Saxophonist, composer and conductor Donny McCaslin collaborated with David Bowie on his final album, “Blackstar.” Now as artistic director and co-music director, he’s collaborating with the Charlotte Symphony on their production of “Blackstar Symphony,” which stages September 16-17 at the Belk Theater Blumenthal Performing Arts Center.

The renowned musical artist’s introduction to David Bowie came during McCaslin’s high school years, when he first heard Bowie’s recordings of “Modern Love” and “Let’s Dance.”

“Those were both huge hits and I remember dancing to them at my high school prom,” he recalls. “That was my introduction to his music, but over the years I became aware of who he was and his other recordings.”

But McCaslin’s own personal music journey began years earlier, with his father Don McCaslin’s jazz band Warmth. He would often take his young son along with him to performances, which Donny McCaslin’s remembers fondly. He also points to that time as a key impact on a decision that would come later in life. During McCaslin’s college years he realized the educational path he had initially chosen was a mistake and at the last minute changed his major to music.

Bowie’s Bowie: Donny McCaslin | Photo by Jimmy Fontaine

“My father asked me what kind of instrument I wanted to play and without giving it much consideration, I chose the saxophone,” Donny recalls.

In hindsight he points to a friend of his father’s who frequently played in his band. 

“He was a hippie with this huge beard and a tie dye shirt,” McCaslin recalls. “He played saxophone and he would play this wild music that people would dance to like crazy. He played a lot of R&B and Soul.

“One night I remember looking into the bell of his horn at some point and there was just this pool of condensation and a cigarette butt floating in the middle of it. As an adult I think that’s kind of gross, but as a kid I thought ‘wow that’s so cool.’ So I think that was it. That’s what sent me down this path.”

It was through McCaslin’s friend Maria Schneider, also a musician and composer, that he would come to work on Bowie’s “Blackstar” album. After Schneider and Bowie had listened to some of McCaslin’s recordings Bowie agreed that he thought McCaslin would be a good fit for his latest project.

When the two, met McCaslin instantly felt a connection. “He was such a remarkable person. His overall demeanor, his humility, he was just a very good person and you could tell he knew what he wanted to do with his music.”

Throughout his career, Bowie maintained a steady fan base in the LGBTQ community. As a young man, Bowie came out as gay in the January 22, 1972 issue of Melody Maker magazine just weeks after the December 1971 release of the album “Hunky Dory.”

“I’m gay,” Bowie told the journalist for Melody Maker. “And I always have been. Even when I was David Jones.”

On that album Bowie released the song “Queen Bitch,” which was sang in the predominantly used British gay vernacular of the time. Another song entitled “John, I’m Only Dancing” tells the story of a bisexual man at a dance club who encounters a gay man he has feelings for while “Hallo Space Boy” is likely an autobiographical look at the confusion and discomfort Bowie felt towards his first wife Angela and the gimmicky approach towards sexuality and gender expression she reportedly foisted upon him to capture public attention, likely when she learned of his sexual orientation. 

Years after their divorce and his later marriage to Iman, he remained just as positive and supportive of the queer community as before, but he would eventually come to identify as bisexual and later still joked that he had evolved into a “closeted heterosexual.”

McCaslin agrees that Bowie’s music often had a message in it for the LGBTQ community and the struggles that so many faced during the 1970s. “I think the music and lyrics speak for themselves, but there is something that is just kind of innately built in to many of the songs he recorded that spoke to the gay community, and it’s a beautiful thing, a beautiful legacy, that he leaves behind.”

David Aaron Moore

David Aaron Moore is a former editor of Qnotes, serving in the role from 2003 to 2007. He is currently the senior content editor and a regularly contributing writer for Qnotes. Moore is a native of North...

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