Violinist from New York whose mother introduced him to live music, which sparked his interest in the violin. He began studying the instrument at seven years of age and was attending the Juilliard School of Music by the time he was ten. Eventually, he moved on to the Mannes College of Music, where he studied with Vera Fonaroff.
In 1961, he became a Young Concert Artist. In fact, he was instrumental in its inception. A young woman by the name of Susan Popkin (later Susan Wadsworth) was outraged that no one was sponsoring Sanford’s debut, and she got very proactive about it, convincing an Armenian restaurant owner to open his doors on Mondays, when they were usually closed, and throwing in three hundred brand-new chairs in the bargain. Steinway even contributed one of their pianos, a stage was built, fancy red curtains hung, and Sanford’s career as a live musician was born in the unlikeliest of venues, with pianist Richard Goode and flautist Paula Robison in tow.
Around this time, partially embarrassed by an Urban League assessment of the lack of blacks in major symphony orchestras, the New York Philharmonic auditioned Sanford to fill one of its violin chairs, but conductor Leonard Bernstein recommended he get some more orchestral experience under his belt first, recommending a list of lesser-known orchestras in the area. It did not take long for Sanford to make the cut, however. Impressed by his work as a substitute and the work he did during the summer, Bernstein officially hired Sanford in 1962 to become of a full-time musician with the Philharmonic, and subsequently the first black musician to play for a major American orchestra. It was a unique position to be in, to be sure, but being in New York had its advantages, like studio work, and before long Sanford was moonlighting as a session musician.
His first recording may have been Miriam Makeba’s Makeba Sings! in 1965. The work started rolling in about three years later. Sanford found himself a member of Milt Jackson and the Hip String Quartet, and made a couple of other connections that would prove to be lucrative: He worked with Rahsaan Roland Kirk on Left and Right and Pucho & His Latin Soul Brothers on Heat!/Jungle Fire! Pucho and Rahsaan would both come calling Sanford again and again.
In 1969, Allen met actress and author Madhur Jaffrey while she was working at Lincoln Center as a tour guide, and they were married the same year. Sanford’s wedding undoubtedly overshadowed his recording accomplishments that year, but he did lay down some tracks with the Andrew Hill Quartet in August and met another artist with whom he would collaborate quite a bit, appearing on The Many Facets of David Newman. (David goes by the rather unflattering nickname “Fathead”.)
In 1973, Allen reunited with Rahsaan Roland Kirk on the album, Prepare Thyself to Deal with a Miracle. A year later, he offered string support on Felix Cavaliere’s self-titled debut and Don McLean’s Homeless Brother. In 1975, he joined Sister Sledge’s Circle of Love and performed on Phil Woods’ creatively titled New Phil Woods Album. Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s Aces Back to Back may have been released the following year, as it contains recordings from 1968 to 1976. In any case, the bicentennial year definitely found Sanford wearing multiple hats—concertmaster, conductor and violinist—on Ron Carter’s Pastels. He also recorded with Randy Crawford on Everything Must Change and appeared on Deodato’s Very Together.
In the mid-‘70s, Sanford also premiered Roque Cordero’s “Concerto for Violin and Orchestra” which has since been re-released as part of the Black Composers Series on Cedille Records. Ironically, his classical days were all but behind him. In 1977, he decided to leave the New York Philharmonic to pursue what had become much more than an avocation by now: Session work.
It proved to be a very good move for him. Now that he was a free-lancer, the session work began pouring in: In 1977 alone, he helped Joe Farrell erect La Cathedral Y El Toro, helped Steve Goodman Say it in Private, and got with the sci-fi craze on Bionic Boogie, Meco’s Music Inspired by Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk, and David Matthews’ Dune, on which he served as string director. He also re-connected with Rahsaan Roland Kirk on Kirkatron and David “Fathead” Newman on Concrete Jungle. Kirk and Allen joined forces again in 1978 on Boogie-Woogie String Along for Real, and Sanford helped Jimmy Ponder All Things Beautiful. He even did a recording for Penthouse, with the “Love Symphony Orchestra”, bearing the unwieldy title Penthouse Presents Pulsating Disco and Romantic Sounds for Loving and Dancing. In 1979, he appeared on Frank Sinatra’s boxed set, Trilogy.
Allen opened the ‘80s with Meco’s spacey Christmas in the Stars: Star Wars Christmas Album, jammed with Spyro Gyra on Carnaval, and even appeared on the soundtrack of Fame. Between 1978 and 1981, he and Ron Carter recorded Pick ‘em and Super Strings, the latter of which was released in ’81. Again, Allen multi-tasked on these recordings, acting as concertmaster, conductor, and performer.
In 1982, Allen worked magic with Enchantment on Enchanted Lady, helped Aretha Franklin Get it Right in 1983, and was back in the movie studio for the soundtrack of 1984’s Beat Street. Sanford would get more and more film work in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. In 1986, he hooked up with Philip Glass on Songs from Liquid Days and subsequently performed on the soundtrack of Powaqqatsi and School Daze, both released in 1988, the same year in which Sanford was also serving as concertmaster for the short run of Chess on Broadway. In 1989, Allen appeared on Richard Tee’s Inside You and acted as concertmaster, as well as performing, on the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. A year later, he played violin on the score of Mo’ Better Blues, and again fulfilled concertmaster duties on Peggy Lee Songbook: There’ll Be Another Spring.
