Pharoah Sanders, the jazz saxophonist who worked closely with John Coltrane and was a pioneer of the avant-garde movement, has died. He was 81 years old.
No one played the tenor saxophone quite like Pharoah Sanders. When he blew his horn, it was as if he was a dragon breathing fire. He played it so loudly and with such a fierce intensity that what came out of his horn was a startlingly eerie howl, like a hurricane crossed with a flame-thrower; a sound that had a brawny and burning physical presence and yet oozed a sense of deep spirituality. It was raw, tough, and sinewy and yet could also be incredibly tender and beautiful – and to some listeners, it seemed to be a sonic gateway to transport you to another place and time, far beyond the temporal world. To his devotees, Sanders was a spiritual messenger carrying on the astral explorations of his mentor, John Coltrane, and using musical self-expression as a means of self-discovery that allowed him to reach out to touch the infinite and get closer to God or The Creator.
In a career that spanned seven decades and yielded over 30 albums, Sanders, despite having a singular saxophone sound, proved to be a versatile musician who initially was a key architect of an intensely emotional and highly personal avant-garde style that came to be known as spiritual jazz in the 1960s. As his career progressed, he went on to build musical bridges between different musical idioms and the sounds of other cultures. And then, just as it seemed he was going quietly into that good night, a 2021 collaboration with Floating Points, a British DJ and producer, brought him back into the spotlight and proved a remarkable coda to a storied career.
Pharoah Sanders was born Ferrell Sanders in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1940. He was the only child of a father who worked for the city and a mother who was the cook in a school canteen; both taught music on the side and their enthusiasm for it rubbed off on their young son, who started out playing the drums before switching to the clarinet after seeing one for sale advertised on his local church noticeboard. “That’s how I got my first instrument,” he recalled to The New Yorker in 2020. “Seventeen dollars!”
After mastering the clarinet, Sanders set his sights on another reed instrument: the saxophone, and took up the alto variety, which he rented from his high school but eventually, his fascination with the more popular tenor sax took hold, and he sold his clarinet to buy one. Sanders honed his craft by playing in the high school band and found a mentor in the shape of band director Jimmy Cannon, who introduced the young saxophonist to jazz. When Cannon left, Sanders took over leadership of the band while also playing local gigs; sometimes, he would steal into jazz and blues clubs where visiting musicians played and sat in with them.
While his instrumental prowess was developing, Sanders was also nurturing a passion for art, and his talent for painting got him a place at Oakland Junior College in California, where he was able to study art alongside music. Dubbed “Little Rock” by his classmates, Sanders played jazz and rhythm and blues gigs on the side and then moved to San Francisco, where he attended jam sessions. But in 1962, at the age of 22, he decided to move to New York, then dubbed the jazz center of the world, where he believed greater work opportunities lay.
He hitchhiked his way to the Big Apple, but life there was tough at first. No one knew him or could vouch for his musical accomplishments, so work was hard to find. He was homeless for a time, living rough on the streets but was able to rustle up a few dollars to buy food by giving blood, pawning his horn or getting an occasional job as a chef or waiter.
After scuffling for a few years and living from hand to mouth, in 1964 his life changed for the better when he came into the orbit of the cosmic-minded bandleader Sun Ra, who led a large, family-like ensemble called the Arkestra; Ra took him in, provided him with some decent clothing, and crucially, persuaded him to adopt the name Pharoah. He also brought the saxophonist into the ranks of the Arkestra though his time with them was short as Sanders desired to lead his own band. Gradually, he began to make a name for himself and after cutting some sides with avant-garde trumpeter Don Cherry and pianist Paul Bley in 1964, he led his first recording session in September of that year which was released under the title Pharoah by Bernard Stollman’s ESP ‘Disk label.
A momentous inflection point in Sanders’ life came the following year when became reacquainted with John Coltrane, whom Sanders had first met in California in 1961 when the older saxophonist was playing in the Miles Davis group. Coltrane, who’d gone from bebop to modal jazz, was searching for another direction in his music and after his regular drummer, Elvin Jones, couldn’t make a gig, took a chance on a young avant-garde drummer called Rashied Ali, who took Sanders and saxophonist Archie Shepp along with him.
Coltrane, who was fourteen years older than Sanders, was fascinated by these young musicians and their approach to jazz and started going to their gigs. Eventually, he brought them into his new, expanded group. Sanders played on the Coltrane album Ascension – a fiercely avant-garde large ensemble piece that still perplexes the jazz critics – in 1965 but was unsure of what was expected of him. “I didn’t feel like, at the time, that I was ready to play with John Coltrane,” he confessed to The New Yorker. “Being around him was almost, like, ‘Well, what do you want me to do? I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.’ I don’t feel like he needed me or another horn. I think he just felt like he was going to do something different.”
But Coltrane was feeding off Sanders’ approach to the saxophone and finding musical nourishment; and crucially, he was bringing some of that visceral rawness to his own sound, which was becoming more dissonant and exploratory on his recordings in 1966 and 1967.
Coltrane’s producer Bob Thiele realized that Sanders had become an important new voice in jazz and signed him to the Impulse! label in 1966. His debut album for the company, Tauhid – which featured the epic “Upper Eygpt And Lower Egypt,” one of Sanders’ signature tracks with its screaming saxophone over a mesmeric groove – should have been a cause for celebration, but just before it was released, Coltrane died from cancer in July 1967.
