Holiday concerts hold a special appeal, like the ringing in of the New Year during a New Years Eve show or even a Christmas performance. I have been blessed to witness quite a few Dave Koz Annual Christmas Concerts and, as I have written before, each year, ‘Santa’ Koz re-imagines his holiday tour and includes fresh takes on holiday classics – as well as other selections that beautifully capture the spirit of the season.
Koz continues to achieve notable and impressive results in his solo career and those with whom he collaborates. He is a consummate professional who has a sincere love of his profession and a complete dedication to and passion for his craft. He strives to push personal boundaries through his music.
I recently had the great opportunity, honor, and privilege of interviewing Dave Koz via phone leading up to his Sunday, December 11th, 2016, Christmas concert at the Chicago Theatre.
William Kelly Milionis: It’s always an honor and privilege chatting with you! What an illustrious career you have and it continues! Congratulations, wow, 19th year anniversary for your Christmas tour!
Dave Koz: Yes! Can you believe that!
Kelly: Wow! So amazing!
Dave: Coming out of my mouth it feels kind of funny! I don’t know how that happened! Especially since this just started really as a one-off thing in 1997. I had the idea to go out and just play some shows because we had lost our parents that year. But I think because family was part of the DNA, the building blocks of this tour, I think that’s one of the reasons why we have been able to sustain it for so many years and watch family’s come; especially, in Chicago at the Chicago Theatre, seeing the same people come, kids growing up, starting in elementary school and now they’ve married and many even have kids of their own…it’s crazy! It’s really wonderful!
Kelly: It’s a testament to you and your talent and how you touch everyone with your music. It’s rare and we’re all blessed!
Dave: That’s very sweet of you to say. It’s a big honor for us to be able to have that ability every year to come and entertain people and I think, especially this year, although I seem to find myself saying that every year, but REALLY this year it’s time when no matter what side you’re on, this is a time where we need to come together and heal our wounds and unite as Americans and in things that bind us together as opposed to separate us; there is so much more that does bind us than separate us. There’s nothing like Christmas music to create that healing and hopefully that is exactly what will happen.
Kelly: Jonathan Butler will be returning on your Christmas Tour and Kenny Lattimore and Valerie Simpson are new featured guests…
Dave: Jonathan Butler has been with us many times before and Kenny Lattimore and I toured together in the Summertime but we’ve never done a Christmas Tour together. This represents a bit of a first for us. I love his voice. I think his voice at Christmastime is going to be even that much more persuasive. What he can do with that voice of his [chuckling]…
Kelly: yes [chuckling]…
Dave: …pretty amazing! He made his first ever Christmas project this year which has just come out, and it’s called “A Kenny Lattimore Christmas” and it’s a beautiful album. We are going to be doing a lot of that music. Jonathan Butler, of course, has been my touring partner for many years. Valerie Simpson represents a first for us. We have known each other for a very long time, but, just a quick story…I was at a birthday party for Clive Davis and it was a small party maybe about fifty people and I was seated next to Valerie that night. I was so excited because I’m a huge fan and I love her as a human being and we had already gotten three quarters of our Christmas line-up done; this was about six months ago. The minute I see her all of a sudden like a lightning bolt she’s the one! She’s the one! She’s the one to be on the tour! So, as I sat down, I said to myself, Dave, try and be cool, don’t say anything about this tonight, just enjoy yourself, don’t make her uncomfortable. I did NOT say anything until the very LAST minute and I said to her, listen, I have this wacky idea and I’m going to call you on Tuesday and I’m not going to burden you with it tonight. I’m going to call you on Tuesday, this was Saturday, and I’ll tell you about it and I did and she said whoa, I didn’t see that one coming! She thought about it and a couple days later she called me and said, I’m in! And this represents the first time that she has gone out and did appreciable touring since her husband Nick [Ashford] passed away.
Kelly: That’s special.
Dave: Yes, that’s very, very special. It’s really meaningful! Together, they are Motown royalty, having written some of the most indelible songs of our generation; “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand”, “You’re Precious Love”, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”, and I could go on and on and on. She’s kind of like the R&B Carole King for lack of a better term.
Kelly: We always tell people chance encounters can be to your benefit, you either know somebody or you don’t, and if you make that effort you never know what can happen.
Kelly: What is your process of putting together the talent for your Christmas Tour?
Dave: It is not unlike the casting a movie or television show. You want it to be balanced, balanced in all ways. This show is really in its very nature about collaboration. It’s less about one person going out and doing something and then another person going out and doing another thing and maybe coming together at the end. This is really interwoven from the minute the show starts with collaboration. And, I really love what that says about what we model on the stage to reflect in people’s lives; especially with what has happened within the last several months; the idea of working together, working together to create something much more special than any one of us can do on our own. And, I think I’m most proud of that message which is not said heavy-handedly, but pretty subtle, at least that message is out there. So, I’m constantly trying to think of combinations of people and this particular combination of people is the first time I’ve ever had three vocalists as our special guests. It’s kind of perfect for Christmas because Christmas music is so vocal heavy. I think also for me, Valerie, because of her husband’s passing, giving her the opportunity to have two phenomenal duet partners at her fingertips to fill that huge void of Nick Ashford…that’s really a nice thing. I think it’s really just coming up with combinations, but at the base level of all of it, talent aside, because there are so many talented people, what I am actually looking for are people that are wonderful human beings, that have a collaborative spirit, and don’t mind working their asses off, because… [hearty laughter]
Kelly: [more hearty laughter]
Dave: …the schedule is pretty brutal. There is a finite time between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Kelly: I understand. I’m really trying to get to the core…
Dave: Thank you for bringing that up and noticing that. That’s really great! And, it makes me feel good. I’ve learned from the BEST; Quincy Jones, who said, “Check your egos at the door” and myself included. So, my goal, my staff, and production people, everybody who works for this tour, musicians, myself, our production staff, and all the audio team and video team, and everybody, we only have one goal – what’s best for the show! What’s best for the people who come to see this show. And so, I try and take my own personal what I would like to do this and what I would like to do that, I’d like to take that out of the mix and focus in on what makes for the best show and I think the fact the we do that sends a message to the artists that THAT is the spirit of the show. And, it’s kind of easy to do at Christmas time because Christmas is like a different animal. We’re not doing our typical shows at Christmas time because sixty-five to seventy percent of the music is Christmas music. It’s really about a different goal in mind. Having a different goal and a different intention in mind from the outset and then choosing the right people who get it, and understand it, and don’t fight it, and embrace it, and help us to achieve that. We’ve been very lucky in picking the right people to come to the project with that frame of mind. It makes all the difference in the world because you just don’t have the self-centeredness. You have this feeling of what can we do to make this the best it possibly can be.