In the spring of 1990, Allen was the concertmaster for the Broadway production of Aspects of Love, which enjoyed a run through 2nd March 1991. He also appeared on The Secret Garden: The Original Broadway Cast Album, the soundtrack of another Spike Lee film, Jungle Fever, James Galway’s Wind Beneath My Wings, and Arturo Sandoval’s Flight to Freedom, all released in ’91. Similarly, in 1992, he would split his time between film, session, and stage work, accompanying Richard Tee on Real Time, joining the revival of Guys and Dolls, and serving as concertmaster, contractor and violinist on the soundtrack to Malcolm X. 1993 was peppered with interesting projects: Purple Rain: Bob Belden’s Manhattan Rhythm Club Plays Prince, Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, Laura Nyro’s Walk the Dog & Light the Light (Run the Dog Darling Light Delight) and Philip Glass’s soundtrack to Anima Mundi. On 10th November 1993, Sanford again performed concertmaster duties for the Broadway revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which eventually wore out its welcome on 29th May 1994.
That left plenty of time for more movie work. Sanford contracted the musicians for The Inkwell and Sugar Hill, and played violin and the role of concertmaster on the soundtrack of Crooklyn. He even found time to appear with Barbra Streisand in The Concert. For those with short attention spans, Concert Highlights was released the following year. He rang in 1996 with Better Days by Brian Lasser and helped out on Kenny Lattimore’s self-titled debut: He also played violin and was the concertmaster on the soundtrack of Get on the Bus.
Between 1994 and 1997, he subbed as a replacement concertmaster and violinist on the long-running Broadway musical, Sunset Boulevard. Its run eventually ended on 22nd March 1997, leaving Allen time to work with Linda Eder on It’s Time. It was time to make a brief foray back into classical music. On 7th May 1997, Sanford joined Danny Buraczeski and Sir Roland Hanna for a performance of Buraczeski’s Jazzdance, presented by the Library of Congress. A year later, Allen premiered Hanna’s “Sonata for Violin and Piano” at Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. In 1999, Allen helped created the eerie mood necessary for the original Broadway cast album of Jekyll & Hyde.
He closed out the millennium in his own eclectic style, performing a program of “Violin and Piano Sonatas from Middle Europe” with Heawon Kim, as part of the Leaf Peeper Concerts, in Chatham, New York, and appearing on Britney Spears’ Oops!… I Did it Again.
In 2001, he joined Bernard “Pretty” Purdie on King of the Beat. A couple of years hence, he would re-unite with Purdie on Soul Is… Pretty Purdie, and Philip Glass on Glassworks: He was also the concertmaster and one of the violinists on The Diary of Alicia Keys.
On 9th October 2003, he returned to classical music again by performing works of Brahms and Beethoven, once again as part of the Leaf Peeper Concerts. Eventually, Sanford would be appointed as director of the concert series. He also served as Jury Chair and was a guest artist for the 2004 Sphinx Artists Competition, an event with which he has been very active, having served as an adjudicator in 1999. On 2nd September 2004, Allen took part in a concert entitled “Five Centuries of Music of the Black Diaspora” in Chicago, Illinois. Much of the focus was on Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, who shuffled off his mortal coil in March 2004 and who wrote “Blue/s Forms” for Allen, who performed it at the Joan W. and Irving B. Harris Theater for Music and Dance. (A recording of it would be released a year later on a CD entitled Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson: A Celebration.) On 7th October 2004, it was back to Chatham, New York, for another Leaf Peeper Concert, this time featuring the music of Telemann, Handel, and Bach. He appeared on Hubert Laws Plays Bach in 2005, the same year that saw an Andrew Hill retrospective released, entitled Mosaic Select 16: Andrew Hill.
Sanford also honoured Luther Vandross on the tribute album, So Amazing: An All Star Tribute to Luther Vandross, and Hurricane Katrina victims on the compilation, Our New Orleans: A Benefit Album for the Gulf Coast. He also generously found time to serve as an adjudicator for the 2005 Young Concert Artists International Auditions.
On 26th February 2006, he accompanied Louise Toppin in a tribute to Bill Brown, the late, great tenor, and professor at the University of North Florida, at Carnegie Hall. Eight months later, Allen would return to Carnegie Hall to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the aforementioned Sphinx organization.
In 2007, Allen appeared on no less than four CDs: Deodato’s Do It Again, Grant Green’s Easy, John Pizzarelli Meets the Beatles, and Introducing Joss Stone. On 23rd Feburary 2008, he participated in “A Musical Celebration of Black History Month” in concert with the New Britain Symphony, led by violist Jesse Levine, and including a performance of William Grant Still’s “Afro-American Symphony”.
Sanford is also a member of the Myrtle Hart Society, which is dedicated to recognizing the achievements of black musicians in the realm of classical music. He has also served on New York State Arts Council’s advisory panel and the Kennedy Center’s National Black Music Colloquium and Competition Executive Board.
Frank Sinatra recordings
That’s What God Looks Like To Me (Stan Irvin/Lan O’Kun)
Reprise RPS 49233 (XNY2101S) (US 45)
Theme from “New York, New York” (Fred Ebb/John Kander)
Reprise RPS49233 (XNY 2103 S) (US 45)
He performs here…