Pharoah Sanders

Pharoah Sanders
Sanders in December 2006
Sanders in December 2006
Background information
Birth name Farrell Sanders
Born (1940-10-13) October 13, 1940 (age 81)
Little Rock, Arkansas, U.S.
Genres Free jazz, avant-garde jazz, world fusion
Occupation(s) Musician, composer, bandleader
Instruments Saxophone
Years active 1964–present
Labels Douglas, Theresa, Impulse!, Strata East

Pharoah Sanders (born Farrell Sanders, October 13, 1940)[1] is an American jazz saxophonist. 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". He has released over 30 albums as a leader and has collaborated extensively with Leon Thomas, Alice Coltrane and Rinai Maurice, among others. Saxophonist Ornette Coleman described him as "probably the best tenor player in the world".[2]

Sanders' music has been called "spiritual jazz" due to his inspiration in religious concepts such as Karma and Tawhid, and his rich, meditative aesthetic.[3] This style is seen as a continuation of Coltrane's work on albums such as A Love Supreme.[4] 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".[5]

Early life

Pharoah Sanders was born on October 13, 1940, in Little Rock, Arkansas, United States.[1] 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, Tennessee, and Hot Springs 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.


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, California. 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".[6] In 1965, he become a member of John Coltrane's band, as Coltrane began adopting the avant-garde jazz of Albert Ayler,[7] 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 Taylor, Don Cherry, Larry Coryell and Gato Barbieri.[1]

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,[8] 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 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 1987, 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.


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.[9] In 1997 he was featured on several Tisziji Muñoz albums also including Rashied Ali.

2000s to present

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.[10]

Pharoah Sanders was among hundreds of artists whose material was destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.[11]

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.[12][13]


As leader

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 1972 Impulse!
Izipho Zam (My Gifts) 1969 1973 Strata-East
Village of the Pharoahs 1971-1973 1973 Impulse!
Love in Us All 1973 1973 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 1992 Evidence/Venus
Ballads with Love 1992 1994 Venus
Naima 1992 1995 Evidence
Message from Home 1996 1996 Verve
Save Our Children 1997 1999 Verve
Spirits 2000 2000 Meta
The Creator Has a Master Plan 2003 2003 Venus
With a Heartbeat 2003 2003 Evolver Records
In the Beginning 1963-1964 (4 CD compilation) 1963-1964 2012 ESP-Disk
Live in Paris (1975) (Lost ORTF Recordings) 1975 2020 Transversales Disques

As sideman

With John Coltrane

With Don Cherry

With Alice Coltrane

With Kenny Garrett

With Norman Connors

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

With Randy Weston

With others


  1. ^ a b c Colin Larkin, ed. (1992). The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music (First ed.). Guinness Publishing. p. 2184. ISBN 0-85112-939-0.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Farberman, Brad (29 November 2017). "Review: Pharoah Sanders LPs Resurrect Early Spiritual-Jazz Classics". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 7 November 2019.
  4. ^ Dineen, Donal. "Donal Dineen's Sunken Treasure: 'Karma' by Pharoah Sanders (1969)". The Irish Times. Retrieved 7 November 2019.
  5. ^ "Albert Ayler: Albert Ayler: Holy Ghost album review". Retrieved 9 August 2020.
  6. ^ Swzed, John F. (22 August 1998). Space is the place : the lives and times of Sun Ra (1st ed.). Pantheon Books. p. 197. ISBN 0-306-80855-2.
  7. ^ Nisenson, Eric (2009) Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest, p.150. Da Capo Press. At Google Books. Retrieved 22 September 2013.
  8. ^ Shanley, Mike. "Jazz legend Pharoah Sanders joins Pittsburgh musicians for his first area show in decades", Pittsburgh City Paper, November 11, 2010, retrieved December 18, 2010.
  9. ^ "A Fireside Chat With Pharoah Sanders article". Retrieved 9 August 2020.
  10. ^ "The 2016 NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert". Jazz Night in America. NPR. Retrieved 27 April 2016.
  11. ^ Rosen, Jody (25 June 2019). "Here Are Hundreds More Artists Whose Tapes Were Destroyed in the UMG Fire". The New York Times. Retrieved 28 June 2019.
  12. ^ "Promises, by Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & the London Symphony Orchestra".
  13. ^ Russonello, Giovanni (2021-03-25). "Pharoah Sanders and Floating Points Meet in the Atmosphere". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-05-08.

External links