Photo: Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Files/Getty Images
A prodigious talent like Pharoah Sanders was not destined to live in Little Rock, Arkansas. Racism in his hometown was too dense, too rigid, too direct. “You had to play behind the scenes”, the tenor saxophonist once said. “They didn’t want to see the blacks. They fed us, we had our little corner where we ate, but they didn’t allow white people to enter there. Most of the jobs I did, a lot of parties and weddings, that’s how it was.”
So in 1959, Sanders headed west about 1,900 miles to Oakland, California, where he lived for two years before moving to New York City at the urging of his friend Smiley Winters, a Bay Area drummer who was making money. tarring parking lots. “He was like, ‘Yeah man, with your sound, you don’t need to be here, you need to go to New York City,'” Sanders recalled. “And I heard it. He said, ‘You want to go, you know all your standard tunes, and you have to have a tuxedo when you work.’ He had no suit.”
Sanders, a wandering spirit who died at the age of 81 on Saturday, maintained a calm nature well into his golden years. Known as a pioneer of spiritual jazz alongside saxophonists John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, his style centered on piercing shrieks that divided critics and listeners alike who criticized his atonal wails and frenetic rhythmic structure. But Sanders always stayed true to his vision, releasing several albums that fused the textures of jazz, soul and gospel, amassing a fanbase of equally adventurous listeners who felt the introspective aspects of his work. It was in New York City that Sanders solidified that vision and met other aspiring legends who, like himself, were just trying to make their way.
He arrived in New York in 1961 with only the clothes on his back and his saxophone, which he carried in an old, heavy wooden case. With nowhere to go, she walked all the way from 1st Street to 116th Street, trying to make sense of her new surroundings. “I don’t know how I survived,” Sanders once recalled of those years in New York. “I was hungry.” Hey, I was so broke. To earn money, Sanders began donating blood at a center he found on 42nd Street; every time he donated, he received five dollars. Sanders took that money and bought small hamburgers, 15-cent pizza slices and wheat germ. He went to the movies and slept during the day; at night, he would head down to Bleecker Street and walk around with his horn, trying to get gigs. When Sanders learned that a cafe on MacDougal Street needed a chef, he applied for and got the job. Later, he would meet Sun Ra, whose idiosyncratic mix of jazz often sought life on other planets, while performing in the main room of the café. Sanders introduced himself to the eccentric pianist and bandleader and told him that he played the saxophone. “He looked at me and said, ‘I already have someone,'” Sanders said. (By 1964, Sun Ra had changed his tune, inviting Sanders to play with him at Judson Hall on New Year’s Eve.)
When Sanders wasn’t playing music or working at the cafe, he was riding the subway, anywhere and everywhere, trying to discover the city as quickly as possible. He would take the train to the end of the line, then to Washington Square Park, where he would sit on a bench and play his saxophone. He would venture to the Five Spot jazz club on Third Avenue, but he couldn’t get in because he looked raggedy. “I looked pretty bad at the time, so I can understand why they didn’t want [me] hanging around the club,” Sanders said. “People were just getting out of their limousines in suits and ties and all that. I’m out on the street, in the shoes I’ve been walking around in, messy hair.” He listened through the windows as the legendary Thelonious Monk played the piano: “It seemed like Monk played every night.” Around this time, Sanders he began to develop his own playing style, a sound rooted in the emerging free jazz scene but connected to bebop.In his earlier work, you can hear Sanders’s horn screeching and screeching over a straight swing.
Despite his personal difficulties, it was an exciting time to be in New York City. Not only was a new jazz movement exploding in downtown coffee shops and small clubs, but a young Minnesotan named Bob Dylan was making his way through the neighborhood with a harmonica and acoustic guitar, carving out his own creative corner. It was there in the town that Sanders’ life would change forever.
One night he went to a club called Speakeasy and told the talented bookie that he played the saxophone. The man asked Sanders if he had a gang; he said yes, even though he didn’t. He then called his friend, Philadelphia-born alto sax player Clarence “C” Sharpe, and soon rounded out the group with bassist Wilbur Ware, pianist John Hicks, and drummer Billy Higgins. Sanders was officially a gang leader. Sanders didn’t have as big of an introduction as Dylan. He didn’t play magnificent notes like Coltrane or see the future like Sun Ra, who sometimes gave him a place to stay and even bought him a clean pair of pants to help him replace the tattered clothes he’d been wearing. Sanders just kept pushing himself and making genuine connections that helped him professionally.
