Pharoah Sanders in December of 2006 (Dmitry Scherbie New York https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pharoah_Sanders_photo.jpg), „Pharoah Sanders photo“, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode)

Pharoah Sanders, the tenor saxophonist who progressed the spiritual jazzness of John Coltrane and influenced a string of aspiring saxophonists along the way, died on September 24. He was 81.

Sanders’ record label, Luaka Bop, shared the news on social media. “We are devastated to share that Pharoah Sanders has passed away. He died peacefully surrounded by loving family and friends in Los Angeles earlier this morning.” The cause of death was not shared.

Of the many times I was fortunate enough to see Sanders perform, the most memorable will always be that night in 1966, in the east Bronx at the Monterey Bar, a small neighborhood spot on Bronxwood Avenue. 

My friend and I couldn’t believe it: what was he doing playing at this little joint on a summer’s night? Maybe it was another Pharoah, maybe he wouldn’t show but no, there he was standing near the bar. We quickly paid our five dollars and took a table two feet from the tiny stage. 

The joint was empty but then again, it was basically a bar that presented local talent on the weekends, R&B funk groups or reggae bands. For the entire evening not more than ten people were in the audience. For us it was a dream come true sitting two feet from “Pharoah” as his tenor hawked, screamed, hollered, he extended the boundaries of normal tenor notes going up and beyond, that was some powerful soul. 

As the years scurried on and my jazz palate advanced, no one can ever tell me on that summer’s night, Pharoah played the best show ever. I mean we could hear him breathing through his horn and see steam appear, we were that close. No, that was more than a performance, it was a galactical mesmerizing experience, it was a blessing. 

My unforgettable experience took place during the period Sanders was recording with John Coltrane from 1965’s ”Ascension!” to 1967’s ”Expression.” Following Coltrane’s death in 1967, Sanders briefly performed with his widow Alice Coltrane (including her classic album “Journey in Satchidananda” and “The El Daoud”) before moving on to create his own path. He released his now renowned masterpiece “Karma” in 1969, on the Impulse! label, which was home to Coltrane’s groundbreaking releases. The album featured one of his most famous compositions (that even today fans can name after two notes), “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” Even today its lyrics are extremely relevant: “The creator has a working plan/Peace and happiness for every man,” sings vocalist Leon Thomas, just before he begins yodeling. His other albums on Impulse! are “Black Unity,” an album of roaring improvisation, and “Thembi.”

“Many great things must come to an end and I spent the first few days on my first tour with Pharaoh dreading the day my days of playing with him would come to an end. One night in Hamburg, Germany we played a show that was so amazing I forgot about the audience—the energy went beyond the venue,” said drummer and composer Will Calhoun. “Pharaoh was smiling after that show and gave me a very noticeable nod of affirmation. I went to bed that night thinking it’s best I celebrate every moment with Pharaoh rather than waste time thinking about the last time we’ll play together.” 

During the 1970s and ’80s Sanders continued his steady output of music, both as a leader and sideman for fellow jazz musicians like McCoy Tyner, Sonny Sharrock, Idris Muhammad, Kenny Garrett, Ornette Coleman and Will Calhoun. The NEA Jazz Master won a Grammy Award in 1989 for best jazz instrumental performance for the collaborative album “Blues for Coltrane: A Tribute to John Coltrane.”

Last year, Impulse! released the definitive jazz invocation recording “A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle, recorded a few months after “Ascension.” It features Sanders as a crucial addition to Coltrane’s quartet, expanding on his musical statement. (“Live in Seattle,” a separate album recorded during the same engagement). Albert Ayler’s famous formulation went like this: “Trane was the Father, Pharoah was the Son, I am the Holy Ghost.”

Sanders was an organic musician. We can call him an avant garde warrior or a spiritual source, or a performer of the African diaspora. He played all of that but his music, like Coltrane’s, flowed from a spiritual force, a Black experience that reflects the Black church, cotton fields plantations, the call and response, the shoutin’ moanin’ wailin’ from the ancestors, who Randy Weston always referenced with pride.  

The saxophonist did become a spiritual elder which was reflected in his music and way of life. His natural force of expressiveness surely influenced a younger generation of musicians like Kamasi Washington and Nubya Garcia, who are transforming his music into yet another context of the diaspora. 

In 2021, he returned to the studio to record what would be his final album, “Promises” (Luaka Bop label), in collaboration with the electronic musician Sam Shepherd, who records as Floating Points, and the London Symphony Orchestra, that was instantly hailed as one of the year’s best. 

Pharoah was born Ferrell Sanders on Oct. 13, 1940, in Little Rock, Ark. His love of music was inspired by his grandfather, who led the church choir.  After high school, he switched from the clarinet to the alto saxophone, before finally deciding on the tenor saxophone. Sanders moved to the West Coast around 1959, attending Oakland Junior College, where he often sat in with saxophonists like Sonny Simmons and Dewey Redman. While there, Sanders first met and befriended John Coltrane, though they wouldn’t work together until many years later.In 1962, Sanders relocated to New York, looking to join the city’s fertile jazz scene, where Coltrane was a reigning figure. Sanders’ landing in New York was rocky, however, resulting in intermittent homelessness as he practiced, sporadically, with Sun Ra and his Arkestra. (Sun Ra, it’s said, was the one who encouraged him to take the name Pharoah). In 1965, he joined Coltrane’s band. “I couldn’t figure out why he wanted me to play with him, because I didn’t feel like, at the time, that I was ready to play with John Coltrane,” Sanders said. “He always told me, ‘Play.’ That’s what I did.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *