Sanders, Pharoah

views updated May 23 2018

Pharoah Sanders


For the Record

Selected discography


Although largely a tenor saxophonist, the always spiritually-connected jazz great Pharoah Sanders has the ability to blow alto and soprano with equal power, resonating a blues-based sound that has become his signature. The unvarnished, rough-edged sound that Sanders coaxes from his horn, in fact, is one of the most appealing facets of his work. Other tenoristsyoung and oldmay strive for a sleek evenness of timbre from one register of the instrument to the next, but Sanders ideal is quite different: a tough, acidic, rough-edged sound that speaks of direct emotional expression, wrote Chicago Tribune arts critic Howard Reich in 1997. An influential improvisational player who helped establish the avant-garde style during the 1960s and 1970s, Sanders repertoire gave him a new audience in the 1990s; art rockers and free-music fans alike embraced Sanders unbridled, all-inclusive style.

Born Farrell Sanders on October 13, 1940, in Little Rock, Arkansas, Sanderswho, like many great jazzmen, picked up an aristocratic nickname later ongrew up surrounded by musical influences. His grandfather, a school teacher, taught both mathematics and music, while his mother and sisters sang in clubs and gave piano lessons. Sanders himself started out playing drums with his high school band, but soon learned to play tuba, baritone horn, clarinet, and flute as well. In 1959, still a member of his schools band, Sanders picked up tenor saxophone, and the instrument resonated a sound that instantly captivated him. At first, Sanders focused mostly on rhythm and blues melodieseventually backing Bobby Bland at a local club and touring for a short time with a band called the Thrillersuntil his school band teacher and one of his major influences, Jimmy Cannon, introduced him to the jazz style. Aside from idol John Coltrane, Sanders cited Little Rock during the 1950s as a source of significant influence. There were also a lot of guys [in addition to Cannon] who came down from Memphis to work and get paid in the clubs there, he recalled to Martin Johnson of Down Beat in a 1995 interview. I was only in high school, but I would dress upput on a suit, put a little thing here [pointing at his lip] like I had a mustache and some dark shades, and sneak into the club. I had to walk a little different and talk a little different, but I met some good players like Gilbert Capers. It was a good scene until they closed it down.

But despite his dedication to and love for music, Sanders envisioned a career in commercial art rather than in jazz. Thus, upon graduating from high school, Sanders left Arkansas, moving to California in 1959 to study at Oakland Junior College. Playing in rhythm and blues clubs in Oakland and San Francisco while attending college, Sanders soon realized that music was his true calling. It was in Oakland that Sanders met Coltrane

For the Record

Born Farrell Sanders on October 13, 1940, in Little Rock, AR; married Thembi (divorced) and Shukuru. Education: Studied music with Jimmy Cannon, mid-1950s; attended Oakland Community College, Oakland, CA, late 1950s.

Played with Sun Ra Arkestra, early 1960s; recorded and performed with John Coltrane, 1965-67; signed with Impulse! and released a string of acclaimed albums, late 1969-74; recorded softer albums for India Navigation, Arista, and Theresa labels, late 1970s-80s; signed with Evidence and returned to experimental jazz, 1992; collaborated with Maleem Mahmoud Ghania on The Trance of Seven Colors, 1994; signed with Verve Records, c. 1996; released Save Our Children, 1998.

Addresses: Record company Verve Music Group (distributes Vereve, GRP, and Impulse!), 555 W. 57th St., New York City, NY 10019, phone: (212) 333-8000 or (212) 603-7919.

briefly for the first time, and the two men spent time together touring local pawn shops for horns and mouthpieces. Meanwhile, Sanders was developing an interest in the burgeoning jazz scene of the early-1960s, a particularly exciting period for the form marked by ventures into more sonically adventurous territory. Saxophone innovators like Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, and others presented new possibilities for the genre. Such influences led Sanders to begin expanding his own technique.

Driven to take part in the new movement, Sanders left Oakland in 1962 to move to New York City, where he played jazz and blues and took odd jobs to make ends meet. During this time, New York welcomed an influx of young jazz players, and as American jazz was entering a troubled yet exciting new phase, Sanders was one of many voicesalongside others such as Archie Shepp, John Tchicai, and Albert Aylerwho wanted to make waves. By now, Sanders had developed his own unique sound, and like-minded players such as Coleman, Don Cherry, Sun Ra, and other notables began calling. I would go everyday to rehearse with them [Sun Ras Arkestra], Sanders told Johnson. If we werent rehearsing, the Sun would talk to us about different things, because he was very knowledgeable about things I hadnt even thought about. I was amazed by how much he knew about history. Although working steadily with Sun Ras group during the early 1960s, Sanders nonetheless found himself living in poverty, and the hardships multiplied when the saxman struck out on his own. At the time, I didnt have my own place, so when I left [the Arkestra], I was out on the street, Sanders continued. I met quite a few other musicians on the streets. It was hard times. Everyone who stayed in New York City struggled till daylight came. I used to give blood to make five dollars. Since a slice of pizza was only 15 cents and a candy bar cost only a nickel, if I had a dollar, that would take care of you and me all day long!

