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Pharoah Sanders

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Pharoah Sanders
Sanders holding a microphone with a saxophone slung over his body
Sanders in 2006
Background information
Birth nameFerrell Lee Sanders
Born(1940-10-13)October 13, 1940
Little Rock, Arkansas, U.S.
DiedSeptember 24, 2022(2022-09-24) (aged 81)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
GenresJazz, spiritual jazz, free jazz, avant-garde jazz, world fusion, ethno jazz, post-bop
Occupation(s)Musician, composer, bandleader
Years active1964–2022
LabelsDouglas, Theresa, Impulse!, Strata East, Luaka Bop

Pharoah Sanders (born Ferrell Lee Sanders; October 13, 1940 – September 24, 2022) was an American jazz saxophonist. Known for his overblowing, harmonic, and multiphonic techniques on the saxophone, as well as his use of "sheets of sound", Sanders played a prominent role in the development of free jazz and spiritual jazz through his work as a member of John Coltrane's groups in the mid-1960s, and later through his solo work. He released more than thirty albums as a leader and collaborated extensively with vocalist Leon Thomas and pianist Alice Coltrane, among many others. Fellow saxophonist Ornette Coleman once described him as "probably the best tenor player in the world".[1]

Sanders' take on spiritual jazz was rooted in his inspiration from religious concepts such as karma and tawhid , and his rich, meditative performance aesthetic.[2] This style was seen as a continuation of Coltrane's work on albums such as A Love Supreme.[3] 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".[4]

Early life[edit]

Pharoah Sanders was born on October 13, 1940, in Little Rock, Arkansas.[5] 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,[6] but when he was at Scipio Jones High School in North Little Rock, Sanders began playing the tenor saxophone.

After graduating from high school in 1959, Sanders moved to Oakland, California, where he lived with relatives. He briefly studied art and music at Oakland City College.[7][8][9] He has earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from an unknown art institution.


Pharoah Sanders in 1981
Sanders performing at The Jazz Cafe in London, England, 2008
Sanders with William Henderson in 2008


Pharoah Sanders began his professional career playing tenor saxophone in Oakland, then moved to New York City in 1962.[10] 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".[11] According to Sanders himself his grandmother had wanted to call him after pharaohs in the Bible but chose Ferrell instead. Upon joining the New York musicians' union, Sanders chose "Pharoah" as an artist name. Initially it was sometimes misspelled as "pharaoh".[12]

By 1963, he was playing with musicians like Billy Higgins and Don Cherry and had caught the attention of Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane.[10] In 1965, he became a member of Coltrane's band, as the latter gravitated towards the avant-garde jazz of Albert Ayler,[13] 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.[14]

Although Sanders' voice developed differently from John Coltrane's, 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 Taylor, Don Cherry, Larry Coryell, and Gato Barbieri.[5]

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.[citation needed] Starting in 1966 Sanders signed with Impulse! and recorded Tauhid, released the following year. The years Sanders spent with the label were both a commercial and critical success.[10]

1970s and 1980s[edit]

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,[15] 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 Thought, Izipho Zam, Deaf 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 explored various other labels, such as Theresa in 1980, which was sold to Evidence in 1991.


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.[16] In 1997 he was featured on several Tisziji Muñoz albums which include Rashied Ali.

2000s and 2020s[edit]

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.[17]

In 2020, Sanders recorded an album titled Promises, with the English electronic music producer Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra. It was released in March 2021, the first major new album by Sanders in nearly two decades.[18][19] It was widely acclaimed, with Pitchfork declaring it "a clear late-career masterpiece".[20]


Sanders died on September 24, 2022, at his home in Los Angeles at the age of 81.[9][21]


As leader[edit]

