Pharoah Sanders: Jewels of Thought
It’s a spring afternoon in a comfortable section of South Central Los Angeles. The richly textured tone of a tenor saxophone wafts across the lawn of a two-story house, blending with the dull hum of I-10 not far off. The moment suggests a number of things: a career that balances music-making and homemaking, and one that’s active, generating a healthy income.
Both home and tone belong to Pharoah Sanders, the latter being perhaps one of the most valuable and recognizable sounds to survive the ’60s avant-garde. I hear it, a bit disarming in its domestic setting, as I cross the lawn to speak with the man whose fearsome reputation endures as one who breathes fire and rasp.
The irony is that at the age of 66, the white-bearded veteran’s music has long since grown to a full range of moods and styles. It was way back in the late ’60s, after his profile was raised high by a two-year stint in John Coltrane’s final lineup, that Sanders began to expand his sound. Subsequent recordings, on Impulse! Records in the ’70s, and a succession of independent labels through the ’80s and ’90s, brought forth an accessible, at times gentle, fusion of R&B, soul and world influences.
These days, Sanders works an average of four months a year, with set lists that are as likely to feature him blowing a familiar ballad as burning through a high-energy modal workout. He prefers to front his own quartet, though on occasion he will appear as a featured guest with such diverse headliners as Carlos Santana and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, as well as with ensembles led by McCoy Tyner and Kenny Garrett.
Though Sanders can point to a catalog of recordings that includes almost 40 releases as a leader since Pharoah’s First (ESP-Disk) in 1964, his recent studio activity has been limited to a few special projects: playing on Garrett’s 2006 album Beyond the Wall, and back in ’03, recording an album in Tokyo, The Creator Has a Master Plan (Venus). (Japan continues to hold Sanders dear; he often tours there, and the Japanese division of Universal Music reissued all 11 of his Impulse! albums in mini-LP format this past summer.)
Whatever the context, Sanders retains the power to surprise and delight (a New York Times review of a Blue Note gig found the normally sedate writer using an exclamation point to express his awe). For example, our conversation revealed that he enjoys listening to New Age music, specifically the Norwegian duo Secret Garden, and that he has a four-year-old daughter who teaches him her little dances. (Her name, with little surprise, is Naima.)
Dance, as many of Sanders’ fans have witnessed, is a show-closing element of his recent performances: a joyful bit of foot-stomping and saxophone-swinging that elicits smiles, hand-clapping and an almost Pentecostal feel. “I try to uplift the people in the audience and bring them into the music,” he says. “Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it’s easy, sometimes people are waiting for you to get there so it’s easier if that’s happening. It’s a very spiritual kind of thing.”
And what about those moves?
“Well, I haven’t got that exactly like I want it but I’m working on my little dance. One time I told John Coltrane, ‘Hey, man, we gotta get us a little dance.’ And he said ‘OK, I’m gonna work on it.’”
Hang on. Coltrane was thinking about choreography?
“He always had a little dance of his own. I remember one time I saw him at Birdland and he went from one end of the stage and back, playing. I’d seen him just go down to his knees or to the tip of his toes, but I’d never seen him do that. He was going back and forth; he was just so excited. I needed to find me a different dance, and I got it almost together now.”
The discussion continued on a similar course for 90 minutes, Sanders speaking of recent projects, future plans and older days, like when he went by his given name of Ferrell.
JAZZTIMES: Can we go back to when you first started to think of yourself as a musician, in Little Rock, Ark.? I’ve read that both of your parents were music teachers.
No, no. I’ve read some interviews and a whole lot of things have been said that I didn’t say. My mother was a housewife and she cooked at the schools. And my father worked for the city department. My mother’s father, my grandfather, he taught math and music at school. And he was head of a church choir and all that stuff. But I was around music all my life. I lived near a church that went on almost every night. Some people called it a sanctified church; they wore white dresses, white stockings, white pants, all that stuff. They’d be loud and go until about one, two o’clock in the morning. It was the only church like that; most churches were Baptist. I belonged to a Baptist church.
JAZZTIMES: You started playing music in high school, right?