In 1965, Coltrane, impressed with Sanders’ work in the city, chose Sanders to play in his band, appearing on the free-jazz-focused show. ascension One year later. That year also saw the release of Sanders’ debut album, pharaoh’s first, an extensive 50-minute work recorded for the ESP-Disk label and with much more traditional music than the one that the band leader would create just three years later. However, the smoke could still be heard: “Seven by Seven” it’s all breathy, jarring saxophone wails over a swaying drum loop and undulating bass. The other song on the album, “Betera”, it’s a bebop tune, with rapid drumbeats and billowing horns that seem to curtail Sanders’ greatest asset: his bravado.
At Coltrane’s urging, Sanders got a deal with Impulse! Records and released his major label debut, tawheed, One year later. Here, he took the first steps toward the sound he had become known for, releasing an enlightened set of sounding art tied to spiritual healing. Through three expansive tracks, there was a feeling that he wanted to go in some place, and at the very least, heal a jazz community in a constant state of turmoil. In 1967, Coltrane died of liver cancer at the age of 40. In 1970, another spiritual jazz pioneer, Albert Ayler, died under mysterious circumstances in Brooklyn. Suddenly, the Holy Trinity of Spiritual Jazz had been thrown into one—Pharoah Sanders, Coltrane’s “Father’s Son” and Ayler’s “Holy Ghost,” as Ayler once put it—who had to carry the mantle himself. The year before, Sanders released his biggest and most celebrated album, karmacarried by the propulsive 32-minute epic, “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” a sprawling mass of yodeling (courtesy experimental vocalist Leon Thomas), fiery saxophone howls, and meditative chants.
Sanders’ style had critics in the media: New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett compared it to “elephant screams,” and Dennis Hunt, in the San Francisco Chronicle, considered it “primitive” and “distressing”. Nonetheless, Sanders continued to rise: in 1971, he was a featured player on Alice Coltrane’s most acclaimed album, Journey in Satchidananda, his billowing horn adds smoke to the bandleader’s heavenly orchestration. By 1974, Sanders had released eight albums: Thembi, live in the east, black unit, pharaohs village, wisdom through music, Izipho Zam (My Gifts), elevationY love in all of us with the mixture of African rhythm, folk, Indian classical music and gospel becoming the epicenter of spiritual jazz.
As the fires of free jazz died down in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Sanders moved on to soft, ambient jazz, slowing down his output and disappearing from public view. a record like moon child — released in 1990 on the Dutch label Timeless Records — proved that he still had the chops, even though he flew under the radar. Still, he persevered, playing various nightclubs around the world and surviving on publishing royalties. “I’ve just been lucky,” he said. all about jazz in 2003. “They come at the right time. Sometimes I don’t, but I’m not rich or anything.” By then, Sanders had moved to Los Angeles, but was having trouble finding bandmates with the same energy he exuded. As he once said, musicians with those he linked with in New York City could match his intensity and play shows all night long. told all about jazz“They play a little and that’s it.”
By 2015, with America divided along racial and political lines, there was a new appreciation for the kind of spiritual work that Sanders, Coltrane, and Ayler did some 50 years earlier. The music conveyed the fear of seeing unarmed black people being killed by police without consequence. Kamasi Washington, a Los Angeles-raised saxophonist and bandleader, released an album called the epic that not only traversed the spectrum of spiritual jazz, but also encompassed bebop, big band, and post-bop. Then there was Shabaka Hutchings, a British saxophonist who, in 2016, released the excellent wisdom of the elders with the collective The Ancestors, a direct return to the iconoclastic sound that Sanders developed in Greenwich Village. Suddenly “jazz was back,” so went the narrative, and so did Sanders. His revival culminated in the release of promises, the Floating Points-led LP with Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra, in 2021. Though technically a Floating Points album, much of the critical praise went to Sanders, whose melodic chords and light lullabies gave the album character. producer’s harpsichord. For a generation of Pharoah Sanders fans, we were happy that he was back. It felt like a new beginning and a full circle moment for one of jazz music’s latest innovators.
Even until his passing, and now in reflection beyond, there is a sense that Sanders is underrated in the pantheon of jazz luminaries. He was probably never in love with such accolades, and he never presented himself as better than the musicians he worked with. To see Sanders was to see a man still learning, still searching, still idly resting as the orbit spun around him. There was an almost indescribable aura about him and the music, a real position that shines through Instagram photos and brief phone conversations. Sanders didn’t say much, but he didn’t need to: There was a palpable energy to the icon that you instantly felt, the same kind of hypnotism that runs through songs like “Astral Traveling” and “Elevation.” Sanders not only represented the heart and bustle of New York City, but also embodied its communal spirit. Whether it’s the volcanic peaks or the meditative valleys of his work, Sanders always conveyed a very clear message: love is everywhere and always finds a way.