Overview of Pharoah Sanders albums
Title Year Recorded Year Released Label
Pharoah's First (also released as Pharoah and Pharoah Sanders Quintet) 1964 1965 ESP-Disk
Tauhid 1966 1967 Impulse!
Karma 1969 1969 Impulse!
Jewels of Thought 1969 1969 Impulse!
Deaf Dumb Blind (Summun Bukmun Umyun) 1970 1970 Impulse!
Thembi 1970–1971 1971 Impulse!
Black Unity 1971 1971 Impulse!
Live at the East 1971 1972 Impulse!
Wisdom Through Music 1972 1973 Impulse!
Izipho Zam (My Gifts) 1969 1973 Strata-East
Village of the Pharoahs 1971–1973 1973 Impulse!
Love in Us All 1972-73 1974 Impulse!
Elevation 1973 1974 Impulse!
Pharoah 1976 1977 India Navigation
Love Will Find a Way 1977 1977 Arista
Journey to the One 1979 1980 Theresa
Beyond a Dream 1978 1981 Arista
Rejoice 1981 1981 Theresa
Pharoah Sanders Live... 1981 1982 Theresa
Heart Is a Melody 1982 1983 Theresa
Shukuru 1981 1985 Theresa
Africa 1987 1987 Timeless
Oh Lord, Let Me Do No Wrong 1987 1987 Doctor Jazz
A Prayer Before Dawn 1987 1987 Theresa
Moon Child 1989 1989 Timeless
Welcome to Love 1990 1991 Timeless
Crescent with Love 1992 1993 Venus; Evidence
Ballads with Love (compilation / reissue) 1992 1994 Venus
Message from Home 1996 1996 Verve
Save Our Children 1997 1998 Verve
Spirits 1998 2000 Meta
The Creator Has a Master Plan 2003 2003 Venus
With a Heartbeat 2003 2003 Evolver Records
Promises 2019-20 2021 Luaka Bop
In the Beginning 1963-1964 (4 CD compilation) 1963–1964 2012 ESP-Disk
Live at Antibes Jazz Festival Juan-Les-Pins July 21, 1968 (Unofficial / bootleg) 1968 2019 Alternative Fox
Live in Paris (1975) (Lost ORTF Recordings) 1975 2020 Transversales Disques

As sideman[edit]

with John Coltrane
Ascension (Impulse!, 1965)
Live In Seattle (Impulse!, 1965)
Om (Impulse!, 1965)
A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle (Impulse!, 1965)
Kulu Sé Mama (Impulse!, 1965)
Selflessness: Featuring My Favorite Things (Impulse!, 1965)
Meditations (Impulse!, 1965)
Live at the Village Vanguard Again! (Impulse!, 1966)
Live In Japan (Impulse!, 1966)
Offering: Live at Temple University (Impulse!, 1966)
Expression (Impulse!, 1967)
The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording (Impulse!, 1967)
with Don Cherry
Symphony for Improvisers (Blue Note, 1966)
Where Is Brooklyn? (Blue Note, 1967)
with Alice Coltrane
A Monastic Trio (Impulse!, 1968)
Ptah, the El Daoud (Impulse!, 1970)
Journey in Satchidananda (Impulse!, 1970)
Carnegie Hall '71 (Hi Hat, 2018)
The Carnegie Hall Concert (Impulse!, 2024)
with Kenny Garrett
Beyond the Wall (Nonesuch, 2006)
Sketches of MD: Live at the Iridium (Mack Avenue, 2008)
with Norman Connors
Romantic Journey (Buddah 1977)
This Is Your Life (Buddah 1978)
Remember Who You Are (MoJazz 1993)
with Tisziji Muñoz
Visiting This Planet (Anami Music, 1980's)
River of Blood (Anami Music, 1997)
Present Without a Trace (Anami Music, 1980's)
Spirit World (Anami Music, 1997)
Divine Radiance (Dreyfus/Anami Music, 2003)
Divine Radiance Live! (Anami Music, 2013)
Mountain Peak (Anami Music, 2014)
with McCoy Tyner
Love & Peace (Trio 1982)
Blues for Coltrane: A Tribute to John Coltrane (Impulse!, 1987)
with Randy Weston
The Spirits of Our Ancestors (Verve 1992)
Khepera (Verve 1998)
with others
1964 – Sun RaFeaturing Pharoah Sanders & Black Harold
1965 – Ornette ColemanChappaqua Suite (Columbia)
1968 – Michael MantlerJazz Composer's OrchestraThe Jazz Composer's Orchestra (JCOA)
1968 – Gary BartzAnother Earth (Milestone)
1969 – Leon ThomasSpirits Known and Unknown (Flying Dutchman)
1971 – The Latin Jazz Quintet – Oh! Pharoah Speak (Trip) reissued in 1973 as Spotlight on Pharoah Sanders with the Latin Jazz Quintet
1973 – Larry YoungLawrence of Newark (Perception)
1979 – Ed Kelly – Ed Kelly & Friend (Theresa Records)
1979 – Hilton RuizFantasia (Denon)
1980 – Idris MuhammadKabsha (Theresa)
1984 – Benny GolsonThis Is for You, John (Baystate)
1985 – Art DavisLife (Soul Note)
1991 – Sonny SharrockAsk the Ages (Axiom)
1992 – Ed Kelly – Ed Kelly and Pharoah Sanders (Evidence Records) with Robert Stewart (saxophonist)
1992 – New York Unit – Over the Rainbow (Paddle Wheel)
1994 – Franklin KiermyerSolomon's Daughter
1994 – Bheki MselekuTimelessness (Verve)
1994 – Maleem Mahmoud GhaniaThe Trance of Seven Colors (Axiom)
1995 – Aïyb DiengRhythmagick
1996 – Jah WobbleHeaven & Earth (Island)
1997 – Wallace RoneyVillage (Warner Bros.)
1997 – Music Revelation EnsembleCross Fire (DIW)
1998 – Terry CallierTime Peace (Verve)
2000 – Alex BlakeNow Is the Time: Live at the Knitting Factory
2000 – Kahil El'Zabar's Ritual Trio – Africa N'Da Blues (Delmark)
2004 – David MurrayGwotet (Justin Time)
2005 – Will CalhounNative Lands
2008 – Sleep Walker – Into the Sun (in The Voyage)
2014 – Chicago Underground/São Paulo Underground – Spiral Mercury
2019 – Joey DeFrancescoIn the Key of the Universe
2021 – Floating Points and the London Symphony OrchestraPromises


