The passing of saxophonist Pharoah Sanders this week saw one of the last remaining giants of a golden era for jazz music leave this mortal coil for his beloved higher plane. Ever spiritual, his rich, meditative tenor tones blessed not only some of the finest and most important works of John Coltrane’s career, but left behind a legacy of over 30 albums of music as a leader, and many important collaborations with artists such as Alice Coltrane, Leon Thomas, Done Cherry and more.
Sanders was the grace amongst the thick cauldron stew of the free jazz movement, which isn’t to say his sound couldn’t also be raw and abrasive. He claimed that although he was far from a technical player, his sound came from the heart and soul, and that is why so may jazz lovers hold him in the highest regard.
Pharoah Sanders, whose given name was Ferrell Sanders, was born into a musical family. Both his mother and father taught music, his mother privately and his father in public schools. His first instrument was the clarinet, but he switched to tenor sax as a high school student. As a teenager, Sanders played blues gigs around Little Rock, Arkansas, backing such blues greats as Bobby “Blue Bland and Junior Parker. Following his High School graduation, he moved to Oakland, California, where he lived with relatives and attended Oakland Junior College, studying art and music. Known in the San Francisco Bay Area as “Little Rock,” he soon began playing bebop, rhythm & blues, and free jazz with many of the region’s finest musicians.
In 1961. he moved to New York City but struggled to make a living as a musician. Pawning his beloved horn, Sanders spent a time impoverished and sleeping on subways. It was fortuitous that around this time he connected with free jazz luminaries such as Don Cherry, Sun Ra and Billy Higgins. It was Sun Ra who gave him a place to live, clothes, and encouraged him to use the name “Pharoah”. By 1963, Sanders had formed his own group and one night caught the ear of one John Coltrane. Despite becoming a regular player with Coltrane in 1964, he was never made an official member of the band. What he did do however, was help create some of the most controversial music in jazz at that time – a near total desertion of traditional jazz concepts, like swing and functional harmony, in favor of a teeming, irregularly structured, organic mixture of sound for sound’s sake. It was all about strength and freedom.
Following Coltrane’s death, Sanders worked with ‘Trane’s widow, Alice Coltrane, before finding a home on Impulse! Records, a foundation that saw him release some of the most beloved recordings of his career during the late 1960s and early 1970s, including the 30-minute wave-on-wave of free jazz “The Creator has a Master Plan” from the album Karma. By the mid 1970s, Sanders started playing around with a more commercial sound on several releases. Moving into the 1980s, he found a home with the label Theresa, but as time went on, the end of the decade saw Theresa sold and Sanders was left without a solid home to release his music.
During the 1990s, Pharoah Sanders was in demand again, traveling to African nations, and collaborating with World Music luminaries such as Bill Laswell, Jah Wobble, Umar Bin Hassan of The Last Poets and more. His major-label return came in 1995 when Verve Records released Message from Home, followed by Save Our Children (1998). He mentioned during an interview at the time that despite his pedigree, he had trouble finding work.
During the 2000s, Sanders hit the festival circuit, playing around the globe, including Australia’s Bryron Bay Blues Festival as well as The Melbourne Jazz Festival. Revered in the UK and Japan, he recorded one last momentous album in collaboration with Sam Shepard, who records as Floating Points. Joined by The London Symphony Orchestra, the duo made the album Promises. Heralded world wide as a staggering work of beauty, a 46 minute composition in 9 Movements, it’s dreamlike qualities saw it become the best selling ambient jazz release of 2021, and a stunning curtain call for one of the most talented musicians the world has ever experienced.