at the Palace Theatre. Alongside Locke, you can expect to see other special guests, including Jonathan Butler and Wayman Tisdale. It truly is a holiday show that shouldn’t be missed.
In between rehearsals, radio shows and appearances, C chatted candidly with Koz about everything from how he manages to look so “saxy” in his photos to why he loves making Columbus one of his holiday tour stops.
What’s the first memory you have of picking up a musical instrument?
I wouldn’t have picked it up because it was a piano. My mom, who was a frustrated (but did it for a living) pharmacist, loved music and her dad always encouraged her to learn music. Her mandate as a mom was to have her three kids take up piano. Of course, I hated the lessons; I hated the whole experience. She’s passed now, but I used to thank her all the time for it because I usually write all of my music on the piano.
Why the saxophone?
It was an instrument that found me. My brother had a band when we were kids and they played weddings, bar mitzvahs and fraternity parties. I didn’t want a job flipping burgers and wanted to go out and make a couple hundred dollars making music. So as a typical younger brother, I bugged my brother non-stop. He finally said, “You’re not going to get in this band, but if you would, the only way you could is if you played the sax because we don’t have a sax.” I didn’t hear the part: “You’re never going to get in.” All I heard was: “Pick up the sax.” I was in the seventh grade, and from the moment I picked up the sax, it truly felt natural, almost like finding a friend. I practiced my butt off for two years and drove him absolutely crazy until he finally relented. He let me come on a gig to a wedding in Woodland Hills, California where we grew up. I got paid $10 when everyone else got paid $100. I never let him forget about that. When I became a recording artist, my first record for Capitol, we wrote this song that became the first single and I paid him $10 for it.
Is there any other instrument you would still like to master or learn?
I always wanted to play the bass and I have no idea why. I think it’s because bass players in bands tend to be cool.
What do you do when you aren’t writing, playing, producing, etc.?
I have a lot of different interests that are semi-related. I started a record company about 5 ½ years ago called Rendezvous Records with two partners. I actually enjoy working with other artists and helping them do their stuff. I do a lot of radio, too—kind of the same thing in being an advocate for both the music and the artists. But completely away from the arts, my favorite thing in the whole world is traveling and the more exotic the better.
What’s the zenith of your travels?
A couple of years ago, we had the opportunity to play in South Africa in Johannesburg and Cape Town. I was like, “They want me to come play my music there?” It was kind of [an] out-of-body [experience]. So we went and my music was very popular there and 5,000 people showed up. I couldn’t believe it. Last month, we had a string of shows in Japan and I took a few extra days to kind of decompress in that country and take it all in. That’s what I did in South Africa. I took a Safari and it was just…I felt so fortunate that my living could bring me that type of experience.
What’s your guiltiest pleasure?
M & M’s.
How would you define yourself as a musician, in simplest terms?
Three words: melody, melody, melody.
How many years have you been professionally involved in music?
I’ve been playing for 30 or so years.
Was there ever a time when you wanted to give it up?
There have been times when I have been frustrated with things. You have to knock on a lot of doors and a lot of doors in life are closed and I sometimes feel that I’m a horn player in a vocal world and always trying to kind of fit into something else. Sometimes I take breaks. Last year, I took a chunk of time off and didn’t tour. Hotel rooms with bad beds and lumpy pillows and constant travel sometimes get to me and can be grueling. I realized this year that a lot of what drives me is the fact that those doors are closed. The true challenge is unlocking those doors, or getting them open just a crack, so that I can get in and do what I do. It’s taken me a long time to get that what I do has a special quality to it and it’s my job, not anyone else’s, to make sure that it gets shared. Someone said this to me a long time ago, “Your talent is not yours.” That is where ego gets in the way for a lot of performers and artists. My talent has been loaned to me. For this lifetime, I have this talent or this gift, so it’s my job to shepherd it through my life in the best way possible.
Given your musical repertoire, to whom do you relate most in the musical world?
Those questions are so hard to answer. The first thing that pops into my mind is Burt Bacharach on a lot of levels. One, songwriting; two, tireless; and three, always looking out. He is a guy who can totally rest on his laurels, and he doesn’t. He’s always searching for something new and that’s what keeps him young. He’s in his late seventies now and I’ve worked with him on one of my albums and wrote a song with him. Just in that process and dipping into his creative process I learned so much. He wakes up in the morning and is like, “What am I going to do today? How am I going to push?” Stevie Wonder too.; he’s a guy who always is doing things and creating and giving.