When Sanders first arrived in New York, he had hoped to contact Coltrane, but found that his phone number had changed. Finally, he found the tenor saxophonist playing at the Half Note club in 1963. I was outside. I couldnt go in because I was dirty and all, but John saw me and let me in, Sanders recalled to Johnson. Playing together that night and exchanging numbers, the two men, both devout Muslims, kept in touch and became friends. Two years later, in 1965, Sanders joined Coltranes band, a position for which he would always be remembered. During the two years spent with Coltranes final group before the master saxophonists death in 1967, Sanders, serving as the second tenor and the innovators unofficial number-one son of the group, stood at the older musicians elbow, helping to tear down the few remaining walls that surrounded free-jazz improvisation. Whereas Coltrane stood as the patron saint of the jazz vanguard, the younger Sanders was like his mischievous sidekick, a strange, cathartic noisemaker whose flights of sonic uproar seemed even more outlandish than those of Coltrane himself, wrote Richard Cook for the New Statesman in 1998. Where Coltrane was all steely majesty, Sanders sprayed notes and sounds everywhere, drawing multiphonic sounds from his saxophone which the leader seemed to be bewitched by. On challenging, dissonant albums with Coltrane such as Ascension, Meditations, and Live at the Village Vanguard Again, Sanders made his first mark on the world of experimental jazz.

Although Sanders had recorded two solo albums prior to Coltranes death1964s First Album and 1966s Tauhid the young musician seemed unsure of what to do next. After death martyred Coltrane, critical interest in the avant-garde also faded. Moreover, the birth of rock music started to steal attention from the jazz scene, and many musicians, unable to compete with the new sound of the electric guitar, fell by the wayside. In spite of such obstacles, Sanders persisted, emerging from his mentors shadow to define his own artistic personality. His own pursuits between 1969 and 1974, during which time he recorded a series of albums for the Impulse! label, often reflected his interest in non-Western idioms, free-form soloing, and highly charged atmospheres. Throughout this period, Sanders managed to distill the spiritual concerns of Coltranes later work into simple motifs that would rise into conflagrations of sound but would then subside into trance-like meditations, noted Washington Post writer Geoffrey Himes in 1998. Key efforts from the saxophonists early years as a soloist included 1969s Jewels of Thought, 1971s Thembi, and 1974s Love in Us All. Another album from these years, 1969s Karma, included Sanders best-known composition, a mesmerizing, 32-minute piece entitled The Creator Has a Master Plan.

Featuring musicians like pianist Lonnie Liston Smith, bassist Cecil McBee, drummer Roy Haynes, violinist Michael White, and vocalist/songwriter Leon Thomas, the above-mentioned recordings exemplified Sanders at his toughest, at the peak of his career. Those guys seemed to understand the way I played, Sanders fondly recalled to Himes. They understood right away that I wasnt confining them to [chord] changes, that I didnt want them to be so intellectual, that I wanted them to play whatever they felt. we listened to each other. No matter what we were doing, we always listened to what everyone else was doing. Some musicians play with lots of energy and play well, but theyre more like show musicians than spiritual types. They dont come to give, and when the ego is involved, everyone can feel it. But the band I had back then, those were spiritual musicians, and they came to give.

During the late 1970s and 1980s, most critics, expecting further experimentation, attacked Sanders for softening his style, with the exception of 1982s The Heart Is a Melody, which included the long saxophone piece Olé. But Sanders himself stood by his work, refusing to let others dictate his musical direction. I have never said I was a jazz player; Im just a player. I get jobs with whoever calls me, you know, and I perform in whatever the situation may be, he said to Johnson. I am most certainly not a jazz player, Sanders emphasized.

However, Sanders revisited his earlier workfull of foreign influences such as African percussion, Indian harmonies, and Islamic tonalitiesthroughout the 1990s. In 1994, after paying tribute to Coltrane with the acclaimed Crescent of Love and contributing a track to the Red Hot + Cool AIDS benefit album, Sanders recorded The Trance of Seven Colors with a group of Gnawan musiciansall descendants of slaves from West Africaled by Maleem Mahmoud Ghania in Morocco. Released later that year, The Trance of Seven Colors remained one of Sanders fondest projects. It was very exciting, he recalled to Johnson about the recording session. They build on the music, add things in layers; everybody gets involved. One piece for the album entitled Peace in Essaouira was written by Sanders himself to eulogize friend and guitarist Sonny Sharrock, with whom Sanders had record in the 1970s and early 1990s, after he passed away shortly before recording sessions took place.

