Donny McCaslin ’88 is perhaps best known as the saxophonist on David Bowie’s last album, Blackstar, released days before the singer’s death in early 2016. But McCaslin’s life as a musician stretches back to playing with his father’s band at age 12 in California as well as to years in the New York jazz world.
Donald Paul McCaslin was born in 1966 in Santa Clara, California. In high school, he was already a seasoned musician, leading his band three times at the Monterey Jazz Festival. In 1984, he entered Berklee College of Music on a full scholarship. While there, he was influenced by Gary Burton, Herb Pomeroy, and others, and played regularly in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts.
After Berklee, McCaslin toured the world for four years with Burton’s band before moving to New York City. He has played with the Gil Evans Orchestra, Danilo Pérez, Maria Schneider, the Dave Douglas Quintet, and many more. A three-time Grammy winner, he has produced a dozen albums since his first, Exile and Discovery, in 1998. His albums Fast Future (2015), Casting for Gravity (2012), and Perpetual Motion (2010) all featured elements of jazz and electronic music.
In 2014, McCaslin played tenor and soprano saxophone on Bowie’s single “Sue (or in a Season of Crime).” McCaslin says that during work on Bowie’s last album, the singer told him and his bandmates to “just have fun.” The experience was so indelible that McCaslin recently recorded an album about it, Beyond Now.
The saxophonist has kept up his ties with Berklee, leading a Masters on the Road series in May 2016, teaching and leading a group in performances in New Hampshire, Boston, and New York City. He credits his Berklee years with opening up his musical horizons. "Being at Berklee and thrust into this world where the boundaries of music or styles were pretty fluid, that was really a great experience to help me to broaden my musical language.”