Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Pharoah Sanders 1940 — 2022

The beloved saxophonist, composer, bandleader, and epitome of spiritual jazz has died at 81

Pharoah Sanders at the 2020 Detroit Jazz Festival
Pharoah Sanders at the 2020 Detroit Jazz Festival (photo courtesy of Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation)

Pharoah Sanders, a pioneering tenor saxophonist and composer who became synonymous with the spiritual jazz aesthetic, died September 24 at a hospital in Los Angeles, California. He was three weeks shy of his 82nd birthday.

Sanders’ record label, Luaka Bop, announced via Instagram that Sanders had passed away, dying “peacefully surrounded by loving family and friends.” Cause of death was not disclosed.

A pillar of jazz’s avant-garde, Sanders broke through as a frontline partner with John Coltrane, joining the latter’s band in 1965 and remaining with him until Coltrane’s death in 1967. He then collaborated with Coltrane’s widow Alice, and with Sun Ra, Don Cherry, and the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, before establishing himself as a leader with his epic 1969 recording “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” He came to be widely regarded as Coltrane’s heir.

But Sanders also charted his own path. He cultivated one of the most distinctive tenor saxophone sounds in jazz: both rich and coarse, loaded with overblowing and split tones, prone to violent, shrieking outbursts. When the free and spiritual jazz he had learned from Coltrane lost favor with jazz audiences, however, Sanders experimented with funk and R&B, modal jazz, and straight-ahead bebop and hard bop. In the process he reinvented his improvisational approach, becoming mellower and more thoughtful.

Still, spirituality and Coltrane remained touchstones throughout his career. After Coltrane, Sanders came to epitomize the possibilities of human and artistic relationship with the divine. Saxophonist Albert Ayler succinctly summarized Sanders’ place in that pantheon: “Coltrane was the Father. Pharoah was the Son. I was the Holy Ghost.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

Although he never ceased performing, Sanders faded in and out of focus within the jazz world. He had regained prominence in 2021, however, with the release of Promises: a collaboration with electronic artist Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra.

“Sometimes, when I’m playing, I want to do something, but I feel like, if I did, it wouldn’t sound right,” Sanders told The New Yorker in 2020 of his explorations. “So I’m always trying to make something that might sound bad sound beautiful in some way. I’m a person who just starts playing anything I want to play, and make it turn out to be maybe some beautiful music.”

Farrell Lee Sanders was born October 13, 1940 in Little Rock, Arkansas. His father, Jesse, worked for the Little Rock city transit system; his mother, Bertha, worked in a school cafeteria (and later as a maid). As a child, Sanders played drums in the church; when a fellow parishioner died, Sanders bought the deceased man’s clarinet for $17 and took up that instrument. Once he started at Scipio Jones High School in north Little Rock, he switched to alto saxophone, then to tenor. His music teacher introduced Sanders to jazz, and the student proved so talented at music that when the teacher left, Sanders effectively took over as (unpaid) band director.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Matriculating in 1959 to Oakland City College, Sanders soon dropped out and devoted himself to playing jazz. He met Coltrane while in Oakland, and by 1962 had decided to move to New York—where he promptly found himself homeless. “I didn’t have nowhere to stay,” he explained to The New Yorker. “I used to work a few jobs here and there, earn five dollars, buy some food, buy some pizza. I had no money at all. I used to give blood and make fifteen dollars or ten dollars or whatever. … I could pick up a few little weekend [musical] jobs. You had to do something to survive.”

His salvation, such as it was, came from Sun Ra, the bandleader and composer who had recently relocated his Arkestra to New York. Ra hired Sanders, gave him a place to live, and gave him the nickname of “Pharoah” (a corruption of his given name, Farrell). After about a year in the Arkestra, John Coltrane invited Sanders to join his new band. The two shared instrument and front line, playing in different styles but clearly influencing each other.

With Sanders coming to prominence, ESP-Disk’ Records issued his 1964 debut recording session as Pharoah’s First. It was not successful; however, it helped enable him to record a second album, Tauhid, in 1966. The album wasn’t released until after Coltrane’s sudden death in 1967, establishing Sanders as an artist in his own right. It wasn’t until 1969’s Karma, however—with its centerpiece “The Creator Has a Master Plan”—that Sanders really broke through as a leader. The album also served as a breakthrough for his collaborators, vocalist Leon Thomas and pianist Lonnie Liston Smith, and led to a series of important albums on the Impulse! label, including Jewels of Thought, Thembi, and Black Unity.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Sanders took an unsubtle commercial turn with Love Will Find a Way, a 1977 collaboration with R&B vocalist Phyllis Hyman. By 1980’s Journey to the One, he had returned to his most successful milieu, though he would dip toes into bebop and hard bop in the 1980s. The 1990s featured a few exploratory highlights for Sanders—notably The Trance of Seven Colors, a 1994 performance with Moroccan Gnawa musicians—but he was increasingly disillusioned with the business side of music, and recordings after 2000 became rare. He continued performing and touring, however, and made appearances instead on recordings by David Murray, Kenny Garrett, and Tisziji Munoz. The 2021 release of Promises with Floating Points and the LSO was hailed as a triumph, earning spots on many critics’ best-of lists.

Sanders is survived by a son, saxophonist Tomoki Sanders, and a daughter, Naomi Sanders. Further information on survivors was not available at press time.

Pharoah Sanders: Jewels of Thought

Advertisement
Advertisement

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.