In 1998, Sanders recorded the album Save Our Children, which included an 11 -minute piece showing the musician at his best called The Ancient Sounds. Released by the Verve label later that year and recapturing the spiritual feel of his Impulse! years, the well-received Save Our Children was produced by Bill Laswell, who worked with Sanders previously for The Trance of Seven Colors and 1996s Message From Home. Again, with Save Our Children Sanders called upon musical elements from across the globe. When I was living in Oakland, I played with some Moroccan musicians there, because I felt we both were more into a spiritual kind of thing, he said to Himes. Instead of looking at music as notes, they were looking at it as a feeling theywere trying to project through the notes. I hear that in a lot of music around the worldin India, in Japan, in Africa.

Now in his sixties, Sanders continues to record, explore music from different cultures, give performances with his band, and participate in jazz festivals. Regardless of his activities, no matter where his travels take him or what style of music he plays, Sanders never strays far from his blues roots back in Arkansas. When I was learning to play the blues, he explained to Himes, I had to practice all keys, because all the guitarists played in such weird keys. The guys in the South had a different way of playing the blues, a certain way of attacking the note I dont hear anymore. And they would try anything. There was a drummer called Candy Man who could play a Maxwell House coffee can and make it sound like Miles Daviss trumpet. All those experiences showed me that no limits should be put on music. When I play today, every note is like the blues, because I put the same feeling into whatever I play. You cant just jump out there and start playing; you have to have some feeling behind it. I just open up and blow from the spirit.

Selected discography

With John Coltrane

Ascension, Impulse!, 1965.

Meditations, Impulse!, 1966.

Expression, Impulse!, 1967.


First Album, ESP, 1964

Tauhid, Impulse!, 1966, reissued, 1993.

Izipho Zam, Impulse!, 1969.

Karma, Impulse!, 1969, reissued, 1995.

Jewels of Thought, Impulse!, 1969, reissued, 1998.

Thembi, Impulse!, 1971, reissued, 1998.

Black Unity, Impulse!, 1971, reissued, 1997.

Live at the East, Impulse!, 1971.

Summun Bukmun Umyun, Impulse!, 1972, reissued 1998.

Wisdom Through Music, Impulse!, 1972.

Village of the Pharoahs, Impulse!, 1972.

Elevation, Impulse!, 1973.

Love Is in Us All, Impulse!, 1974.

Harvest Times, India Navigation, 1976.

Love Will Find a Way, Arista, 1977.

Pharoah Sanders, India Navigation, 1977, reissued 1996.

Journey to the One, Theresa, 1980, reissued, Evidence, 1994.

Rejoice, Theresa, 1981, reissued, Evidence, 1992.

The Heart Is a Melody, Theresa, 1982, reissued Evidence 1993.

Live, Theresa, 1982.

Shukuru, 1987, reissued, Evidence 1992.

Oh Lord, Let Me Do No Wrong, Dr. Jazz, 1987.

Prayer Before Dawn, 1988, reissued, Evidence, 1993.

Welcome to Love, Timeless, 1991, reissued, Evidence, 1996.

Ed Kelly & Pharoah Sanders, Evidence, 1993.

Crescent with Love, Evidence, 1994.

(Contributor) This Is Madness, Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool, 1994.

(With Maleem Mahoud Ghania) The Trance of Seven Colors, Axiom, 1994.

Message From Home, Verve, 1996.

Priceless Jazz, GRP, 1997.

Save Our Children, Verve, 1998.



Contemporary Musicians, volume 16, Gale Research, 1996.

Swenson, John, editor, Rolling Stone Jazz & Blues Album Guide, Random House, 1996.


Audio, December 1994; June 1996.

Chicago Tribune, September 27, 1997.

Down Beat, March 1995; April 1995; August 1996; July 1998; August 1999.

Los Angeles Times, February 24, 1995; March 12, 1995; June 20, 1997; January 31, 1999; February 26, 1999.

New Statesman (London), August 14, 1998.

New York Times, February 10, 1999.

Washington Post, April 24, 1998.

Laura Hightower

Sanders, Pharoah

views updated Jun 08 2018

Pharoah Sanders


Seduced by Burgeoning Jazz Scene

Explored Out Jazz with Trane

Recorded with Gnawa Musicians in Morocco

Selected discography


Pharoah Sanders declared in a 1971 Down Beat interview, I play for the CreatorAnd my music talks for me. The jazz saxophonists prodigious body of workincluding, but not limited to, his work with trail-blazer John Coltraneencompasses a wide variety of styles, yet it has always been a reflection of his spiritual searching. With his mastery of circular breathing and a variety of other techniques, Sanders has helped to expand the range of his instrument as well as the parameters of free or avant-garde jazz. I dont separate what I do musically from my spiritual life, he insisted to Boston Phoenix columnist Ted Drozdowski. I cant. So its always about whats most pure, always striving for perfection.