Perceived as Coltrane’s heir apparent – or the son to Coltrane’s holy father, as the avant-garde saxophonist Albert Ayler saw it – Sanders picked up the spiritual jazz baton, but as he told JazzTimes, he wasn’t continuing Coltrane’s work. “It wasn’t a carry-over of something that he did,” he stated. “Whole different thing from what I was doing.”
During the next five years, he would release a series of albums on Impulse! – including Karma featuring arguably his most famous piece, “The Creator Has A Master Plan” – which expanded jazz’s frontiers with long, open-ended pieces that featured assorted African percussion and incantatory vocal chants. On those records, he was trying to find a balance between freedom of expression and connecting with his listeners, as he told All About Jazz in 2003: “At that time, when I was making those albums, I was trying to do both kinds of things, play ‘in’ and ‘out,’” he said.
The 1971 album Thembi introduced one of Sanders’ most well-loved pieces, “Astral Travelling,” which encapsulated the saxophonist’s quest to discover other worlds via an explorative journey into sound. The track was written by Lonnie Liston Smith, a pianist who went on to forge his own successful career as a jazz-funk pioneer. “Pharaoh could sound like he was playing two or three different notes at one time,” Smith revealed to this writer in 2012. “With Pharaoh, it was so organic, ‘cos we didn’t rehearse that much – we’d just go and play. You had to really be creative and stretch out. He said, ‘Let’s start at this point and then we just go as far as we want to go but then we always bring it back to where we started because you don’t want to leave the audience out there in space.’ So people started relating to what Pharaoh was doing because of that.”
In the late 60s and early 70s, Sanders also played with Coltrane’s wife, Alice, who began her solo career after her husband’s death. He played on three of her albums, including the remarkable Indo-fusion gem Journey in Satchidananda in 1971. Sanders stayed with Impulse until 1974, but as the decade progressed began hopping from label to label; perhaps the most significant recording during that spell was a short stint at the major label, Arista, in 1978, where he made a slick commercial album called Love Will Find A Way produced by a former Coltrane acolyte, drummer Norman Connors. Though mellower and not as outre as his earlier records – it featured soul singer Phyllis Hyman – Sanders’ tenor saxophone still possessed a blowtorch intensity on some tracks. Amazingly, the record made No. 163 on The Billboard 200 and rose to No. 41 on the US R&B charts.
Come the 1980s, Sanders found a home at the small California-based Theresa label, where he stayed for several albums and recorded in an organic style more in keeping with the sound and spiritual messages of his earlier albums; he also revisited some Coltrane numbers on his own records and appeared on pianist McCoy Tyner’s Blues For Coltrane, a tribute to the saxophonist that reunited him with the Impulse label.
Wider public interest in Sanders blossomed in the 1990s, initiated by his appearance on The Trance Of Seven Colors, a 1994 album with Gnawa musician Mahmoud Guinia that was produced by Bill Laswell in Morocco. Lavishly praised by critics, it helped Sanders find a new audience, as did his appearance on the Red Hot Organization compilation album Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool released the same year. It included a trip-hop remix of Sanders’ signature piece “The Creator Has A Master Plan” and received many accolades, including an album of the year recommendation by the influential Time magazine.
As a result of being festooned with critical plaudits, Sanders’ stock rose significantly, leading to him signing with Verve, where he released two well-regarded albums which reunited him with producer Bill Laswell; the first and best of them, 1996’s Message From Home, was a mash-up of jazz, funk, dub, world music and trip-hop that produced the memorable track “Our Roots (Began In Africa),” which made Sanders hip with younger listeners, as did his exciting collaboration with former Public Image Limited bassist Jah Wobble on the album Heaven & Earth.
Sanders was much in-demand as a special guest in the late 90s and early 2000s, appearing on albums by artists as varied as folk-soul troubadour Terry Callier, hard bop trumpeter Wallace Roney and avant-garde saxophonist David Murray, while also recording his own music for a variety of labels. But after his 2003 LP Without A Heartbeat for the Evolver label – which put him back in the studio with Laswell – he never made another solo album. Nevertheless, he was still in demand as a live performer – often playing at jazz festivals around the world – and the reissue of his Impulse! back catalog in the 2010s saw to it that he didn’t fade into obscurity.
His place in the pantheon of greats was cemented by his becoming a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2016, but his appearances on record were becoming noticeably more sporadic. He did, however, make a surprising and memorable return in 2021 when he collaborated with the British producer and DJ known as Floating Points (Sam Shepherd) on the album Promises, recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra. On the immersive 46-minute project, Sanders was the star of the show; his saxophone – hoarse and braying one minute, soft and seductive the next – was framed by a lush soundscape of delicate keyboards and sonorous strings.
According to the album’s press release, Sanders was impressed by his young collaborator, and despite the 45 years that separated them, they discovered common ground. “I think Sam is a great musician, and one of these geniuses just walking around on this earth,” he said. “I love the way he plays, and I love the way he writes.”
Shepherd, for his part, was awed by his new friend. “Listening to Pharoah play on this piece, it was like the instrument was an extension of his being.” he gushed, “like it was a megaphone for his soul.”
Heaped with universal praise, Promises drew a new audience to Sanders’ music but sadly turned out to be his epitaph, albeit an elegant one that captured his uniqueness as a musician as well as the often underappreciated beauty of his sound.
“People think I don’t talk much, but I try to speak through my music,” he said a year before his death, acknowledging that he made up for his legendary off-stage taciturnity and dislike of interviews by communicating through the reed of his saxophone, which allowed him to bare his soul and reveal his true self.