Yeah, it was Sipio Jones High School. One year I went back home and they had torn it down, which made me feel a little sad about it, but nothing I could do. Jimmy Cannon was my band teacher—he’s the one that got me started. I owe everything to him. He was a very serious-minded person and a great trumpet player. Very outgoing, but when it came to music you better be quiet because he might throw something at you. I used to listen to him so much and I didn’t want to go to any other class.
I found a way to cut a lot of my classes so I could come up to the band room and listen to him. I would miss English class and it got to be where the teacher asked me, “Mr. Sanders, are you going to come to class this week? You know the test is gonna be Friday.” But she understood. Everybody in the school knew where I was. Mr. Cannon started putting some music in front of me to read so we got started reading different overtures and whatever. He loved me ’cause I was very serious about the music and I was serious about the high school band. I felt like that was home for me.
JAZZTIMES: Do you remember the first tune you ever played all the way through?
It was a spiritual tune, a church kind of a hymn. A lot of times they played this song at funerals. [Hums melody] I had to do a solo at the church my mother and I belonged to. I just played the melody about three or four times, then I said I better go and end it.
JAZZTIMES: What instrument did you start on?
I was playing the clarinet. I started listening to Benny Goodman and all them guys. After the clarinet I went to the alto. And then later on I played tenor. So I was borrowing a friend’s alto and I used the tenor from the school. The reason I switched to tenor is I wanted to be a player at the time; I wanted to learn how to play the blues and all that. I kept hearing the blues on the saxophone. I didn’t hear no clarinet in my hometown. And the only jobs around in the clubs were blues jobs. My father had a collection of records and I would listen to tunes like “After Hours,” “Blue Flame,” “Caldonia” with Louis Jordan. I learned a lot from playing the blues down in the South, and there were a lot of great blues singers in Arkansas, like Albert King and a lot of others.
JAZZTIMES: Did you get any professional advice from Mr. Cannon?
I used to ask him a lot of things, and I guess what he really wanted to do was play. He had his day thing at the school, to try and keep money coming in, but he used to tell me, “The only thing about playing this kind of music, you be traveling.” And he wasn’t a person that liked to travel. He said you may not want to do that. He didn’t tell me not to, he was just talking about himself. He was right. You do have to travel, flying here and there. I haven’t stopped doing that.
JAZZTIMES: Speaking of that, where have you been most recently?
We started out in New Orleans at the Jazz & Heritage Festival [Sanders’ quartet performed on April 28, 2007]. After that I went to New York City to play with Kenny Garrett’s band for about a week, then back to L.A for one day and the next day to Australia for just one hit at a festival in Melbourne. And now back.
JAZZTIMES: I caught your Jazz Fest set. From where I was sitting, the crowd really loved it, especially when Terence Blanchard sat in.
Yeah, it was a nice feeling there; I enjoyed it. It was my first time playing with Terence, but I’ve always loved his playing. I heard him playing live and later on his CDs. He plays beautifully—he plays beautiful piano, too. I asked some people, since we were there in New Orleans, “Do you think maybe he would come up and play on a tune?” So all of a sudden he came and had his horn out.
JAZZTIMES: What about Kenny Garrett? It seems you’re almost always playing with him when you come through New York lately. How did you guys first come together?
Well, he liked my playing and we just got together. I really enjoy his playing, every bit of it. His solos, his tunes and his whole concept. Plus, his qualities as a person I really love. He speaks different languages, like Japanese. He would always come in and sit in with my band when I was in town and when he did, he changed the whole thing around. He’s good at that—how to change and make a different concept of the music. So I’m learning from him, too. I can be kind of stagnant in what I’m doing, but he’ll wake me up. I know sometimes he wears me out but he likes it; he likes everything to be right. He’s a perfectionist in his own way. I like that because it reminds me so much of the East Coast, New York City. Those guys, they don’t be playing around. They just hit and go do it. A lot of the energy is coming from New York City.
JAZZTIMES: How do you guys decide what to play when you’re co-headlining?