Sanders was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, to a very musical family. My grandfather was a schoolteacher; he taught music and mathematics, he related to Martin Williams of Down Beat. My mother and her sisters used to sing in clubs and teach piano. For myself, I started playing drums in the high school band. Then I played tuba and baritone horn, clarinet and flute. In 1959, I started playing tenor saxophone, still in the school band. It was the sound of the tenor sax that most captivated him, though at first he played primarily rhythm and blues, not jazz. His school band teacher, Jimmy Cannonwhom he has always credited as a major influenceintroduced him to jazz. Even so, Sanders envisioned a career not in music but in commercial art. It was to this end that he headed off to California to study at Oakland Junior College.

Seduced by Burgeoning Jazz Scene

It soon became clear to Sanders that his heart was in music. As he told Down Beat, I had fallen in love with the tenor. He moved to nearby San Francisco and began playing any gig he could get, most of them rock and roll or blues jobs. At the same time, he gravitated toward the burgeoning jazz scene; it was a particularly exciting period for the form, which had expanded upon the free-form possibilities suggested by bebop, venturing into even more sonically adventurous territory. Saxophone innovators Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman and others presented new possibilities for jazz, and Sanders wanted in. He started to expand his technique. When I was living in Oakland, he told Seconds, there was a guy who taught at a music school and he taught me a whole lot about the overtones, how to play more than one note at a time. I practiced how to control that for years and years, and a lot of the time I can just about tell whats going out before I play it.

Eventually, Sanders decided to go to New York City, where most of the jazz innovation of the period was

For the Record

Born October 13, 1940, in Little Rock, AR; married women named Thembi (divorced) and Shukuru. Education: Studied music with Jimmy Cannon, mid-1950s; attended Oakland Community College, Oakland, CA, late 1950s.

Played with Sun Ra Arkestra, early 1960s; recorded solo debut, First Album, ESP, 1964; recorded and performed with John Coltrane, 1965-67; signed with Impulse! label and released Tauhid, 1967; released one album on India Navigation label, 1976; signed to Arista and released Love Will Find a Way, 1977; signed to Theresa and released Journey to the One, 1980; signed to Evidence and released Shukuru, 1992; collaborated with Maleem Mahmoud Ghania on The Trance of Seven Colors, Axiom, 1994.

Addresses: Record company Evidence Music, Inc., 1100 East Hector St., Ste. 392, Conshohocken, PA 19428. Axiom/Island, 400 Lafayette St., 5th Floor, New York, NY 10003; 8920 Sunset Blvd., 2nd Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90069.

taking place. On his arrival in 1962 he hoped to phone John Coltrane but found out that his number had changed. Though he played gigs with some notables, including Don Cherry, Coleman, and Sun Ras Arkestra, he was impoverished. While playing with Ras band, he recollected to Martin Johnson of Down Beat, I didnt have my own place, so when I left [the Arkestra], I was out on the streets. It was hard times. Everyone who stayed in New York City struggled till daylight came. I used to give blood to make five dollars. Since a slice of pizza was only 15 cents and a candy bar cost a nickel, if I had a dollar, that would take care of you and me all day long! Sanders also held short-term restaurant jobs for little or no pay, slept on subway cars or under tenement stairwells, and often ate only the wheat germ he kept in a jar in his saxophone case. He reflected to Johnson that he should have waited to come to New York, but I came and waited it out.

Explored Out Jazz with Trane

He found Traneas tenorist John Coltrane was knownplaying at a club called the Half Note in 1963. Despite his destitute condition, he was invited to play with his idol. The two musicians, both devout Muslims, also became friends, as Sanders informed Martin Williams in a 1968 Down Beat profile: He would call me and we would talk about religion and about life. He was also concerned about what he wanted to do next in his music, about where he was headed. Coltrane famously described Sanders as very strong in spirit and will ; together they began exploring the outer reaches of out jazz, utilizing dissonance and otherwise shattering the established rules of what constituted music in the name of emotional truth; they often outraged purist critics and fans in the process. If Trane was well on his way out of this world before he met Sanders, opined Vibe writer Greg Tate, the two of them boldly took African-American improvisational music where no music had gone before. Some of their stops along the way were Coltranes albums Ascension, Meditations, and Expression.

Tate further noted that Coltrane was rumored to have put down his sax and screamed at times during gigs, as if the instrument couldnt adequately vent his feelings Yet Sanders never had to do that because his soundwhich involved heavy use of multiphonics, a technique in which several tones are blown simultaneously, creating a dense, squealing sound like a thousand pigs being gutted at oncewas such that no single human voice could match its intensity. Coltrane died in 1967, and with him died a great deal of critical interest in the avant-garde; even so, Sanders was only beginning his own odyssey. He had recorded his debut solo release, First Album, on the avant-garde label ESP in 1964; beginning in 1967 he recorded a slew of albums for ABCs cutting-edge Impulse! label. Among his most celebrated work during this period was The Creator Has a Master Plan, from the 1970 disc Karma.