How have things changed since the label started?
It’s a struggle for survival. We’ve been around for about six years. We have about 10 different artists on a catalog of about 40 records. When we started the record, the music business was completely different. I think if it was just us, I’d be a little worried; but I think even the major labels are having problems finding their relevance because music has really taken a turn. I always try to embrace change and be as positive as possible because it’s reality. That’s the way it is. People consume music very differently now than when I was growing up. I would focus completely on a record when I bought it. Now with kids, music is part of the experience, thankfully, but it is part of a total experience. Music has never been healthier because it’s never been so consumed as much as it is now.
How do you spot new talent? What criteria, if any, do you follow?
Not to sound cliché, but it’s the same thing that the beginning people in this business say. Like the guy who first saw Hendrix play at some club. Or the first person who saw Joan Baez sing. There is something that comes off the stage that is intangible and connects with people. To try to put a formula to it on paper, you’ll never find it; it’s just lightning in a bottle and you hope to be lucky enough to see it. We’ve all seen it at some point in our life. It’s just when you are the first to see it, that’s the great fortune. But you also have to be able to have the guts to say, “I believe in that.” And then put your money where your mouth is.
Is there anything from your musical career that you felt you had to overcome in order to get ahead?
I never thought in my professional life that I would, “come out,” but I did in 2004, so it’s been about 3 1/2 years. I guess maybe my age, and you see young people doing it all the time in whatever career they have. But, for me, I could never see that happening. I think that’s the thing I’m most proud of is being able to truly show up as myself and still have a career and not be worried. I risked it all only to find out that I risked nothing in doing it. You have to get to a certain point where you say, “I don’t care. I have to do this because I am who I am so why not fully show up in your life.” The great irony of the whole thing is that I built this huge wall that I didn’t think I’d ever get over. When I turned back and looked, I realized there was no wall; it was completely fabricated in my head. That year I had the best ticket and album sales of my career. It was just the universe saying over and over, “You did the right thing.”
How did your radio career begin? Were you not busy enough already?
It started with a guy by the name of Paul Goldstein, who was working with SW Networks, which was an independent radio network. He had this idea to have an artist host a Jazz radio show and he came to me and said, “I think you can do it.” And I said, “I don’t know what you’ve been smokin’, but it’s radio, so I’ll try it.” I was admittedly really bad that first year, but the affiliates started to get into it and come in and that show has been on for over 14 years.
What was your inspiration for creating Memories of a Winter’s Night?
For most of us, as we enter the holiday season, which seems to get longer and longer and earlier and earlier, it’s a very rich time of year for people. And that doesn’t mean it’s always positive; some memories can be very painful, especially when you’re talking about family and experiences. The song that the album is named for is a song I wrote and has a sort of Hanukkah feel. It’s a little bit more reflective in nature, and it’s a ballad. For me, when I listen to it, it makes me think about my life and years past. As my third holiday album, it seemed like a fitting tribute to call it as such. Hopefully, this will be part of people creating new memories in this year.
Given the amount of appreciation for some of the songs you feature on At The Movies, did you ever find it stressful that you were recreating some of the greatest movie tunes of all time?
Good question and absolutely. I had a couple aces in the hole and one was my producer Phil Ramone and he has certainly proved himself as a force in the world of music for years and years. Also Al Schmidt, who engineered and mixed the album. When we were mixing the album, both of these guys were talking about the originals and both of them were there for a lot of the original recordings. It was almost like I had the home team advantage because I had the guys who were around when those originals were made. But here’s the kicker: I sent an advance of the album to a woman named Ginny Mancini, who is the wife of Henry Mancini, who I had gotten to know and has been a tremendous supporter. I was so nervous because my only real aim in this project, in addition to celebrating my life for the movies, was to take the original composers’ vision and honor that because there is nothing that you can do but honor those songs because you don’t want to screw them up. So I got a note back and she said, “Hank would have been very, very proud. You done good kid. Love, Ginny.” I figured, “Ok, if I can make Henry Mancini’s wife happy with this record, I can breathe a little easier.”
What one movie had the greatest impact on your life?
