THE DAY AFTER what would have been John Coltrane’s ninety-sixth birthday, his most famous disciple left the planet. “Trane was the father,” saxophonist Albert Ayler famously remarked, “Pharoah was the son, and I am the Holy Ghost.” Pharoah Sanders, who was eighty-one, first came to prominence as an integral part of Coltrane’s mid-’60s turn to free jazz on recordings like Ascension and Meditations and in the performances of Coltrane’s final quintet. Like Ayler, his use of multiphonics and other extended techniques harked back to R&B “screamers” while simultaneously sounding as if they’d come from some place utterly elsewhere. “That horn,” wrote poet Sean Bonney, “sounds like a metal bone, a place where the dead and future generations meet up and are all on blue, electric fire.” With Alice Coltrane, Jimmy Garrison, and Rashied Ali surging beneath them like a vast tidal wave, neither Coltrane nor Sanders could, it seemed, settle on a single note without splintering it into its component parts, an approach manifesting the relentless quest for freedom. The music they made still threatens to exceed anything that would try to contain its ecstatic, unfaltering force.
Sanders was born in 1940 in Little Rock, Arkansas, the scene of the infamous 1957 battle over school desegregation which had prompted Charles Mingus and Louis Armstrong alike to deliver suitably expletive-laden outbursts against the state’s arch-racist governor, Orvil Faubus. Two years later, he moved to Oakland to escape the suffocating racism of the South, studying painting before playing with the likes of Sonny Simmons, Smiley Winters, and pianist Jane Getz, the latter of whom would appear on his first album for ESP-Disk. He moved to New York in 1962, sleeping on park benches and making money by selling his blood and working as a short-order cook. When he went to a club to see Coltrane perform, he was refused entry until Coltrane insisted that he be allowed to enter. When filling out his union card, Sanders—whom most musicians in New York called “Little Rock”—wrote “Pharoah” in place of his birth name, “Ferrell.” Increasingly, as befitted his new moniker, Sanders took on the mantle of a leader, though a gentle and unassuming one.
Sanders recorded his second album, Tauhid, for Coltrane’s Impulse! label in November 1966. Following Coltrane’s death, he made a series of albums for Impulse! that evinced a new serenity, creating what Amiri Baraka called a “lyrical near-mystical Afro-Eastern world” while still “sweat[ing] hot fire.” Along with bassists Cecil McBee, Henry Grimes, and Stanley Clarke, pianists Lonnie Liston Smith and (later) Joe Bonner laid down one-chord vamps, surrounded by thickets of West African percussion and Sanders’s glowing, flowing tenor, while Leon Thomas’s extraordinary vocals moved from a mellifluous croon to rapturous yodels inspired by recordings of the Ba-benzélé pygmies. It was a potent concoction, and 1969’s Karma produced a crossover hit with “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” Its bass vamp linking it to Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, “The Creator” soon became a kind of anthem for hippies and radicals alike.
This was a determinedly Afrocentric but highly syncretic music, the titles to tracks and albums evoking a fusion of religious traditions from Hinduism and Buddhism (Karma) to Islam (Summun Bukmun Umyun, “Hum-Allah,” Tauhid) to Christianity (a euphoric version of the spiritual “Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord,” made famous by the Edwin Hawkins Singers). Sanders was a regular at clubs like Slug’s and at The East in Brooklyn, part of the community-building experiment led by Jitu Weusi that had emerged from New York City Teachers’ strike of 1968. “Pharoah would play all night,” recalled cellist Diedre Murray, who played with Sanders in organist Larry Young’s “Lawrence of Newark” band. “It was Afrocentric energy music. That sound would go around and around and around.” During his performances, enthusiastic audiences would shout out encouragement, sometimes playing along on hand percussion. For the 1972 album Live at the East, Sanders brought a group of East regulars to the studio alongside the musicians to preserve this communal spirit. Another key Afrocentric statement came on Black Unity, an album-length piece based on a propulsive two-bass groove, awash with floating harmonium chords and the multiple horns of Sanders, Carlos Garnett, and trumpeter Marvin Hannibal Peterson.
During the 1970s, the declining market for jazz saw record labels encourage crossover experimentation with electric instruments and pop formulas. Sanders himself never really played fusion as such, though the 1977 album Love Will Find a Way, featuring singer Phyllis Hyman, at times approaches smooth jazz. He did, however, begin playing standards and, occasionally, singing the blues. Revealing himself as Coltrane’s disciple for the second time, his model was now the transitional music his mentor had made in the late ’50s and early ’60s, with Coltrane’s “sheets of sounds” rendered a torrent of joyous playfulness rather than a perpetual quest. The music on records like Live… is as fine an example of post-bop as one might find, utterly jubilant and secure in its knowledge.
Signing with Theresa Records in 1979, Sanders went on to record a series of albums with a wealth of collaborators, including Thomas, pianist John Hicks, and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. Journey to the One, his first album for the label, yielded the infectious “You’ve Got to Have Freedom,” later a staple of the acid-jazz movement. Meanwhile, Sanders’s playing on ballads was some of the most serene and assured of any in the jazz tradition. In the early ’90s, he recorded a series of ballad albums in tribute to Coltrane and reunited with guitarist Sonny Sharrock on Ask the Ages before turning to experiments with electric instruments and world music fusions alongside bassist-producer Bill Laswell. One of the most intriguing of these later releases, The Trance of Seven Colors, was recorded in Morocco with Gnawa musician Mahmoud Guinia. Sanders also appeared with The Last Poets on Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool, a project designed to draw awareness to the continuing effects of HIV/AIDS in African American communities.
Sanders continued to tour until soon before his death. The young lion now the wise elder, he served as custodian of the past rather than prophet of the future, as likely to play “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” as he was to blow multiphonics. Sanders’s was always a music to call on in times of trouble. His last album, Promises, recorded and released during the pandemic, saw him provide obligato saxophone and occasional vocals to an orchestral score by electronic musician Sam Shepherd (Floating Points), sounding at ease and at peace.
We should remember Pharoah Sanders both as the mellow elder and the young avant-gardist whose music still has the potential to shock. For Sanders, however, there was no split between the two. Whatever the context, Sanders always sounded like himself, his unique style the result of prodigious technique—overblowing, false fingering, circular breathing. In the latter years of his career, he even perfected the astonishing ability to coax notes from his saxophone after he’d taken it from his mouth. Such moments, a kind of stage magic perhaps connected as much to his roots in R&B showmanship as to “spiritual jazz,” surpass technical description. His playing, wrote critic Nat Hentoff, was “about cleaning the mirror into the self, going as far through the looking glass as is possible each time.” Sanders himself put it more succinctly: “I just play what I feel.” Yet his art was never really about the self. Pharoah Sanders’s music holds up a mirror to the world and, finding it wanting, builds something else. It is better than the world as it is, ushering in the sounds of a somewhere we have not yet reached. That was his gift.
David Grundy is a poet and scholar based in London.