My playing has a lot of energy, Sanders averred to Jazziz magazine. Some people ask why my tunes are so long, he said, adding, I dont think the tunes are long enough. He has employed a number of special techniques to find unique sounds. After hearing a record recorded at the Taj Mahalan ornate, ancient mausoleum in Indiaand marvelling at its echoes, Sanders told Drozdowski of the Boston Phoenix, I had a dream of trying to get that effectof playing in a big cathedral or somethingby circular breathing. This tactic allows him to fill his sax with air and continue to work the valves and produce sound even when he removes his mouth.

Drozdowski complained that in the 1980s Sanders made a string of albums so lightly arranged and jazz-pop flavored, so easily digestible, they seemed like pablum. Yet Sanders himself has never expressed concern about pleasing those who expect out experimentalism in every recording. Indeed, he refuses even more general labels. I have never said I was a jazz player; Im just a player, he asserted to Johnson of Down Beat I get jobs with whoever calls me, you know, and I perform in whatever the situation may be. Even so, many fans of his more venturesome work saw Sanderss contributions to Ask the Ages the 1992 album by guitarist Sonny Sharrock, whod played on some of the sax players early solo workas a return to form.

Recorded with Gnawa Musicians in Morocco

In 1994 Sanders revisited his debt to Coltrane with the album Crescent with Love, though he has been cautious about dwelling on this part of his career; he also contributed a track to the Red Hot + Cool AIDS benefit album. When offered an opportunity to travel to Morocco to record an album with native musicians there, he jumped at the chance. Producer Bill Laswell set up the date for his experimental fusion label Axiom Sanders would meet and record with Gnawa musicians, descendents of West Africans who were brought to Morocco as slaves. The Gnawa specialize in music as a healing ritual; this particular group was led by singer-musician Maleem Mahmoud Ghania. Just before Sanders departed for North Africa, he heard that his friend Sharrock had died; as a result, one piece on the albumthe elegiac Peace in Essaouira was dedicated to his memory. I felt like he was there when we were making the record, Sanders told Drozdowski.

Ever since I first listened to Pharoah years ago, Laswell recalled in Pro Sound News, I heard tones that go back very far, beyond time. I always felt his sound came from somewhere else, and that relates to Gnawa music. Hes always had that presence. He sounded very old when he was really young. I never thought of it as jazz or as the saxophone: it was another kind of energy; it was spiritual music. The result of Sanderss collaboration with the Gnawa players, The Trance of Seven Colors, was released late in 1994. Highly improvisational and daring, the recording goes beyond jazz, roots and folk music into a territory charted more by spiritual movement than physical moment, enthused College Music Journal, concluding by calling it simply brilliant. While a Down Beat reviewer felt that the project yielded mixed results, Trance was named Disc of the Month by CD Review, which ventured, Ghania and Sanders achieve a musical collaboration that sounds very old, yet entirely new.

Pharoah Sanders has never garnered the recognition that many of his colleagues have, yet he has continued to explore the possibilities offered by free-form jazz for over three decades. Practicing yoga daily and experimenting with boxes of mouthpieces in search of just the right sound, he still seemedat the age of 55an enthusiastic youngster. Im just trying to get my music where its supposed to be and not worry about other things, he affirmed to Jazziz. I believe in one God but have no formal affiliation with religion. Nor with politics. Im musically involved with all cultures. I think everyone has something to say musically.

Selected discography

With John Coltrane; on Impulse!

Ascension, 1965.

Meditations, 1966.

Expression, 1967.

Solo releases; on Impulse! except where noted

First Album, ESP, 1964.

Tauhid, 1967.

Izipho Zam, 1969.

Karma (includes The Creator Has a Master Plan), 1970.

Thembi, 1970.

Black Unity, 1971.

Live at the East, 1971.

Wisdom Through Music, 1972.

Village of the Pharoahs, 1972.

Elevation, 1973.

Love Is in Us All, 1973.

Harvest Times, India Navigation, 1976.

Love Will Find a Way, Arista, 1977.

Beyond a Dream, Arista, 1978.

Journey to the One, Theresa, 1980, reissued, Evidence, 1994.

Rejoice, Theresa, 1981, reissued, Evidence, 1992.

Heart Is a Melody, Theresa, 1982, reissued, Evidence, 1993.

Live, Theresa, 1982.

Welcome To Love: Pharoah Sanders Plays Beautiful Ballads, Timeless, 1991, reissued, Evidence, 1996.

(With New York Unit) Naima, King Records (Japan), 1992, reissued, Evidence, 1995.

