“The entire musical personality of Pharoah Sanders,” wrote African-American poet and critic Amiri Baraka, “is a consciousness in conscious quest for higher consciousness.”
Sanders himself put it a little differently in a 2016 interview. “Whatever comes through me,” he said, “I try to express myself and free myself, and let whatever it is out there.”
This quest sometimes took Sanders, who died at the age of 81, to the very limits of harmony and form. This often came to the dismay of a critical establishment, which, at least in the early stages of his career, vilified his tone on the tenor sax as “primitive,” “nerve-wracking,” even resembling “elephant squawks” that “came up.” have little to do with music”.
In the mid-1960s he established his reputation (among his peers, if not the critics) as a leading figure in so-called free jazz, the harmonic revolution in improvised music first fomented by Ornette Coleman in a series of Arson recordings , which were published between 1959 and 1961.
That was the year that a penniless Sanders first showed up in New York City, ready to join the wave that Coleman had unleashed. As his contemporary Albert Ayler described the “New Music” scene in the Big Apple during this period: “[John Coltrane] was the father, Pharaoh was the son, I am the Holy Spirit.”
Farrell Sanders was born in October 1940 in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the American South. (The nickname Pharoah was bestowed upon him in his early 20’s by visionary bandleader Sun Ra.) His mother worked in a school cafeteria and his father was employed by the municipality.
It was a musical family. Sanders took piano lessons from his grandfather and soon played the clarinet in the high school band, after also trying his hand at drums. He paid $17 for his first clarinet after seeing an ad in the church. But it was the saxophone that really got his attention.
“In high school, I was always trying to figure out what I wanted to do for a living,” he said. “Actually, I wanted to play the saxophone.” Sanders eventually did, beginning with the alto before switching to the tenor, which “was the most popular instrument to get work at the time.”
Sanders rented the school saxophone and made money by playing rhythm and blues gigs in and around Little Rock and sitting with guest artists like Bobby “Blue” Bland. However, Jim Crow’s legacy still cast a shadow over Arkansas in the late 1950s, and working conditions for black musicians in the South were difficult. “You had to play behind the curtain,” Sanders recalled. “They didn’t want to see black people.”
In 1959 he moved to California, where he accepted a scholarship to Oakland Junior College. He studied art and music there and worked part-time as a part-time musician in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he was known as “Little Rock”. Two years later he moved east.
Sanders’ early days in New York were tough. He was often homeless and frequently destitute. He donated blood for $5 a piece and subsisted on cheap slices of pizza. His saviors were two jazz giants: Sun Ra and Coltrane.
Sanders had a job at a club called the Playhouse in Greenwich Village, which enabled him to hear Sun Ra Arkestra, who had a residency there. When the Arkestra’s tenor, John Gilmore, left to tour Europe with legendary drummer Art Blakey, Sanders stepped into the breach. And then, in 1965, Coltrane invited him to join his band as he began to push his sonic explorations even further into the musical stratosphere.
The combination was explosive – and is preserved on recordings rise and meditations.
Coltrane arranged a deal for Sanders with the Impulse! label, and in 1967 he recorded his first album for the imprint, tawhid. A series of recordings followed, perhaps the most notable of them all karma – now a staple of the “spiritual jazz” canon – that showcased Sanders’ lyricism as well as his ruggedly inquiring side. After Coltrane’s death in 1967, Sanders worked with his wife Alice and won a Grammy for his contribution in 1988 Blues for Coltranea tribute to his mentor.
Sanders recorded and performed continuously for the last three decades of his life. His last album Promisea collaboration with producer Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra, was released in 2021. The Financial Times called it “immersive and rich in detail”, the “sound of a promise fulfilled”.
https://www.ft.com/content/dbc8194f-9034-4f51-b7c1-8b8960545bca Pharoah Sanders, jazz musician, 1940-2022