Dave Koz and his band.

It’s become a Christmas tradition for Dave Koz to go on tour and play holiday favorites.

In fact, this year marks the 20th anniversary of his Christmas tour—and the smooth-jazz sax great is bringing it to the McCallum Theatre on Tuesday, Dec. 19.

During a recent phone interview, Koz explained why he loves jazz.

“I think it all starts with the instruments and playing the saxophone,” Koz said. “I grew up playing saxophone. Even though I didn’t grow up with the desire to be a jazz musician, it’s sort of the music that best houses the instrument. The sax is an instrument that can feel very much at home in so many genres, whether it’s rock, pop, R&B or jazz. I guess at the core of who I am as a musician, it’s best rooted in jazz music.”

Koz has a history of being in the house band on various television shows, including The Emeril Lagasse Show, The Pat Sajak Show and The Arsenio Hall Show.

“Emeril was the best because of the food,” Koz said. “Emeril is a really great musician, too, and he’s a percussionist. He loves cooking for musicians, and I think it’s his favorite group of people to cook for. After we would finish the tapings, he would make us food—just for us. We would all eat together, and that was so much fun.

“Pat Sajak was at the very beginning of my career before I became a recording artist, and I had the opportunity to stand beside one of my saxophone heroes who hired me for that gig, Tom Scott. That was really amazing. Some years later, I did play every week for a year and a half on Arsenio Hall, and that was during the heyday when everyone was watching that show.

“I love crossing over into other arenas to expose (people to) music. I just had a cameo in a Hallmark Christmas movie (now called Sharing Christmas) where I got to play in the movie, but I also had some lines, and I was a nervous wreck for that. It’s one thing to play, and it’s one thing to talk in real life, but to hit your mark and nail your lines in every take, it’s pretty nerve-racking.”

On the subject of where jazz is today, Koz said that he’s optimistic about the future, thanks to technology.

“I think jazz is increasing in its ability to reach new audiences,” he said. “We’re in a very interesting time period in how people consume music. We’ve gone from the albums to the cassettes to the CDs, and now into a streaming mentality where people won’t necessarily buy a person’s album, but they’ll stream it through a jazz playlist or hear it on Pandora through an artist channel. It’s actually reaching a wider group of people now through this new technology. It doesn’t mean it’s a mass-appeal genre; it’s still a niche genre, but I would say it’s extremely healthy right now. I’m surprised to say that, but that’s how I really feel.”

When I brought up some of the covers that Dave Koz has done, including a handful of different versions of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper,” Koz laughed and said: “You picked a good one there!” He then told me about a video on the YouTube channel called Postmodern Jukebox in which he took part.

“That song is very enduring,” he said. “I just got back from playing Europe, and that was on the set list, because people love it, especially after the passing of George Michael. People are obsessed with that song. George Michael was one of my favorite artists, and he made so much great music. I’ll always appreciate him because he wrote this line for the saxophone that is one of the best sax riffs ever in any genre of music. I love playing it, too.”

Koz said that while he’s Jewish, he loves the Christmas season.

“I grew up Jewish, but somewhere along the lines, I’ve picked up this ‘Mr. Christmas’ vibe, but it wasn’t necessarily the holiday I grew up celebrating,” Koz said, “although, I did sneak into my friends’ houses and help them trim the tree and eat some of the turkey dinner. I love the ceremony of it, and I love the music, too. Even my parents, who wouldn’t put up a Christmas tree—they loved Christmas and the Christmas spirit, and they loved the music, too, and I heard it growing up. That’s where I fell in love with it.

“Even after these many years and celebrating our 20th anniversary of Christmas touring, I still am blown away and humbled to play these great songs. They carry such an emotional wallop. They’re more than just songs and melodies; they’re the guidepost of our lives. When the holidays come around every year, we want to hear these same songs, and we want to be taken back to those more innocent times and memories. The music is what gets us there, and it’s almost a passport to another place, so I love playing the music and being on tour this time of year.”

Koz said he’s doing something special to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his Christmas tour.

“Not many things happen for 20 years in a row, especially in a world as fickle as music and music tastes. I’m very honored and flattered that I’m still doing this,” he said. “We’ve seen kids who grew up coming to our shows who now have gotten married and have kids of their own. It’s become like a holiday tradition for our guests and for us. This year, we went back to the original lineup that we had 20 years ago—that’s Dave Benoit on piano, Rick Braun on trumpet and Peter White on guitar. Those are the three guys I started this with many years ago, so it seemed fitting on this 20-year anniversary to reunite the cast.”

Finally, I had to ask Dave Koz one question: What would he do if he was in a dental chair getting a root canal, and his own music came over the Muzak system?

“As long as I’d have the laughing gas, I’d be fine!” Koz said with a laugh. “We don’t want the association of people getting their teeth drilled in the dentist’s chair, but maybe it’s by design. If people in those situations are getting a little saxophone, maybe it’s taking their mind off what’s happening and providing them with some comfort, and that’s not such a horrible thing.”

Dave Koz will perform at 8 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 19, at the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $61 to $101. For tickets or more information, call 760-340-2787, or visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.

Avatar photo

Brian Blueskye

A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Brian Blueskye moved to the Coachella Valley in 2005. He was the assistant editor and staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent from 2013 to 2019. He is currently the...