Shukuru, Evidence, 1992.

A Prayer Before Dawn, Evidence, 1993.

Ed Kelly & Pharoah Sanders, Evidence, 1993.

Crescent with Love, Evidence, 1994.

(Contributor) This Is Madness, Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool, 1994.

(With Maleem Mahmoud Ghania) The Trance of Seven Colors (includes Peace in Essaouira), Axiom, 1994.

Has also contributed to recordings by Sonny Sharrock, Alice Coltrane, the Elvin Jones-McCoy Tyner Quintet, Idris Muhammad, the Franklin Kiermyer Quartet, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, and others.


Boston Phoenix, December 16, 1994; April 28, 1995.

CD Review, April 1995.

College Music Journal (CMJ), October 10, 1994; October 24, 1994.

Down Beat, May 16, 1968; May 13, 1971; August 1991; March 1995; April 1995.

Jazziz, June 1995.

Pro Sound News, October 1994.

Seconds, November 1994.

Vibe, November 1994.

Additional information for this profile was provided by Evidence and Axiom Records publicity materials, 1994.

Simon Glickman

Sanders, Pharoah

views updated May 23 2018

Pharoah Sanders


Jazz musician

In 1965 legendary jazz pioneer John Coltrane astonished critics, fans, and fellow musicians when he invited a second tenor saxophonist—Pharoah Sanders—to join his quartet. Over the next three years Coltrane and Sanders made some of the most controversial music in the history of jazz, breaking down musical barriers and essentially inventing "free" jazz. During the subsequent four decades Sanders continued his musical experimentation. His improvisational style had a profound influence on avant-garde jazz, the acid-jazz movement, and rock musicians such as the Grateful Dead and Santana. He experimented with Asian and African music, composed ballet scores, performed solo in cathedrals, and delighted mainstream club audiences with standard ballads. A master of multi-phonics, or split tones, Sanders could play multiple notes simultaneously. He was famous for his circular breathing, whereby he filled his sax with air and removed his mouth while the instrument continued to play on its own.

"No tenor saxophonist emulates the human voice with more vivid presence and dramatic weight…," wrote Ted Panken in Down Beat in 2005. "One larger-than-life note from Sanders' saxophone can permeate a room." Saxophonist Ornette Coleman told Daniel King of the San Francisco Chronicle in 2006: "If there's anyone who has that quality of freedom, it's Pharoah. He's probably the best tenor player in the world." Sanders was equally adept on the alto and soprano saxophones. By the twenty-first century he had become both a living legend and cult figure. Yet his recordings and performances continued to garner lukewarm reviews. In an interview with Fred Jung for the All About Jazz Web site, Sanders responded to his critics, saying "I'm not a jazz artist…It's all music to me. I just played music and if it's likeable, someone liked the sound, then fine, but I'm not interested in being a jazz musician. I don't consider myself a jazz musician. I don't have anything to do with that word…I let my music speak for itself."

Driven to Succeed in Music

Ferrell Sanders was born on October 13, 1940, in Little Rock, Arkansas. His father taught music in public schools. His mother gave piano lessons and sang in clubs with his sisters. The family was very religious, and Sanders brought his intense spirituality to his music.

Sanders first played drums in his high school band and then tuba, baritone, flute, and clarinet. As a young man, Sanders took his interest in music very seriously. "I bought a clarinet from a guy at church…," he told Panken. "I gave him 20 cents every other Sunday until I could buy it." At the urging of his band director Jimmy Cannon, Sanders switched to tenor saxophone and began listening to jazz—Harold Land, James Moody, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, and his idol, John Coltrane. Sanders played in blues clubs for $10 a night and backed up such famous players as Bobby "Blue" Bland and Junior Parker. In a 1995 Down Beat interview with Martin Johnson, he recalled: "I was only in high school, but I would dress up—put on a suit, put a little thing here like I had a mustache and some dark shades, and sneak into the club. I had to walk a little different and talk a little different, but I met some good players…." Sanders toured briefly with a band called The Thrillers. But his father saw no future for him in music. Sanders told Panken: "I had to go to a friend's house to get in an hour or two of practice or there'd be conflict."

After high school Sanders moved to Oakland, California, where he lived with relatives while studying art and music at Oakland Junior College on a music scholarship. Although he planned on becoming a commercial artist, he continued playing in rhythm-and-blues clubs. As his musical interests expanded, Sanders—known as "Little Rock"—began playing with saxophonists Dewey Redman and Sonny Simmons, drummer Smiley Winters, and pianist Ed Kelly.