Usually he does. He’ll have some written music for me to look at; a lot of it’s just from the record session that we did [Beyond the Wall, Nonesuch, 2006]. I should know it by memory by now, but sometimes I just need it just for a reference.
JAZZTIMES: You’ve been playing a lot of music associated with Coltrane lately. What was the ballad you played in New Orleans?
It could have been “Say It (Over [and Over] Again).” [Hums melody] This idea of playing Coltrane, it’s coming from me. Sometimes when I can’t think of things to play I say, ‘Let’s play “Naima”’ or some other tune of his. Usually I come to the bandstand with about three or four tunes, but I’ve found when we have less time it’s best that we play maybe just one or two so at least we can all play. Then you have to really try to figure out how to end this fella, because they have problems if you go over the time limit.
JAZZTIMES: Especially at festivals.
Yeah, so I just try to stay in contact with what’s happening. And I have a great band. William Henderson plays piano, but he plays several instruments—guitar, drum, bass, vibes, all-around musician. On bass I have Nathanial Reeves; he was working with Kenneth [Garrett] in New York so he went out to Melbourne with me. And I have Joseph Farnsworth on drums, a great person and a great player.
JAZZTIMES: Did you play out in any of the clubs after your set in New Orleans that afternoon?
No, it was a pretty tight little tour I had. I had to go to New York City the next day. Then that flight to Australia. I don’t know how many hours it was but it was a very long flight.
JAZZTIMES: I heard when you were down there you found a new tenor saxophone that you liked.
Yeah, it had a nice feeling to it. I think it was a Temby. It plays the way it looks: nice and very glossy, nickel-plated, high-grade. I just have to adjust it to the way I play and then I’ll be straight with it maybe. But you know, I play on a Selmer [Mark VI]—that’s my main instrument, the only horn that I know how to play on that I really like. I like to try out other instruments, play them around the house for a while and then maybe bring one out for a gig.
JAZZTIMES: Do you ever play soprano anymore?
I always practice on my tenor more than anything else. I never pick up my soprano unless I’m doing a recording, like one time on that tune called “Astral Traveling.” But after that I put it back in the closet because I just don’t like the sound that I’ve been getting, even right to today.
JAZZTIMES: Your music-store story reminds me that you and Coltrane first met in San Francisco while shopping for mouthpieces.
In fact, [in Melbourne], I was in there looking for a mouthpiece like I always do, and wound up buying something else. But John could pick up any mouthpiece, and he’d get the same sound. His sound was in his own embouchure, very unique stuff—that’s the way I heard it.
JAZZTIMES: So you’re still looking at different mouthpieces?
I’ll look at some mouthpieces when I’m in other countries, and ask around, “Is anything different?” But not so much now. I’m just trying to find ways to repair my instrument, I should have my instrument checked out more often than I’ve been doing. I usually wait till the last minute when everything is falling apart. I hate for even a little slight funny noise; it bothers me. I remember [the John Coltrane album] Live at the Village Vanguard Again!, we played “Naima” on there. I felt so bad because I was trying to play some harmony with John and my key got stuck and it was a wrong note! [laughs] It’s on the line of the tune as John’s taking the map to go out. It was an A-flat key that always gets stuck on that tenor. I felt like John must have said, “Man, what’s this guy doing?” He never said anything to me about it but I knew it was wrong. I could have maybe overdubbed that little note, but I wasn’t the boss. Every time I hear that tune—“Uh-oh! Here comes the wrong note!”
JAZZTIMES: Speaking of Coltrane, I think of you both as “saxophone scientists,” trying to extend what the instrument can do. Would you agree?
I just feel like I’m just trying to find different ways to express myself and that’s what that’s all about. It’s all like a concept. I work on different concepts all the time. I don’t wanna sound like this or that, so I change up something. So it keeps me going. But one time he asked me on the telephone, did I know how to play a low A on my horn, and I told him, “I don’t think I do.” He said he heard [R&B alto saxophonist] Earl Bostic do that, and I said, “Really?” That’s a [half] step down [from the lowest playable pitch of the tenor]. [Ed. Note: Coltrane performed and recorded with Bostic in the early 1950s.] And this was without putting your knee into the bell as you blow [to produce overtones] to make the A below the B-flat. There was no fingering to do that then, so I started running wild, trying to figure out how could he do that? I didn’t know how, unless he was fingering the B-flat in some weird kind of way.
