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Sun, 10.13.1940

Pharaoh Sanders, Jazz Saxophonist born

Pharaoh Sanders

*Pharoah Sanders was born on this date in 1940.  He was a Black jazz saxophonist.  

Born Farrell Sanders was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. His mother worked as a cook in a school cafeteria, and his father worked for the City of Little Rock.

An only child, Sanders began his musical career accompanying church hymns on clarinet. His initial artistic accomplishments were in the visual arts, but at Scipio Jones High School in North Little Rock, Sanders began playing the tenor saxophone. The band director, Jimmy Cannon, was a saxophone player and introduced Sanders to jazz. Although still a student, Sanders took over as the band director when Cannon left until a permanent director could be found.  

During the late 1950s, Sanders would often sneak into Black clubs in downtown Little Rock to play with acts that were passing through. At the time, Little Rock was part of the touring route through Memphis, Tennessee, and Hot Springs for R&B and jazz musicians. Sanders was limited by the state's segregation and the R&B and jazz standards that dominated the Little Rock music scene.  After finishing high school in 1959, Sanders moved to Oakland, California, and lived with relatives. He briefly attended Oakland Junior College and studied art and music.

Once outside the Jim Crow South, Sanders could play in black and white clubs. His Arkansas connection stuck with him in the Bay Area with the nickname "Little Rock."  He moved to New York City in 1961 after playing with rhythm and blues bands. Sun Ra's biographer wrote that Sanders was often homeless, and Ra gave him a place to live and clothes and encouraged him to use the name "Pharoah."  

Sander's first album, Pharoah's First, wasn't what he expected. The musicians playing with him were much more straightforward, making the other musicians' solos slightly out of place.  In 1965 he became a member of John Coltrane's band, as Coltrane began adopting the avant-garde jazz of Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, and Cecil Taylor. Sanders first performed with Coltrane on Ascension (recorded in June 1965), then on their dual-tenor album Meditations (recorded in November 1965). After this, Sanders joined Coltrane's final quintet, usually playing long, dissonant solos. Sanders influenced Coltrane's later style.  A member of John Coltrane's groups of the mid-1960s, Sanders is known for his overblowing, harmonic, and multiphonic techniques on the saxophone, as well as his use of "sheets of sound."

In 1966, Sanders signed with Impulse and recorded Tauhid that same year. His years with Impulse caught the attention of jazz fans, critics, and musicians alike, including Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Ayler.  He has released over 30 albums as a leader and has collaborated extensively with Leon Thomas, Alice Coltrane, and Tisziji Muñoz, among others. Saxophonist Coleman described him as "probably the best tenor player in the world."  

Although Sanders' voice developed differently from Coltrane's, he was influenced by their collaboration. Spiritual elements such as the Om chanting would later appear in many of Sanders' works. Sanders would also go on to produce much free jazz, modified from Coltrane's solo-centric conception. In 1968 he participated in The Jazz Composer's Orchestra, featuring Taylor, Don Cherry, Larry Coryell, and Gato Barbieri.  Sanders' music has been called "spiritual jazz" due to his inspiration from religious concepts such as Karma and Tawhid and his rich, meditative aesthetic. This style continues Coltrane's work on albums such as A Love Supreme.  As a result, Sanders is considered a disciple of Coltrane or, as Albert Ayler said, "Trane was the Father, Pharoah was the Son, I am the Holy Ghost." 

In the 21st century, a resurgence of interest in jazz kept Sanders playing festivals, including the 2004 Bluesfest Byron Bay, the 2007 Melbourne Jazz Festival, and the 2008 Big Chill Festival, concerts and releasing albums. He has a strong following in Japan, and in 2003, he recorded with the band Sleepwalker. In 2000, Sanders released Spirits and, in 2003, a live album titled The Creator Has a Master Plan. He was awarded an NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship for 2016 and was honored at a tribute concert in Washington, DC, on April 4, 2016.  On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Pharoah Sanders among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.   

Pharoah Sanders, the legendary jazz saxophonist, perhaps best known for his transcendent work with John Coltrane and a solo run for Impulse Records beginning in the mid-1960s, helped define the spiritual jazz movement, died on September 24, 2022. He was 81.

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