With his newfound passion for progressive jazz Sanders moved to New York City in 1961. He played with Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry and rehearsed daily with Sun Ra's Arkestra. It was Sun Ra—the flamboyant bandleader and Egyptologist—who dubbed him "Pharoah" with the nonstandard spelling. However once Sanders left the Arkestra's commune on Manhattan's lower east side, Sanders was out on the streets, working odd jobs, sleeping in the subway, and even pawning his instrument. He told Johnson that "I met quite a few other musicians on the streets. It was hard times. Everyone who stayed in New York City struggled till daylight came. I used to give blood to make five dollars. Since a slice of pizza was only 15 cents and a candy bar cost only a nickel, if I had a dollar, that would take care of you and me all day long!"

Joined Coltrane

Sanders formed his first group in 1963 with drummer Billy Higgins, bassist Wilbur Ware, and pianist John Hicks. He would continue to play with Hicks on into the 1990s. Coltrane heard the group at the Village Gate and invited Sanders to sit in with his band. Although he never formally joined the group, Sanders played regularly with Coltrane. In the liner notes to Meditations Coltrane said of Sanders: "What I like about him is the strength of his playing, the conviction with which he plays. He has will and spirit, and those there are the qualities I like most in a man." However the accolades were hardly universal. In a 1966 New Yorker review quoted by King, Whitney Balliet called Sanders' solos "elephant shrieks, which went on and on and on [and] appeared to have little in common with music." After Coltrane's death in 1967, Sanders played and recorded with his widow, the pianist Alice Coltrane. Four decades later he would play with their son, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane.

Between 1969 and 1973 Sanders recorded a series of free-form highly charged albums for Impulse that reflected his growing interest in non-Western musical forms. His theme was a tune called "Pisces Moon" and he asked singer Leon Thomas to write lyrics for it. The result was Sanders' best-known composition, the 32-minute "The Creator Has a Master Plan," for his 1969 album Karma. Although Karma was mostly ignored by the critics, it topped the Billboard jazz chart for 12 weeks.

At a Glance …

Born Ferrell Sanders on October 13, 1940, in Little Rock, AK; married Thembi (divorced); married Shukuru. Education: Oakland Junior College, studied music and art.

Career: Composer, band leader, musician, tenor and alto saxophones, flute, percussion, 1957-; Little Rock, AK, played blues clubs and toured with The Thrillers, 1957-59; San Francisco Bay Area, played rhythm and blues and jazz, 1959-61; New York City, played with Sun Ra's Arkestra and others, 1961-63, formed own group and recorded first album, 1964, performed and recorded with John Coltrane, 1965-67, performed and recorded with Alice Coltrane, 1968-71, performed and recorded as leader, 1971-; San Francisco, CA, composed for the Lines Ballet, 1992-2005.

Awards: Grammy Award with McCoy Tyner, David Murray, Cecil McBee, and Roy Haines for best jazz instrumental performance by a group for Blues for Coltrane, 1988; Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, 2004.

Addresses: Agent—Martine M.J. Urbach, Lady U Productions, LLC, 484 West 83rd St., Suite 29F, New York, NY 10036.

The Impulse recordings marked the zenith of Sanders' career. He told the Washington Post about his band members from those days: "Those guys seemed to understand the way I played. They understood right away that I wasn't confining them to [chord] changes, that I didn't want them to be so intellectual, that I wanted them to play whatever they felt…the band I had back then, those were spiritual musicians, and they came to give." Nevertheless Sanders told the London Independent: "When I was with Impulse, the engineer wasn't right, and my sax sound was never right…They didn't get nothing from me, and it was like they didn't want me to be heard. I didn't like that sound at all; it's just a bad feeling when you can't even hear yourself and it's your record date. They're just beginning to get close to it now."

With Coltrane's death and the rise of rock music, the audience for progressive jazz all but disappeared. Sanders' most commercial album, Love Will Find a Way, garnered him new fans. However his spiritual-psychedelic performances at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco—with Hicks, Idris Muhammad on drums, and Walter Booker on bass—were legendary and his 1979 "You've Got to Have Freedom" became an acid-jazz anthem. Over the next decades, as Sanders split his time between New York and Oakland, he recorded and performed less.

Toured Africa

In the 1990s Sanders moved to back to California, dividing his time between Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Many of his recordings were reissued and his career revived. He toured Africa for the U.S. State Department and recorded The Trance of Seven Colors in Morocco with a group of Gnawan musicians. The trip inspired Message From Home, Sanders' first major-label recording in many years. He also performed and recorded with Indian musicians.

Sanders collaborated with the Lines Ballet of San Francisco, performing and composing the scores for Alonzo King's 1992 "Ocean," his 1997 "Three Stops on the Way Home," and his 2005 "Before the Blues," based on early archival field recordings from the Deep South.

Still Sanders was plagued with mixed and negative reviews. The years of criticism—he was too far out, too harsh, too soft, he had lost his fire—made him reticent. During gigs he sometimes left most of the playing to his sidemen or left the stage altogether. He told Jung that he had a hard time finding work.

