Pharoah Sanders 1940 – 2022

The legendary tenor saxophonist was a member of John Coltrane's final ensembles.

By Scott Bernstein Sep 24, 2022 7:27 am PDT

Legendary jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders died on Saturday morning at age 81. The death of the groundbreaking musician, who was a member of John Coltrane’s final ensembles, was confirmed in a message shared by his label, Luaka Bop.

The note from Luaka Bop read:

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. Always and forever the most beautiful human being, may he rest in peace.

Pharoah was born Farrell Sanders in Little Rock, Arkansas on October 13, 1940. He started playing tenor saxophone while enlisted at Scipio Jones High School in North Little Rock. Opportunities were limited for the saxophonist in his home state due to racism. “In Arkansas you had to play behind the curtain. They didn’t want to see black people,” Sanders told his manager Anna Sala in a 2019 interview for Pollstar. “They fed us, we had our little place where we ate, but they didn’t allow white people in there. Most of the jobs I played, a lot of parties and weddings, that’s how it was.”

The saxophonist left for Oakland in 1959 and stayed for two years before hitchhiking to New York City in search of more opportunities. It was there he met a number of luminaries including Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Sun Ra with whom he found much in common musically. It was Sun Ra who encouraged Sanders to adopt the Pharoah moniker.

John Coltrane tapped Sanders to join his band in 1965. Pharoah initially recorded with Coltrane in June 1965 for Ascension, an album released the following year that saw Coltrane move towards the free jazz movement of which Pharoah was fond of and became closely associated with. Sanders remained a member of Coltrane’s bands, including his final ensemble, through Trane’s death in 1967 and contributed to such albums as Om, Kulu Sé Mama, Meditations and Expression.

Pharoah also pushed boundaries with his own music, releasing over 30 albums as a bandleader. His solo debut album, Pharoah’s First, came out in 1965. While Sanders worked primarily as leader of his own ensembles following John Coltrane’s death, he also worked for a brief time with John’s widow, Alice Coltrane.

Sanders most commercially successful work was released by the Impulse Records label in the late 1960s and early 1970s. An example of his “sheets of sound” style and distinctive forays into spiritual jazz is the 32-minute “The Creator Has A Master Plan” composition from his 1969 album, Karma, co-composed with vocalist Leon Thomas.

The tenor saxophonist continued to explore new sounds throughout the 1970s and 1980s with a stint on the California-based label Theresa in the ‘80s especially fruitful. The next decade found Sanders working with collaborators such as student Robert Stewart and Gnawa-based musician Mahmoud Guinia on the Bill Laswell-produced LP, The Trance Of Seven Colors. Verve Records then brought Pharoah back to a major label starting with Message From Home in 1995. But Sanders left the label after the release of 1998’s Save Our Children.

The tenor saxophonist kept busy on the road in the ensuing years and in 2020 teamed with electronic music producer Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra on Promises. The 2021 release marked Sanders’ first major new album in nearly two decades.

The Creator Has A Master Plan

Pharoah Sanders Quartet
JamBase Collections