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Pharoah Sanders

Pharoah Sanders

American jazz saxophonist
The basics
Quick Facts
Occupations Saxophonist Jazz musician
Countries United States of America
Gender male
Birth October 13, 1940 (Little Rock, Pulaski County, Arkansas, U.S.A.)
The details

Pharoah Sanders (born October 13, 1940) is an American jazz saxophonist.

Saxophonist Ornette Coleman once described him as "probably the best tenor player in the world." Emerging from 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". Sanders is an important figure in the development of free jazz; Albert Ayler famously said: "Trane was the Father, Pharoah was the Son, I am the Holy Ghost".


Pharoah Sanders was born Farrell Sanders 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, Tennessee, and Hot Springs for R&B and jazz musicians, including Junior Parker. 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.

Early life and career

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. He received his nickname "Pharoah" from his grandmother. After moving to New York, Sanders had been destitute: "He was often living on the streets, under stairs, where ever he could find to stay, his clothes in tatters." Sun Ra gave him a place to stay, bought him a new pair of green pants with yellow stripes (which Sanders hated but had to have), encouraged him to use the name 'Pharoah', and gradually worked him into the band."

Coltrane (1965-1967)

Sanders came to greater prominence playing with John Coltrane's band, starting in 1965, as Coltrane began adopting the avant-garde jazz of Albert Ayler, Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor. Sanders first performed with Coltrane on Ascension (recorded in June 1965), then on their dual-tenor recording Meditations (recorded in November 1965). After this Sanders joined Coltrane's final quintet, usually performing very lengthy, dissonant solos. Coltrane's later style was strongly influenced by Sanders.

As a leader

Although Sanders' voice developed differently from John Coltrane, Sanders was strongly 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.

Pharoah's first album, Pharoah's First, wasn't 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.

In the 1970s, Sanders continued to produce his own recordings and also continued to work with the likes of 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 1969-1971. 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.

The 1970s-1990s

Although supported by African-American radio, Sanders' brand of 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.

Sanders’s major-label return would finally come 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.

In 1992, Sanders appears 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 he traveled to Morocco to record the Bill Laswell-produced album The Trance Of Seven Colors with Gnawa musician Mahmoud Guinia. The same year, Sanders appeared on the Red Hot Organization's album, Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool, on the track "This is Madness" with Umar Bin Hassan and Abiodun Oyewole and the bonus track, "The Creator Has A Master Plan (Trip hop Remix)." The album was named "Album of the Year" by Time. 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 Munoz albums also including Rashied Ali.


In the 2000s, a resurgence of interest in jazz kept Sanders playing festivals including 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.

Personal life

Pharoah Sanders lives in Los Angeles. His sons are Fazal Miles, 47, of Chicago; Muzill Lumkile Sanders, 46, of Detroit; and Tomoki Sanders, 23, who is also a musician. His daughters are Farah Sanders, Hadiyah and Naima Sanders, 18, who is a budding musician.


As leader

Title Year Label
Pharoah 1964 ESP-Disk
Tauhid 1966 Impulse!
Izipho Zam (My Gifts) 1969 Strata-East
Karma 1969 Impulse!
Jewels of Thought 1969 Impulse!
Deaf Dumb Blind (Summun Bukmun Umyun) 1970 Impulse!
Thembi 1971 Impulse!
Village of the Pharoahs 1971 Impulse!
Black Unity 1971 Impulse!
Live at the East 1971 Impulse!
Wisdom Through Music 1972 Impulse!
Elevation 1974 Impulse!
Love in Us All 1974 Impulse!
Pharoah 1977 India Navigation
Love Will Find a Way 1977 Arista
Beyond a Dream 1978 Arista
Journey to the One 1980 Theresa
Rejoice 1981 Theresa
Pharoah Sanders Live... 1982 Theresa
Heart is a Melody 1982 Theresa
Shukuru 1985 Theresa
Africa 1987 Timeless
Oh Lord, Let Me Do No Wrong 1987 Columbia
A Prayer Before Dawn 1987 Theresa
Moon Child 1989 Timeless
Welcome to Love 1990 Timeless
Crescent with Love 1992 Evidence/Venus
Ballads with Love 1992 Venus
The Trance of Seven Colors 1994 Axiom
Naima 1995 Evidence
Message from Home 1996 Verve
Save Our Children 1999 Verve
Spirits 2000 Meta
The Creator Has a Master Plan 2003 Venus

As sideman

Pharoah Sanders.jpg
With William Henderson

With John Coltrane

  • Kulu Sé Mama (Impulse!, 1965)
  • Om (Impulse!, 1965)
  • Meditations (Impulse!, 1965)
  • Ascension (Impulse!, 1965)
  • Live In Seattle (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)

With Idris Muhammad

  • Kabsha (Theresa, 1980)

With Norman Connors

  • Romantic Journey (Buddah 1977)
  • This Is Your Life (Buddah 1978)
  • Beyond A Dream (Novus 1981)
  • Remember Who You Are (MoJazz 1993)

With Tisziji Munoz

  • 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 (Impulse!, 1987)

With Randy Weston

  • The Spirits of Our Ancestors (Verve 1992)
  • Khepera (Verve 1998)

With others

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Biography Coltrane (1965-1967) As a leader 2000s Personal life Discography
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