As of 2007 Sanders continued to tour, playing clubs, concert halls, and festivals, solo, with orchestras, with pianist Randy Weston, with the McCoy Tyner Trio, or with his own group that usually included his longtime pianist William Henderson. He continued to experiment with world music and wild improvisations, while keeping alive the music of John Coltrane, bebop, and mellow standards. Sanders told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1996: "I'm more comfortable playing modes, Japanese or Egyptian scales. I might take it out where a lot of players wouldn't. That's what I do best—take it on out. I want to take the audience on a spiritual journey, I want to stir them up, excite them. Then I bring them back down with a calming feeling. A ballad is like a prayer. I'm still a blues player, no matter how outside I get."

Selected discography

Albums (as Leader)

Pharoah's First, ESP-Disk, 1964.

Taudid, Impulse, 1966, 1993. Jewels of Thought, Impulse, 1969, 1998.

Karma (includes "The Creator Has a Master Plan,"), Impulse, 1969, MCA, 1995.

Summum Bukmun Umyun (Deaf Dumb Blind), Impulse, 1970, 1998.

Thembi, Impulse, 1970, 1998.

Black Unity, Impulse, 1971, MCA 1997.

Live at the East, Impulse, 1971.

Village of the Pharoahs, Impulse, 1971.

Wisdom through Music, Impulse, 1972.

Elevation, Impulse, 1973.

Love in Us All, Impulse, 1973.

Pharoah, India Navigation, 1976, 1996.

Love Will Find a Way, Arista, 1977.

Journey to the One (includes "You've Got to Have Freedom"), Theresa/Evidence, 1979, 1994.

Live (includes "You've Got to Have Freedom") Theresa, 1981.

Rejoice, Theresa/Evidence, 1981, 1992.

Shukuru, Theresa/Evidence, 1981, 1992.

Heart Is a Melody, Theresa/Evidence, 1982, 1993.

Africa, Timeless/Bellaphon, 1987.

Oh Lord, Let Me Do No Wrong, Dr. Jazz, 1987.

A Prayer Before Dawn, Evidence, 1987, 1993.

(With McCoy Tyner, David Murray, Cecil McBee, Roy Haines) A Tribute to John Coltrane—Blues for Coltrane, Impulse, 1987.

Moon Child, Timeless, 1989.

Welcome to Love, Timeless/Bellaphon, 1990, Evidence, 1996.

Crescent with Love, Evidence, 1992.

(With Maleem Mahmoud Ghania) The Trance of Seven Colors, Axiom/Island, 1994.

Message from Home, Verve, 1995.

Save Our Children, Verve, 1999.

(With Alan Rudolph and Hamid Drake) Spirits, Meta, 2000.

Albums (with John Coltrane)

Ascension, Impulse, 1965.

Kulu Se Mama, 1965, Polygram, 2000.

Live in Seattle, Impulse, 1965.

Meditations, Impulse, 1965, GRP, 1996.

Om, 1965, MCA, 1989.

Infinity, Impulse, 1966.

Live at the Village Vanguard Again, Impulse, 1966.

Live in Japan, Impulse, 1966, 1991.

Expression, Impulse, 1967.

The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording, 1967, 2001.

Guest Appearances

(Sun Ra) Gods on Safari, 1964.

(Ornette Coleman) Chappaqua Suite, 1965.

(Don Cherry) Symphony for Improvisers, 1966, Blue Note, 2005.

(Don Cherry) Where Is Brooklyn?, 1966, Blue Note, 2005.

Jazz Composers Orchestra, 1968.

(Alice Coltrane) A Monastic Trio, 1968, GRP, 1998.

(Leon Thomas) Spirits Known and Unknown, 1969, BMG International, 2002.

(Alice Coltrane) Ptah, the El Daoud, Impulse, 1970, GRP, 1996.

(Alice Coltrane) Journey in Satchidananda, Impulse, 1971, 2007.

(Various) Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool, Red Hot Org/GRP Impulse, 1994.

(Kenny Garrett) Beyond the Wall, Nonesuch, 2006.


Pharoah Sanders: Live in San Francisco (1981), 2007.



Down Beat, April 1995, p. 20; March 2005, pp. 34-39.

Evening Standard (London), July 25, 2006, p. 38.

Independent (London), August 6, 1998, p. 10.

San Francisco Chronicle, May 12, 1996, p. 44; April 19, 2006, p. E1.

Washington Post, April 24, 1998, p. N5.


"The Ascension of Pharoah Sanders," MetroActive, (October 16, 2007).

"My Conversation with Pharoah Sanders," All About Jazz, (October 15, 2007).

"Pharoah Sanders," Jazz Supreme, (October 15, 2007).

Pharoah Sanders Official Web Site, (October 16, 2007).

"Pharoah Sanders Page," Soulwalking, (October 2, 2007).