In 1983, David Bowie hired a horn section to go out on his "Let's Dance" tour. "He hired me and two other saxophone players," recalls Pickett. "One of them was someone I'd grown up with in California. The other was Steve Elson, someone I knew from junior high school. The other saxophonist, Stan Harrison, I had met in New York. They had both done the recording. (Let's Dance, EMI, 1983). I hadn't. Then [Bowie] hired the three of us to be the horn section for the tour."
Without his tape recorder, Pickett began to write down music as it came to him, and he had saxophonists with some down time on the tour to help him eventually hear what it sounded like. The music eventually came to light on an album Pickett did with a band he would soon form called the Borneo Horns.
"We had a lot of free time because Bowie didn't like to sing more than two or three times a week. So we had time off and time at the sound check. They would sound check the rhythm section first, so we would play around. I started writing things for us to play while we were waiting our turn at the sound check. That's where the music came from initially. Then we did some gigs in New York. Somebody heard us on WKCR. Geoff Muldaur liked what he heard and signed us to his label. We made a record (Lenny Pickett with the Borneo Horns, Carthage Records) and did a bunch of traveling. It was an accidental thing. Mostly because of way too much free time on a fancy rock n' roll tour."
He adds, "I'd been making music for awhile, but I didn't have anything that was public in the way that a recording was. I'd been doing things that were under score for theater pieces and I'd been doing modern dance scores for companies. But that was the first time I actually recorded. It wasn't terribly commercial, so the next opportunity didn't come along immediately. It was something that was a little far fetched. There weren't that many situations where you had three saxophones and a drummer. It didn't fall into any categories and it was a little difficult too find another label that was interested. So I had other things to do."
At that point he was playing with the Saturday Night Live band and he was also one of the house arrangers. As a person who prefers staying at home in New York to doing the amount of touring many musicians have to do to make a living, the television gig was a great opportunity.
"That was the answer to my problem. The solution for everything. Lorne Michaels [SNL producer] needed a saxophonist and, bless him, he hired me. I've been there ever since. He's been a fantastic employer. It's been an amazing opportunity because I get to play with Steve Turre and Ron Blake and Alex Foster and James Genus and Earl Gardner. I have a band full of experts. All of them better educated than I am," he says with a self-effacing chuckle. "And I get to be the bandleader. It's a pretty remarkable opportunity."
The band does a warmup session for the live audience at NBC and plays during commercial breaks. A decade into it, Pickett became the musical director, opening a whole new can of worms with more challenges. Pickett has been up for the task and learned the ins and outs of the industry.
"I became responsible for all the logistics of the band. And also, at least, if not writing stuff, knowing every bit of music that went into the show. Staying on top of that. Reading all the scripts. Interacting with writers and producers. The attorneys for the show regarding music rights. All sorts of things like that. Being part of the musical organization there has put me in a situation where I pretty much know everyone in the building. Someone has to light the musicians and their music. Someone has to put the clothes on the musicians... It's a lot of responsibility. It's a very complex machine and it's a really interesting place to work. The level of cooperation is just fantastic. The level of experience is beyond description."
"We have people that have been working there since the '40s. They started working in television before there was television," he notes. "Our lighting designer is 91 next year. He's been with the show since the beginning and he's been with NBC since he started his career. You watch these people who know how to do every amazing technical thing that has to get done to make that work. It's a very technical medium. There's a visual and audio component. The lighting has to happen and the amplification of the sound has to happen. It's pretty complicated. So in order to make that work, you have to learn a lot about the technology to immerse yourself in the culture and meet all the people and work with them. It's very collaborative. I've developed a lot of skills there that I'll never need anywhere else. There's nowhere for me to use it."
Jazz is for me the most important cultural revolution of the 20th century and I'm proud to
play this kind of music. For me, jazz is more than a kind of music, it's the best way of playing
any musical material.