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Jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders dies at 81: once described as”best tenor in the world”

Jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders dies at 81: once described as”best tenor in the world”

Pharoah Sanders (born Farrell Sanders; Oct 13, 1940 – Sept 24, 2022) was an American jazz saxophonist. A member of John Coltrane‘s groups of the mid-1960s, Sanders was known for his overblowing, harmonic, and multiphonic techniques on the saxophone, as well as his use of “sheets of sound“. He released over 30 albums as a leader and collaborated extensively with Leon Thomas and Alice Coltrane, among others. Saxophonist Ornette Coleman described him as “probably the best tenor player in the world”.

Sanders performing at the Jazz Cafe in London, England, 2008

Sanders’ music has been called spiritual jazz due to his inspiration in religious concepts such as Karma and Tawhid, and his rich, meditative aesthetic. This style was seen as a continuation of Coltrane’s work on albums such as A Love Supreme. As a result, Sanders was considered to have been a disciple of Coltrane or, as Albert Ayler said, “Trane was the Father, Pharoah was the Son, I am the Holy Ghost”.

Early life

Pharoah Sanders was born on October 13, 1940, 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 when he was at Scipio Jones High School in North Little Rock, Sanders began playing the tenor saxophone. The band director, Jimmy Cannon, was also a saxophone player and introduced Sanders to jazz. When Cannon left, Sanders, although still a student, took over as the band director until a permanent director could be found.

During the late 1950s, Sanders would often sneak into African-American 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 and Hot Springs, Arkansas for R&B and jazz musicians. Sanders found himself 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 both black and white clubs. His Arkansas connection stuck with him in the Bay Area with the nickname of “Little Rock“. It was also during this time that he met and befriended John Coltrane.


Sanders with William Henderson in 2008


Pharoah Sanders began his professional career playing tenor saxophone in Oakland. 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, clothes, and encouraged him to use the name “Pharoah”. 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 recorded 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. Coltrane’s later style was influenced by Sanders.

Although Sanders’ voice developed differently from John Coltrane, Sanders was influenced by their collaboration. Spiritual elements such as the chanting in Om would later show up in many of Sanders’ own works. Sanders would also go on to produce much free jazz, modified from Coltrane’s solo-centric conception. In 1968, he participated in Michael Mantler and Carla Bley‘s Jazz Composer’s Orchestra Association album The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, featuring Cecil TaylorDon CherryLarry Coryell, and Gato Barbieri.

Pharoah’s first album, Pharoah’s First, was not what he expected. The musicians playing with him were much more straightforward than Sanders, which made the solos played by the other musicians a bit out of place. Starting 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 John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Albert Ayler.

1970s and 1980s

In the 1970s, Sanders continued to produce his own recordings and also continued to work with Alice Coltrane on her Journey in Satchidananda album. Most of Sanders’ best-selling work was made in the late 1960s and early 1970s for Impulse Records, including the 30-minute wave-on-wave of free jazz “The Creator has a Master Plan” from the album Karma. This composition featured vocalist Leon Thomas‘s unique, “umbo weti” yodeling, and Sanders’ key musical partner, pianist Lonnie Liston Smith, who worked with Sanders from 1969 to 1971. Other members of his groups in this period include bassist Cecil McBee, on albums such as Jewels of ThoughtIzipho ZamDeaf Dumb Blind, and Thembi.

Although supported by African-American radio, Sanders’ brand of brave free jazz became less popular. From the experiments with African rhythms on the 1971 album Black Unity (with bassist Stanley Clarke) onwards he began to diversify his sound. In the late 1970s and 1980s, Sanders explored different musical modes including R&B (Love Will Find a Way), modal jazz, and hard bop. Sanders left Impulse! in 1973 and redirected his compositions back to earlier jazz conventions. He continued to explore the music of different cultures and refine his compositions. However, he found himself floating from label to label. He found a permanent home with a small label called Theresa in 1980, which was sold to Evidence in 1991. However Sanders would continue to be frustrated with record labels for most of the 1990s. Also during this time, he went to Africa for a cultural exchange program for the U.S. State Department.

See Also


In 1992, Sanders appeared on a reissue (Ed Kelly and Pharoah Sanders) for the Evidence label of a recording that he completed for Theresa Records in 1979 entitled Ed Kelly and Friend. The 1992 version contains extra tracks which feature Pharoah’s pupil Robert Stewart. In 1994, Sanders traveled to Morocco to record the Bill Laswell-produced album The Trance Of Seven Colors with Gnawa musician Mahmoud Guinia. The same year, he appeared on the Red Hot Organization album Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool on the track “This is Madness” with Umar Bin Hassan and Abiodun Oyewole and on the bonus track “The Creator Has A Master Plan (Trip Hop Remix).” The album was named “Album of the Year” by Time. He also collaborated with drummer – composer Franklin Kiermyer on Kiermyer’s album Solomon’s Daughter, also released on the Evidence label (re-released with 3 previously unreleased tracks on the Dot Time label in 2019).

Sanders’s major-label return came in 1995 when Verve Records released Message from Home, followed by Save Our Children (1998). But again, Sanders’s disgust with the recording business prompted him to leave the label. Sanders worked with Laswell, Jah Wobble, and others on the albums Message From Home (1996) and Save Our Children (1999). In 1999, he complained in an interview that despite his pedigree, he had trouble finding work. In 1997 he was featured on several Tisziji Muñoz albums which include Rashied Ali.

2000s and 2020s

In the 2000s, 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 recorded with the band Sleep Walker. 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.

In 2020, Sanders recorded a collaboration with electronic music producer Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra. Titled Promises, the album was released in March 2021, making it the first major new album released by Sanders in nearly two decades. The album was widely acclaimed by critics, with Pitchfork declaring it “a clear late-career masterpiece”.

Sanders was managed by artist manager Anna Sala of AMS Artists and AB Artists.


Sanders died on September 24, 2022, at his home in Los Angeles at the age of 81.


As leader

TitleYear RecordedYear ReleasedLabel
Pharoah’s First (also released as Pharoah and Pharoah Sanders Quintet)19641965ESP-Disk
Jewels of Thought19691969Impulse!
Deaf Dumb Blind (Summun Bukmun Umyun)19701970Impulse!
Black Unity19711971Impulse!
Live at the East19711972Impulse!
Wisdom Through Music19721972Impulse!
Izipho Zam (My Gifts)19691973Strata-East
Village of the Pharoahs1971–19731973Impulse!
Love in Us All19731973Impulse!
Pharoah19761977India Navigation
Love Will Find a Way19771977Arista
Journey to the One19791980Theresa
Beyond a Dream19781981Arista
Pharoah Sanders Live…19811982Theresa
Heart Is a Melody19821983Theresa
Oh Lord, Let Me Do No Wrong19871987Doctor Jazz
A Prayer Before Dawn19871987Theresa
Moon Child19891989Timeless
Welcome to Love19901991Timeless
Crescent with Love19921992Evidence/Venus
Ballads with Love19921994Venus
Message from Home19961996Verve
Save Our Children19971999Verve
The Creator Has a Master Plan20032003Venus
With a Heartbeat20032003Evolver Records
In the Beginning 1963-1964 (4 CD compilation)1963–19642012ESP-Disk
Live in Paris (1975) (Lost ORTF Recordings)19752020Transversales Disques
Spotlight on Pharoah Sanders with the Latin Jazz Quintet19731973Up Front (UPF-150)
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