Sax Heavyweight Sam Dillon on Developing a Jazz Vocabulary, Career Priorities, and More


As a saxophonist, composer and teacher, native New Yorker Sam Dillon has established himself as one of the most in demand musicians of his generation. Currently, Sam maintains a very active performance schedule as both a bandleader and member of The Jimmy Heath Big Band, The Slide Hampton Octet, The Mingus Big Band, The Frank Basile Quintet, The 8-Bit Big Band, The Steven Feifke Big Band, and The New Alchemy Jazz Orchestra. In addition to these groups, Sam has performed with the likes of Ron Carter, Roger Humphries, Joe Chambers, Randy Brecker, Vincent Herring, David Weiss, John Riley, Jimmy Greene, Dwayne Burno, and Orrin Evans to name a few. Some of Sam’s most noteworthy performances have included The Detroit Jazz Festival, The Blue Note Tokyo, Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, Yoshi’s Jazz Club, The 55 Bar, The Zinc Bar, The Kitano Hotel, Smoke Jazz Club, Smalls Jazz Club, Birdland Jazz Club, Iridium, The Jazz Standard, Symphony Space, Carnegie Hall, and Blue Note NYC. Additionally, Sam has made appearances on WBGO 88.3FM with The Purchase Jazz Collective, and on Royal Pains & Boardwalk Empire for HBO.

In 2013, Sam was selected as one of 13 semi-finalists for the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition where he performed at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. In 2016, Sam received an Artist Diploma from The Juilliard School as the saxophonist in the Artist Diploma Jazz Program. This ensemble performed and taught internationally at The Tokyo Jazz Festival, The Torino Jazz Festival, The Sao Paulo Jazz Festival, and Lincoln Center.

When Sam is not playing or recording he is actively teaching as The Jazz Director at USDAN Summer Camp For The Arts, Woodwind Artist for The New York Pops, Saxophone Instructor for The Juilliard MAP program, and Improvisation Teacher for The Big Apple Music Festival.

Thus far, Sam’s solo and sideman work can be heard on over 20+ studio recordings and in September 2018, Sam released his debut album as a leader, Out In The Open on Cellar Live Records which has gained him recognition as one of the defining voices on the tenor saxophone today.

Sam is an endorsing artist for Yamaha Saxophones and D’Addario Reeds.


ZS: Why did you choose the saxophone?

SD: Originally, I liked how it looked and I heard the Pink Panther which is what did it for me. The summer before 4th grade, I got my first saxophone and I started messing around before I got to school that year. My very first year, I actually played alto which many people don’t know and then shortly after switched over to tenor because I liked the darker sound. I come from an artistic family and my parents were very supportive of me playing the saxophone. My mom is a professional painter and my dad dabbled with becoming a jazz drummer before deciding to become an architect. My parents got me a private teacher shortly after I started playing and he became a close family friend. After playing the school Bundy tenor, my parents bought me an old Conn 10M the next year. My first saxophone teacher helped make this happen whose name is Charles DeAngelis; he was one of the original saxophone players in Stan Kenton’s big band and close friends with Phil Woods.

ZS: What material or exercises do you find yourself practicing?

SD: I have developed a bebop scale exercise where I target each note of the chord in seven note groupings. I have and recommend players work on playing rhythm changes and the blues in all 12 keys on repeat to master each key. I feel if you can play the blues and rhythm changes in any key well, this frees you up when it’s time to play. [we plan on publishing this exercise in a future article – Best. Saxophone. Website. Ever. management]

ZS: As you have taught music classes at middle schools, high schools, and camps, what areas do you find younger and more advancing students struggle with?

SD: One of the biggest things that I find with younger students is many are not inclined to improvise. Many of these students come to my masterclasses or camps having heard of jazz or have an idea of what they think believe jazz is and see it as a fun alternative to standard band classes at school. I try and teach students to let go and play emotionally or whatever comes to mind which is similar to a concept I most associate with Lee Konitz. As a student progresses, I find a connection or frustration with students trying to learn vocabulary and having this vocabulary be a part of their musical voice which is a common gap. I always recommend a student continues to stay connected with their voice and ear as they begin to slowly incorporate this vocabulary naturally into their playing.

ZS: After graduating with your Post-Masters Degree from Julliard, do you feel it was worth the time you’ve committed to school?

SD: For me, I was never as concerned with what my artistic voice was as much as some other players. My perspective was not necessarily to be a superstar or icon but really to figure out how to learn as much as I could. I find myself fascinated with the artistic process. While at Julliard, I found the most important part of the program did not have to do with music directly but more to do with being in a band. By playing actively with these players, it forced me to think about what my deepest beliefs are as a musician for better or for worse. By further defining my musical beliefs, I was able to further develop my sound as well as myself as an artist.

ZS: Since you started playing the saxophone, what have you found has changed with being a musician today?

SD: There are many different styles of music today. I find one of the things that happened naturally to me was my sound concept lends itself to a lot of different styles of music and that makes a big difference when you are going to play a pop sounding solo and then turnaround the next day and go play with Jimmy Heath. Today, you really need to be yourself but also versatile when it comes to playing many different types of gigs if you want to stay ahead. What I find difficult about being a musician is trying to balance between providing a service for an audience of people but at the same time sounding the best I possibly can. This can result in being extremely self-critical and self-deprecating at times.

ZS: What are you looking to accomplish musically or professionally right now?

SD: I am working on my own music right now to release my third album. I am trying to shed my doubles (Flute & Clarinet) more. I am branching in multiple directions and am trying to practice more music. At the end of the day, I always feel that I need to shed and really see myself as the student of the music.


ZS: What’s your current Setup?



Tenor: Yamaha Custom 82Z Atelier – Unlacquered


Tenor: Vintage Florida Otto Link Metal (Original 7)


Tenor: D’Addario Select Jazzt 3M (Unfiled)


Tenor: Ishimori (Brass) ligature for Metal Otto Link

For more information on Sam, please visit