The Wizard of Oz is probably my favorite movie, because it’s so aligned with my childhood. It’s my mom’s favorite and “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” was my mom’s favorite. For that, it will always be the most special.
Can you remember your favorite movie quote?
One of my favorites is from Casablanca. And she doesn’t say, “Play it again Sam.” She says, “Play it Sam, as time goes by.” It’s an interesting thing because I don’t know how it got to be “Play it again Sam” because she never actually says that. When we play it live we actually play that clip and it seems to be pretty effective.
You used a full 40-piece orchestra on this recording. How does it feel to have that much power behind you?
A lot of people talk about how that is to stand up in front of an orchestra. It is pretty exceptional. You get 40 different people’s souls and their energy moving together in the same direction. It becomes much larger and much more emotional because there are so many people putting their emotion into the sound. I think that’s one of the reasons why that orchestra is still used prominently in movies, because it cuts right through and you feel it. That’s what it did for me and hopefully that’s what it did on this album.
Are you ever planning to release a greatest hits CD?
I’ve resisted it my whole career and here I am. I got signed to Capitol Records in 1987 and been signed for 20 years and I’ve never had one. I’d love to make one. I think it’s timing. I think that’s a likely scenario in the next couple of years.
When you start work on an album, do you ever know going into it that you have Grammy material in your hands?
I’ve never won a Grammy, but I’ve been nominated a few times. It’s the farthest thing from my head. I don’t think about that. I just want to make great listenable albums and I don’t really release them that often because there is a great thought process behind each one. I want to be able to approach a new project with something to say. I’ve felt in years past that people rush too quickly to make an album and it just doesn’t work. I like to make sure I’ve written the best material and that it hass long legs.
Now that the Smooth Jazz Christmas is in its 10th year, what surprises do you have in store for 2007?
We have a wonderful lineup this year. Jonathan Butler, South Africa’s native son who is a guitarist and singer. A new member of our team is an American Idol alumni named Kimberley Locke. She was in season 2, I believe, when she came in right after Clay and Ruben. She’s on the new CD too and she’s an amazing power house. I’m so excited about her. We have former NBA all-star turned bassist, Wayman Tisdale, and he’s truly a Christmas miracle for us because he was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in his leg, of all places, in February of this year. To me, if you could ask for a Christmas miracle, we’ve got one.
How are the cities selected? You’ve been stopping in Columbus for quite some time now during the holidays.
Since the time period for touring is finite, we try to mix it up a little bit and try some new places everywhere and some fall off. Columbus has always been a great place for us. Also, I grew up in Los Angeles where December rolls around and it’s not that much different from March, so the one thing I do request is that we spend more time in places that feel like Christmas. Columbus, Ohio is a place that feels like Christmas, at least in terms of weather.
You are almost always photographed with your sax. How do you keep them new and different?
It’s like being photographed with a family member or a friend. I don’t like to be photographed by myself.
What’s the first album you bought?
Tower of Power – Back to Oakland. Hearing that horn section, that was it for me.
What made you start your own cruise vacation? How popular has it been for you and your fans?
We were pursued by a thing called Jazz Cruises and I sort of resisted it because I had this memory of taking a cruise with my parents and I hated it. But they kept coming after us and told us they would make it how we wanted. It turns out it’s the most creative thing we’ve done because you have a whole week full of artists. They made that pitch to me and finally we did it. It’s a fantastic vacation because you are immediately connected because you are all there for the same reason.
Has your approach to music, the type of music you play and the success you have earned kept you away from industry pitfalls and vices? If so, how does it all work for you?
I’ve learned a lot of good lessons, the hard way sometimes. I’ve had a lot of doors close in my face and I’ve had a lot of opportunities flower in front of me. I’ve had a really good balance of hard work and good fortune and, most importantly, had people around me who have my best interests at heart. They may not have always been friends of mine, but always cared about me and what was best for me long term. That’s the key—long term vision.
Are you really as genuinely happy as you come across?
I’m a pretty happy guy. I’m a glass half-full guy.
What really pisses you off?
Silly stupid things, like taking my car in. I have to get a rental car because I took my car in last week and got it back and the problem was not fixed right so now I have to get a rental car. Those are the things that make me go crazy. The big picture stuff I can always deal with. Thankfully, I have people in my life to help with the small, itty, bitty stuff.