“Trane was the Father, Pharaoh was the Son, I am the Holy Ghost.”
Pharaoh Sanders, the revered and influential tenor saxophonist who explored and extended the boundaries of his instrument while forming a spiritual link to scores of fellow musicians and devoted listeners, died on Saturday morning, Sept. 24, at his Los Angeles home.
Known for expanding the vocabulary of reed instruments, Sanders was also among the many musicians who developed an interest in Afrocentric philosophy and eastern religions to fill the vogue unfulfilled by western culture.
A Musical Odyssey
“We just played music, that’s all. It’s very simple. Just played music. What was there to talk about?”
—Pharaoh Sanders on his
association with John Coltrane
Born in Little Rock, Ark. on Oct. 13, 1940, Farrel Sanders like many of his peers, grew up in a family seeped in the gospel tradition. He started off playing drums and clarinet in a church group while simultaneously pursuing an interest in the visual arts.
The impressionable nature of this developing adolescent was stymied by the rigid social structure of the segregated south, and after finishing high school in 1959, he ventured onto Oakland, CA with the intention of studying art. By the time he left, he’d picked up the alto, and then the tenor saxophone, and began to play in integrated rhythm and blues clubs throughout the Bay Area.
Fortified by the seasoning he’d picked up via live performing, Sanders hitchhiked east to the cultural cauldron of New York City, where he lived the stereotypical life of the starving artist. Often homeless and reduced to pawning his horn, selling his blood for cash, and sleeping in movie theaters and on the subway to survive, he was reprieved when he crossed paths with the eccentric composer and keyboardist Sun Ra.
His newly acquainted benefactor provided a place to live, clothes, and most importantly an opportunity to hone his craft with the Sun Ra Arkestra. Ra also encouraged him to adopt the name “Pharaoh,” as a derivative from his birth name of “Farrel,” in keeping with the newly evolved interest in Egyptology among musicians of color.
Among the new associates who shaped his musical development were trumpeter Don Cherry, multi-instrumentalist Ornette Coleman, reed man Albert Ayler, pianist Cecil Taylor, and especially fellow tenor player John Coltrane.
Coltrane and Sanders developed the style of improvisation that became known as “sheets of sound. Their solos often included rapid patterns of notes played even faster then sixteenth notes, and alternatively alienated jazz traditionalists while developing a fanatical following within the bohemian Black community.
Together they continued to expand the tenor vocabulary by utilizing long, intense solos augmented with growls, over blowing, squeals, and other abstract noises to emulate the sound of the human voice.
Recording officially on 1966’s “Ascension,” they were abetted by musical heavyweights like Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Elvin Jones (drums), and McCoy Tyner (piano). Critical response was almost uniformly positive. The album simultaneously proved to be a validation of the avant-garde (or “New Thing” as it was called), and an instant classic.
Over the next year they continued their explorations in a series of albums including “Meditations,” and “Om.” Moving on as a front man with the eponymously titled “Pharaoh’s First (1965),” Sanders began to forge his own musical identity with the label he is most associated with, Impulse! The titles he produced reflect his growing fascination with Afrocentrism, Egyptology, and particularly spiritualism. They include “Tauhid (roughly translated as offering worship only to Allah),” “Karma” (featuring his best known composition, “The Creator Has a Master Plan”), and “Elevation.”
As time went on, Sanders augmented his saxophone playing with a bass clarinet, flutes, piccolos, and various percussion instruments.
A lasting legacy
Among those caught up in the wake of influence was the jazz singer Dwight Trible, now Executive Director over Leimert Park’s World Stage. The vocalist can’t remember the first time they performed together, but harkens back to the cosmic aura he projected.
“The beautiful recollection that I have of him is that he was a proponent of peace and love, with a belief in a higher power (God).”
“I just thought he was a mystical sort of person,” Trible said, referring to the aura of spiritual knowledge Sanders seemed to possess.
In the early millennium, when a young upstart named Barack Obama stated his intention to run for President of the United States, Sanders was one of the few who voiced affirmation in the face of the multitude of skeptics. Trible, among those who revered the master jazzman, became worried about the elder man’s mental facilities.
“I wonder if Pharoah is getting senile,” he wondered to himself. Nonetheless, the venerated elder remained adamant.
“No, there’s no doubt about it,” he said to those who scoffed at the idea of a Black man aspiring to the highest office in the land.
Another admirer, outside the musical realm, was activist-cultural director Ayuko Babu. The long-time head of the Pan African Film & Arts Festival, Babu’s journey of consciousness includes tenure at the UCLA School of Law.
“I first met Brother Pharoah in 1969, when we decided to bring him to UCLA to perform for the BSU there, and for his first set he played “The Creator has a Master Plan.”
This particular rendition lasted for nearly an hour, leaving the audience mesmerized.
“We knew we were in the presence of a unique spirit and talent, one we will not see the likes in a long while.”
“Brother Pharaoh was a gift from the ancestors to us all,” he says in reference to his vision, his musicality, and overall humanity.
“I’ve been getting publishing royalties and stuff like that. I have just been lucky. They come in at the right time. Sometimes they don’t, but I am not wealthy or anything like that. I just love to work.”
Never one to rest on his laurels, Sanders recorded in excess of 30 albums during the course of his career. After Coltrane’s death in 1967, he continued a collaboration with John’s widow, harpist and keyboardist Alice Coltrane. Aside from his embrace of the musical traditions of Sub-Saharan Africa, his personal explorations sampled the trance ceremonies of Morocco, and forays into the sitar-based Hindu sounds of India.
Closer to home, the scores of musicians continuing his legacy is homegrown prodigy Kamsi Washington, who posted the following statement on his Facebook account:
“Rest in The Peace of The Creator and know that you did more than your part for The Master Plan.”
In keeping with the eclecticism at the center of his psyche, his musical explorations included collaborations with artists not readily associated with his de facto idiom, most recently including Sam Shepherd (a British electronic music producer known professionally as Floating Points) and the London Symphony Orchestra.
Sander’s last recording, done with these dissimilar accompanists, titled “Promises,” was released in March of 2021 on the Luaka Pop label, who announced his death on social media. Consisting of a single 46 minute track, it finds the maestro still in command of his technique and musical “chops,” supplemented by the insight and subtlety that comes with maturity.
In short, it is a fitting finale to an illustrious career.
Those interested in this iconoclastic musician are encouraged to visit his official website at https://pharoahsanders.wordpress.com/.