JAZZTIMES: So did Coltrane ever reveal the secret?
I don’t know that John knew how to do it! But he always changed his sound around, at various points, when he made different albums, I would notice that it would be a broader sound, or however at the moment. So he was always into finding different ways to express himself.
JAZZTIMES: Speaking of different ways, I’ve noticed that you like to sing into the bell of the saxophone horn. When did you start doing that?
When I was in high school. And I was told that it’s not a good sound. Then I stopped doing it for a long time when I left Arkansas and moved to California. Then I came to New York City and I started doing it again. I felt like I was putting my whole soul or whatever into that. I did it on one album called Tauhid [Impulse!, 1966]. Now, sometimes I’m humming and sometimes I may be doing a certain tonguing, a flutter kind of a sound. That’s about the best way I can really explain it. But I would listen to Earl Bostic do things like that on his records, a sophisticated kind of music that he be playing, and he’s humming all through it. I thought it was a really great sound.
JAZZTIMES: I’m sure you’re familiar then with Dewey Redman’s style of playing where it sounded like he was speaking while blowing.
Yeah, his thing was talking and playing at the same time. I loved that too. I never heard him do it in Frisco when we were there at the same time, only when he came to New York City. I don’t know how he did that; my thing is not quite like that.
JAZZTIMES: If we can get back to Coltrane: What was he like to talk to? What sort of instructions would he give you?
Musicians don’t usually talk too much; we just greeted each other. [Drummer] Rashied [Ali], he talked to John a lot at the time, but I was still trying to figure out what’s going on. If we were going to play a tune, most he told me was “You take the second solo” or something like that. He didn’t care what I played, he just wanted me to play.
JAZZTIMES: Never anything on paper?
Well, sometimes he would—a key, some tonality or rhythm. He would write it out. It wasn’t something that he jumped into; he was prepared.
JAZZTIMES: Did you ever rehearse before recording?
No, his thing didn’t work that way. [His instructions] might be there for you to look at and that was it. He’d come and say, “Well, that’s it, fellas, that’s it.” He might have something like a sectional rehearsal, like get together with Alice [Coltrane] on the piano and whatever he told her I just listened and went from there.
JAZZTIMES: And then one take ...
If it sounded good to him, that was his conviction; everything was so strong. He wasn’t about playing a lot of takes and rehearsing and all that.
JAZZTIMES: When Coltrane passed away in 1967, did you have a sense you were carrying on…
No, absolutely not. John did his own thing; I did my own thing. It wasn’t a carry-over of something that he did. Whole different thing from what I was doing.
JAZZTIMES: I see. What about some of the guys who came after Coltrane? Did it feel like his sound was living in the sounds of other players like Gato Barbieri, Steve Grossman, Michael Brecker and, of course, Archie Shepp?
Well, although they may have learned the way to listen differently from John, they sounded like themselves to me. I heard Gato when he was working with Don Cherry. Don told me, “You should hear this guy, man.” So he was another person who was playing like that, not with a straight sound or tone. I liked what he was doing at the time.
JAZZTIMES: It’s interesting that both Barbieri and yourself have been known for playing with a sound rich with overtones.
I guess you would call it that. I never found that name until later on, but I always took a liking to people who try to work on things—the upper and middle and the lower part of the instrument.
JAZZTIMES: You both recorded for Impulse! Records around the same time, working with larger groups. Did you connect with what Barbieri was doing?
No, I didn’t. I was doing my thing. And in the ’70s I started playing other tunes, like ballads and stuff like that.
JAZZTIMES: Less avant-garde, like on your last couple of Impulse! albums?
