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Michael Lington

His American Dream: Recent US Citizen Heats Up the Jazz Scene With His Sax

Danish-born jazz saxophonist Michael Lington of Local 47 (Los Angeles) recently achieved one of his life's goals—becoming an American citizen. As a young boy living in Copenhagen, Lington was fascinated by the American performers his prominent bandleader grandfather, Otto Lington, worked with like Shirley Bassey, Josephine Baker, and Fats Waller. “I had this high opinion of American artists and after I turned 16, I had this burning desire to live in the US and be a musician,” he says.

Lington, 39, moved to the US when he was 21-years-old and spent his first three weeks sleeping on the couch of his friend, drummer and member of Local 47, Mark Schulman. “It was a brand new city and I didn't really know anybody—it was very tough,” says Lington. “I probably told myself beforehand it would be easier than it was.”

Now living and performing in the US for more than 18 years, Lington finally became a US citizen in March 2008 at the LA Convention Center, along with 6,000 other people. “I wanted to be a part of a bigger family—a citizen of the United States,” says Lington. “I was sworn in and they gave each of us an American flag; it was a pretty unique experience.”

Lington's successful career in America includes releasing six albums, headlining the 2008 Playboy Jazz Festival, and having numerous top ten radio hits. His style embodies contemporary jazz with his affinity for a pop sound with shades of Brazilian and Latin flavor.

His jazz prowess also didn't hurt during his final interview to become an American citizen.

The US Citizenship and Immigration Service interviewer asked Lington
to describe exactly how he gets paid, and who pays him, since he described himself as self-employed on his application. He told the interviewer that a lot of different people pay him.

“Yeah, but somebody specific has got to be paying you,” the interviewer persisted.

At that moment Lington's song “Tell Me All About It” played on the Internet radio from the interviewer's desk computer.

“As a matter of fact,” Lington said, “I'm getting paid right now.”

From that point on, the interview completely changed for Lington. It turns out the interviewer was a big jazz fan. He was so interested in royalties and how musicians got paid, he even asked Lington about how artists are compensated from jukebox plays. Lington was approved for citizenship soon after.

A Burning Desire

Besides his grandfather being a well-known Danish bandleader, Lington's father played clarinet and sax as a hobby, and was full-time master carpenter and cabinetmaker. When Lington heard American jazz music, he knew he wanted to learn to play an instrument. His father recommended the clarinet since he could help Lington learn to play.

Things got serious for Lington when he joined the prestigious Copenhagen
Tivoli Boys Guard, an honorary group of 100 boys who watch over Tivoli's finest buildings and monuments on festive occasions. There he received an extensive and serious musical education from age nine to 16. He learned pieces like Mozart's clarinet concerto, but Lington really wanted to play jazz on the saxophone like his idol, David Sanborn of Local 802 (New York City). “I was very influenced by American jazz music fused with R&B, pop, and funk during the '80s,” says Lington. “The clarinet really wasn't part of that, so the sax caught my attention, that's what I wanted to do.”

Once Lington got his hands on a saxophone at age 16, he taught himself how to play thanks to his already extensive musical training. He looked to see who Sanborn had been influenced by and discovered jazz greats like John Coltrane and Phil Woods of Local 802. Lington was also inspired by vocalists like Stevie Wonder of Local 5 (Detroit, MI), Ray Charles, and James Taylor of Local 802, and began playing the sax by imitating albums he enjoyed listening to. “I loved studying the lyrical approach of vocalists,” says Lington. “Melody has always been such a thing for me.”

Lington started playing around Copenhagen and fortuitously met American musician Mark Schulman who later offered him a couch to sleep on. Schulman agreed to take Lington back to the US with him after Schulman's six-month tour around Europe was over—providing Lington was still serious. Lington was, and he made the big move to America.

Taking Care of Business

Lington began his career in Los Angeles, playing everything from weddings to Bar Mitzvahs in order to jump-start his career as a working musician. He quickly learned that there is a standard repertoire of American songs that he needed to know to play those gigs, and he crammed to master as many gigging standards as he could.

At a New Year's Eve party in Beverly Hills, Lington played with a keyboardist from Local 47 member Bobby Caldwell's band. The keyboardist mentioned that Caldwell was looking for a new sax player, and from that point, Lington had a steady job with the band touring the world. “I ultimately got my first recording contract from the Bobby tour,” says Lington.

As a travelling musician, Lington had the opportunity to return to Denmark, almost seven years after he moved to the US, and to perform at a concert hall in his hometown of Copenhagen that had significant sentimental value. “I used to walk past that concert hall when I went back and forth to school and I dreamed of playing there,” says Lington.

An early move in his career was to join the AFM. Seeing the increased opportunities for jobs that came from membership, Lington signed up as soon as he could. “What's good about the union is that you're among your peers and the AFM looks out for musicians,” says Lington. “They make sure you receive royalties for things like TV shows and movies—you feel like you're a part of a family.”

Giving Back

Besides performing at Guantanamo Bay for the troops, Fredensborg Castle for Denmark's Crown Prince Frederik's wedding and the Queen's birthday, Lington likes to give back to his local community, especially children. “I had good fortune when I grew up,” says Lington. “I had access to music education and instruments and I realize a lot of kids don't have that.”

He takes part in Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation, a nonprofit organization that donates instruments to poorly funded school music programs and also volunteers for the L.A. based organization, Create Now!, which uses the creative arts to mentor children who have been abused, or are homeless, runaways, teen parents, former gang members, or were incarcerated. “I like to go mentor them and tell them music is a blessing and that anything is possible.”

One young man was in a juvenile detention center and on a bad path before Lington started giving him sax lessons. Today, this young man sends Lington e-mails updating him on his music studies. He is now playing first chair in his school's band. “It really puts a smile on my face,” says Lington.

Besides his music-related charity work, Lington keeps up with his own music and recently released his latest album, Heat, on which he co-produced seven tracks. “I've always been very involved in the production of my CDs and I also like to collaborate with other artists—both on writing songs and producing,” says Lington.

He tours mostly on weekends, but still enjoys the basics and getting to the core of his music. “One of the things I love to do is practice,” says Lington. “I spend a lot of time sitting in my house just practicing—having a good time.”

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