Pharoah Sanders, Boundary-Pushing Jazz Saxophonist, Dies at 81

Pharoah Sanders, an American jazz saxophonist whose career sprawled across six decades, has died at the age of 81. His death was confirmed to Variety by a representative for his label, Luaka Bop.

“We are devastated to share that Pharoah Sanders has passed away,” the label’s statement reads. “He died peacefully surrounded by loving family and friends in Los Angeles earlier this morning. Always and forever the most beautiful human being, may he rest in peace.”

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Photo: Chris Willman
Photo: Chris Willman

His soulful playing and leading role in the style often described as spiritual jazz placed him at the edge of the genre’s innovation for many years, initially in bands with such explorers as Sun Ra (who dubbed him “Pharoah”) and John Coltrane and later by leading his own ensembles.

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Born Farrell Sanders in 1940 in Little Rock, Arkansas, Sanders moved to Oakland, California in 1959 and began working in the area’s thriving jazz scene. After relocating to New York, he worked with Sun Ra before joining Coltrane’s band in 1965, debuting on the “Ascension” album. Sanders played with the influential saxophonist on some of his most boundary-pushing recordings until his death in 1967.

Striking out on his own, Sanders began drawing in influences from African and other international musics, initially on his 1969 album “Karma.” He continued in this vein through the next three decades, releasing a battery of albums on labels ranging from the pivotal jazz imprint Impulse! to pop powerhouse Arista, from the avant-garde company India Navigation to David Byrne’s Luaka Bop, which in itself speaks to the respect his talent and innovation inspired, no matter how far his recordings ranged.

Over the years he worked with countless artists, prominent among them Alice Coltrane, Lonnie Liston Smith, Stanley Clarke, Don Cherry, McCoy Tyner, Cecil McBee, Carla Bley, Norma Conners and many others. He released more than 30 solo albums and appears on several dozen releases by other artists.

While his recorded output began to slow in the 1990s, he continued to work extensively, touring and working with admirers like British electronic musician Floating Points (Sam Shepherd), who released an album with Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra in 2021 called “Promises” — the saxophonist’s first new release in more than a decade.

Variety was on hand when Pharoah Sanders performed an epic set at Goldenvoice’s Arroyo Seco Weekend festival in Pasadena in 2018. Watch video of some of that performance here:

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