Yeah, up to that time people never heard me play ballads. I just wanted people to feel like I had a warm side, too, not just playing one kind of a thing. I like to play some inside things and some very colorful type of music. I’m still not all the way in. I’m still a little out with a lot of things—I call it out because I can’t write it down. I used to play those ballads a long time ago, but when I got to New York City [in 1961] I was so excited about what was going on that I stopped playing them. I got a job working with Sun Ra, so you know what I mean.
JAZZTIMES: You worked with Sun Ra? How did that come about?
I was working as a chef in the basement of a club in the Village called the Playhouse, making fish and chips, ice cream, espressos, stuff like that. And Sun Ra would be working there almost every night. He had about seven or eight pieces. I didn’t know everybody but I knew Marshall Allen, a great alto saxophonist, and John [Gilmore]—he played [bass clarinet and tenor saxophone.] So one time somebody came down and asked [if someone would] get on the door to collect admission. I got a little cigar box and helped them out. At that time all the money they were getting was off the door. It was about a dollar and a half per person. I let Sun Ra know that I played tenor and if you need one sometime just let me know. He let me sit in and play so that’s how that started. I only played with him for a little while.
JAZZTIMES: I guess you had your tenor with you just in case.
I had my horn with me everywhere I went. Every time you see me I had my horn; I had no place to put it. I would go out there in Washington Square Park and sit on a bench all day long, kept my eye on my horn. That’s all I had.
JAZZTIMES: What about playing for tips?
No, I didn’t do that. Maybe I should have but I wasn’t even thinking about nothing like that. When I got to New York, I was like a survivor, on the street. It was wintertime, it was cold. I got that job but I didn’t have nowhere to stay after I finished. So I kinda hid in the restaurant on the floor. But in the daytime if I got six cents I could buy a Snickers; for about 15 cents, a slice of pizza or something like that. I don’t know what it is today. I got that job and I asked him about me getting paid. He said, “Well, I can’t pay you right now.” Then he told me you can’t be eating the food, but I ate anyways. I remember he was a jazz pianist and I think that he owned the whole place. He played pretty good but at the time I guess life wasn’t great for him, the way he was acting.
JAZZTIMES: I can’t help being amazed at how far you have come since then. Did you ever have a feeling that you’d one day be OK, with your own house and family?
I wasn’t even thinking about nothing like that. I was only thinking about music. I wanted to play. I wanted to play with the best musicians in the world. But in New York City, it’s such a different lifestyle. I was still surviving then. I was like a bird or whatever, finding whatever I could get. I remember Eric Dolphy used to say, “Yeah, man. You should go down there [to a record company] and get you a contract.” He didn’t say anything about which one, Impulse! or ABC or whatever. He was just trying to tell me that I should be heard. That was when I first got to New York City.
Then I started playing at [the East Village nightclub] Slug’s, where John later heard me. I remember first I was doing some things there on a Saturday afternoon, then I got a job working there weekly. Then [Village Vanguard owner] Max Gordon came down because we were drawing a lot of people. He kind of liked what he saw and what he heard so he had me come into his club. I felt kind of good about that because I had never played in a major, major club. That was the first time.
JAZZTIMES: A few last questions: What have you not done that you’d like to do? Who else would you like to play with that you haven’t?
I’ve played with Carlos Santana, as part of his show, and that was fun, a little like a teaser. I would like to play with him on some different things. And you got the Marsalis brothers there, Branford and Wynton. I did this thing with Jazz at Lincoln Center [Feb. 14, 2002] and that was great. I didn’t play long enough but I enjoyed it. My problem is I’m still wide open. I just gotta learn how to solo in a shorter time, get right on into it. I’d like to visit some of the musicians in other countries, work with them and try to play with them. India, some parts of Africa and places like Indonesia, China, Japan and into Thailand.
JAZZTIMES: What religion do you practice?
I look at all religions and just put them all into one, you know. That’s what I do. It’s like a personal kind of thing. I don’t go to a church or mosque, I’m here every day doing my own thing. But I try and pray all the time. The day’s like one big prayer to me, not at any one time.
JAZZTIMES: What’s your hope for the future?
[Smiles] Peace and happiness throughout the land.
Originally published in January/February 2008