Kelly: You specialize in bringing those individuals together and then getting the best out of them. That’s great and is definitely hard to do! No matter whether it is Christmas time or other times and you have it in yourself to do that.
Dave: If you are a producer of some sort, it’s always wearing many hats and trying to get people motivated, inspired, and sometimes you just have to kind of figure out what the best way to do that. Being an ambassador can be a little bit difficult sometimes, but really if you have the right intention at all times things sort of tend to fall into place,I would say typically.
Kelly: Speaking of your Christmas show…any surprises?
Dave: Well, I think so, although some of these surprises have not yet revealed themselves…there always are surprises! No question, there are always things that happen that we did not expect and interesting pairings. We can have a pretty good setlist, kind of pre-ordained not to say it will be exactly like that but just to kind of whittle down potentials for everybody. I had a conversation with Kenny Lattimore for example with Leonard Cohen’s passing and his great song “Hallelujah”. That song was not in our set before and it may not be, but I talked to him yesterday and said look, is this a song you would be interested in singing because he’s passed away and it is such an amazing song, not a Christmas song but it does feel like one? He said absolutely let’s rehearse it. I don’t know if that will end up being in the show, but we’re definitely going to explore it and see what happens.
Kelly: Will there be a charitable or philanthropic element to your Christmas Tour as in years past?
Dave: We are doing a charitable aspect for this year’s Tour and raising money for a new charity that I’ve gotten involved with called SOS; which is also a Children’s Charity. It helps underprivileged kids with education and afterschool programs all across the United States. As we learned through this election, there are many people that are really in a bad way in our very own country. This is an organization that really targets kids that are at-risk giving them projects to work on and it’s really been a great thing to learn about. We’re going to be working with them and then there is a saxophone, a Dave Koz Saxophone, that will be raffled off every night and the proceeds will be going to SOS for that. So, that’s kind of a new wrinkle and I’ve continued with our raising money and awareness for Starlight Children’s Foundation, which is my primary charity although this year’s Christmas Tour will benefit another Children’s Charity.
Kelly: Thank you so very much for sharing your kindness by giving back to those in need.
Kelly: Any new projects scheduled moving forward?
Dave: I’m going to be doing a new record in 2017 and still doing more exploration on the kind of record that is going to be but I’ve been in that mode for the last couple of months and we’ve just got to see how it all goes but that’s going to be a major priority for me in 2017. We also have our 20th Anniversary of this Christmas Tour which is mind-boggling and that’s already set all of the original members of our cast will be coming back for that next year. And, we have a sold out tour for two weeks in May of next year and kind of a bubbling summer project that’s starting to come together. So, as usual, there is always a lot on the horizon, but I think new music is going to be an important part of next year.
Kelly: You’ve recorded with many individuals in your career, how was it working with the inimitable musician, artist, philanthropist, and visionary, Herb Alpert?
Dave: Well, that was a big dream come true for me! Maybe because Herb has been and will always be one of my main mentors in music, not just for his work that he has recorded over the years but for the philanthropy he does, he’s very quiet about it but quietly one of the biggest philanthropists in our country; giving away tens of millions of dollars every year primarily to music charities. Of course he started A&M Records. He’s a notable sculptor and painter. He just lives his life like a work of art. I’ll never forget collaborating with him on the Hello Tomorrow project where we recreated his classic, “This Guy’s in Love With You”; the Burt Bacharach and Hal David song. Because he is a good friend of mine, I’m proud to say, the producer, Marcus Miller said you should sing this, because Herb wasn’t really a singer and he had one of his biggest hits. And, I was like I really was not a singer and he said why don’t you just try this and I said ok. Here’s what I’m going to do, I’m going to record a version of this song a demo vocal and I’ll send it to Herb and if Herb says thumbs up I’ll finish it and we’ll do it. If Herb says thumbs down its going to be an instrumental. So, I sent it to Herb and he e-mailed me right back and he said, not only do I give you a thumbs up but if you want I’ll play on it as well…I was like WHAT?! [giddy laughter]
Kelly: that’s great [chuckling]
Dave: You gotta be kidding me! That actually happened! Herb ended up recreating those trademark two notes bumb-bah bumb-bah on my version of the song; one that he had made famous forty years before. That was one of those out-of-body pinch-me moments where I can’t believe this is happening.
Kelly: Dave, you always give us those out-of-body pinch-me moments live in concert and with your recordings as well. Thank you!
Dave: Awe, you are very kind! I really always enjoy talking with you. Thank you so much for that.
Kelly: I wish you much continued success in all your creative endeavors. Have FUN in Chicago at our Chicago Theatre on Sunday, December 11th, 2016.
Dave Koz photo by Bryan Sheffield