Although the jazz world isn’t populated by many gay musicians, saxophonist Dave Koz bucks the trend. This Grammy-nominated musician produces albums that routinely spend weeks at the top spot on Billboard’s jazz charts. On August 31, Koz and his snappy quintet, David Koz and Friends Summer Horns, makes an appearance at The Woodlands’ Dosey Doe Big Barn—where the ticket price includes a chicken fried steak and other Texas delicacies.
Koz, a 50-something silver fox, is an incredible musician and an equally powerful LGBTQ icon among jazz musicians and music lovers around the world. In a recent conversation with OutSmart, the saxophonist discussed his personal life, his music, and his band’s current 27-city tour.
Koz is affable and easygoing—traits that only took root after his tumultuous childhood. “It’s funny,” Koz says, “I’ve been out for about 15 years, and it still amazes me that people don’t know [about my sexuality]. It doesn’t bother me, even though it’s a big part of who I am. I don’t ‘hang my horn’ on it—what defines me is my music.”
Born and raised in L.A. (where he still lives), Koz is very close with his family. “We are tight-knit, especially my siblings and their children. I am a very proud uncle and godfather. I love kids, even though I don’t have any of my own,” Koz says. “I thought about it, but my work demands a tremendous amount of travel and isn’t conducive to a traditional family.”
Koz’s childhood was typical for a gay youth. “I was shy,” he admits. “I grew up, as many young gay kids do, with a lot of shame. I marvel at young people now. They have such confidence—something I didn’t possess at all. Fortunately, music was my one ‘go-to.’ I became addicted to it, like others might use drugs or alcohol. Music made me feel good about myself and, in fact, probably saved my life. If I hadn’t had that positive reinforcement at a time when I felt really crappy about who I was, I don’t know what would have happened. I am so grateful for it, especially now that I realize, in retrospect, how it helped me to know and become who I truly am.”
Koz was fortunate to have had some great mentors early in his career. “There were a few people throughout my life who have guided me,” Koz says. Attending UCLA as a communications major, he was not expecting to enter the music profession. “I hadn’t planned on a musical career, but I was curious to see if that might be a possibility. When I graduated, it seemed like the ideal time to give this experiment a try. Very soon after leaving UCLA, I received a call from Bobby Caldwell, a prominent jazz vocalist. I auditioned for his band and got the gig.”
Subsequent to that, Koz met keyboard player Jeff Lorber and joined his band. “Those two guys, along with my older brother who is also a musician, pushed me to develop my own sound, make demo recordings, and begin life as a jazz artist.”
Koz eventually signed with Capitol Records, beginning a twenty-year musical relationship. “When I was with Capitol, I traveled the world. Nobody was more surprised by my career than me. I never expected any of it.”
In 2004, at the age of 40, Koz decided to become “fully authentic.”
“Various people in my life knew I was gay,” Koz says. “I refer to this period as a ‘rolling coming-out.’ First to college friends, then to family, and finally[with the 2004 article in The Advocate], to the public.
“This mountain of fear that I had created [before coming out] was my biggest obstacle. Every day you wake up more afraid. You heap more dirt on the mountain, and every day the mountain gets bigger and more impossible to scale. Every single day you think, ‘How am I ever going to surmount this?’ Koz recalls.
“Then, something happens in your life, and you finally say to yourself, ‘I don’t care, I’m going to begin the journey over this mountain.’ Then you get to the other side and you realize there is no mountain!
“I worried about this for so long. This ‘worry’ prevents all of us from living our best lives. I understand it, I get it. I feel it all the time, but I love to push through it. Sometimes, when you think it’s ‘the end,’ it’s not. I thought I’d never come out, due to the risks. In 2004, it was a very different world. There were very few out jazz musicians.”
Koz had worked hard to develop a very broad fan base for his concerts and CDs. “Lots of different people listen to our band. We have fans from every part of the political spectrum, of every ethnicity, and across the straight and LGBTQ spectrum,” Koz notes.
But Koz still wondered: “What are people my fans specifically, going to do with this new information about me?”
Immediately after the 2004 Advocate article was published, Koz garnered an immense amount of support. “One of the nicest messages I received was from singer Melissa Etheridge. Her note was short and very sweet. She wrote, ‘Congratulations. Come on in, the water’s warm.’”
Individuals from outside of the musical world also contacted Koz. “The day the article happened, I received an email from LGBTQ advocate David Mixner. I didn’t know him at the time, but soon found out that he’s a ‘freedom fighter’ who has been in the trenches from the very beginning, pushing for gay rights and inclusivity. Mixner said, ‘I’m a fan of yours. It’s unbelievable that you’ve come out, and I’m going to work to ensure that people know who you are.”
“Mixner then invited me to play for a group of congressional legislators. Two weeks later, I was in senator Ted Kennedy’s home, entertaining a group of Democratic senators. I couldn’t believe this was occurring. I stepped back for a minute and realized: this is what happens when you experience authenticity. When you reveal all of who you are to the world, magic happens.”
Koz, a perpetual optimist, says, “The truth is, nobody cared if I was gay. In the grand scheme of things, that’s where I think society is headed. Look at what’s happening in the current Democratic presidential primaries. Mayor Pete Buttigieg is running. Regardless of which side of the political spectrum you’re on, the fact that a gay married man is running for president—and being taken seriously while doing so—is indicative of a shift of attitudes in this country. It’s a huge boost to the LGBTQ community, and an amazing thing to witness. To me, it speaks to where the world is right now. It’s a sign of where we are, moving beyond the labeling and categorization of things.”
Though passionate about politics and equality, Koz revels most in his art form. He looks forward to returning to Houston this month to perform for his Texas fans. “The city has been a wonderful place for us and for our music since the beginning of my career. I’ve played in Houston for almost 30 years, at numerous venues. The Woodlands is a first for us. We tend to go wherever the jazz audience likes to hear concerts.”
This Summer Horns national tour is a favorite for Koz. “I grew up playing as one person in a horn section, being part of an ensemble. There’s a tremendous power in that kind of playing. Earth, Wind & Fire; James Brown; Blood, Sweat & Tears; Chicago—that was the golden era of music for a young musician like me.”
“We are touring all summer long with this amazing band, and I love it,” Koz says. “Life right now is ‘gravy time’ for me. It’s all about sharing this gift, giving back, making music, and making people happy.”
What: David Koz and Friends Summer Horns
When: August 31, 6:30 p.m.
Where: Dosey Doe Big Barn, 25911 I-45 N.