  1. ^ King, Daniel (June 24, 2011). "Tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders burst through the gates in John Coltrane's group. Pharoah's children are Ferrell Jr, Fazal, Muzill Lumkile, Farah, Hadiya, Tomoki, and Naima. At 79, he's going strong". The San Francisco Chronicle.
  2. ^ Farberman, Brad (November 29, 2017). "Review: Pharoah Sanders LPs Resurrect Early Spiritual-Jazz Classics". Rolling Stone. Retrieved November 7, 2019.
  3. ^ Dineen, Donal. "Donal Dineen's Sunken Treasure: 'Karma' by Pharoah Sanders (1969)". The Irish Times. Retrieved November 7, 2019.
  4. ^ "Albert Ayler: Albert Ayler: Holy Ghost album review". Allaboutjazz.com. October 31, 2004. Retrieved August 9, 2020.
  5. ^ a b Colin Larkin, ed. (1992). The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music (First ed.). Guinness Publishing. p. 2184. ISBN 0-85112-939-0.
  6. ^ Friedman, Nathaniel (January 12, 2020). ""If You're in the Song, Keep on Playing": An Interview With Pharoah Sanders". The New Yorker. Retrieved September 26, 2022.
  7. ^ Parkins, Hannah (2020). "Pharoah Sanders". The Oakland Artists Project. Retrieved September 30, 2022.
  8. ^ Flanagan, Andrew; Chinen, Nate (September 24, 2022). "Pharoah Sanders, giant of spirit-driven jazz, dies at 81". NPR. Retrieved September 30, 2022.
  9. ^ a b Corcoran, Nina (September 24, 2022). "Pharoah Sanders dies at 81". Pitchfork. Retrieved September 30, 2022.
  10. ^ a b c Crépon, Pierre (September 2022). "Let it end some kind of way: Pharoah Sanders (1940–2022)". The Wire.
  11. ^ Swzed, John F. (August 22, 1998). Space is the place : the lives and times of Sun Ra (1st ed.). Pantheon Books. p. 197. ISBN 0-306-80855-2.
  12. ^ DiMartino, Dave (September 27, 2022). "'I Just Have To Make Sure I Mean Every Note…' Pharoah Sanders Remembered". Mojo. Retrieved December 22, 2023.
  13. ^ Nisenson, Eric (2009) Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest, p.150. Da Capo Press. At Google Books. Retrieved September 22, 2013.
  14. ^ Patton, Alli (September 28, 2022). "5 Celestial Live Performances in Honor of Late Jazz Legend Pharaoh Sanders". American Songwriter.
  15. ^ Shanley, Mike (November 11, 2010). "Jazz legend Pharoah Sanders joins Pittsburgh musicians for his first area show in decades". Pittsburgh City Paper. Retrieved December 18, 2010.
  16. ^ "A Fireside Chat With Pharoah Sanders article". Allaboutjazz.com. March 21, 2003. Retrieved August 9, 2020.
  17. ^ "The 2016 NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert". Jazz Night in America. NPR. Retrieved April 27, 2016.
  18. ^ "Promises, by Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & the London Symphony Orchestra".
  19. ^ Russonello, Giovanni (March 25, 2021). "Pharoah Sanders and Floating Points Meet in the Atmosphere". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved May 8, 2021.
  20. ^ "Floating Points / Pharoah Sanders / The London Symphony Orchestra: Promises". Pitchfork.
  21. ^ Pareles, Jon (September 24, 2022). "Pharoah Sanders, whose saxophone was a force of nature, dies at 81". The New York Times. Retrieved September 25, 2022.

External links[edit]