Pharoah Sanders, saxophonist whose intense and distinctive playing made him a giant of modern jazz – obituary

Pharoah Sanders in 1970 - Michael Ochs Archives
Pharoah Sanders in 1970 - Michael Ochs Archives

Pharoah Sanders, who has died aged 81, was an innovative saxophonist and modern jazz hero famed for his free-form arrangements, exploring the inner depths of a music that became known as “spiritual jazz”; he was described by another jazz great, Ornette Coleman, as “the best tenor player in the world”.

His distinctively rich playing initially came to attention with John Coltrane in the 1960s, but his intense melodic journeys into hitherto uncharted spheres – and his reluctance to explain them or engage with the music industry in conventional ways – made him a revered, charismatic and somewhat mystic figure.

He rarely gave interviews – and on the few occasions he did, said very little, painting himself as a jobbing musician just trying to make a living. “I was reaching out for something, I didn’t know what,” he said of his acclaimed 1969 album, Jewels Of Thought. Asked about “spiritual jazz”, he simply said: “It just happened. I just play what I feel like playing.”

He was born Ferrell Sanders in Little Rock, Arkansas, on October 13 1940, and grew up in a musical family – his grandfather was a mathematics and music teacher while his mother, a school cook, sang in clubs and gave piano lessons.

Sanders in the early 1970s: by then he was seen as the natural heir to John Coltrane, who died in 1967 - Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Sanders in the early 1970s: by then he was seen as the natural heir to John Coltrane, who died in 1967 - Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

He initially played drums in a school band, before purchasing a metal clarinet for $17 from a member of the congregation at his local church.

While still at school he would dress up to look older, wear a false moustache and sneak into clubs, where he became enthralled by the jazz and blues musicians he saw there – he would later claim that he was more of a blues than a jazz musician due to that early influence.

He rented an alto saxophone and played R&B in a group called the Thrillers, before moving to California to study music and art at Oakland Junior College, intending to pursue a career in commercial art. Trawling pawn shops, he traded his clarinet for a tenor sax and, inspired by the likes of Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, became part of the San Francisco Bay jazz community.

Drawn by stories of the new jazz scene in New York, he hitch-hiked there in 1962, but went through some tough times trying to get work, living on the streets, giving blood for $5 a time, and at one point even pawning his beloved saxophone.

But his persistence paid off, and he would hang out in Greenwich Village and get to play with some of the leading figures in modern jazz, including Don Cherry, Billy Higgins and Sun Ra – who reputedly suggested that he change his name from Ferrell to Pharoah.

Sanders’s break came when Coltrane, who he had first met in California, invited him to sit in with his band. He immediately made his mark, unleashing his trademark blaze of notes as Coltrane shattered the traditional rhythmic and harmonic structures of jazz on the celebrated albums Ascension and Meditations.

It was an instinctive partnership based on mutual respect but few words. “It was just good vibes,” said Sanders. “I asked him what he wanted me to do and he said ‘Just play’, so that’s what I did.”

Performing in The Hague in 1990 - Frans Schellekens/Redferns
Performing in The Hague in 1990 - Frans Schellekens/Redferns

Coltrane died in 1967, but Sanders was seen as his natural heir, taking on the meditative, spiritual mantle expressed on their last album together, the posthumously released Om, which perfectly gelled with the psychedelic culture of the times.

By then, Sanders had already made his first moves as a bandleader, releasing his debut, Pharoah’s First, in 1965 for the ESP-Disk label, before an extraordinary flurry of creativity which resulted in 11 albums in seven years for the Impulse! label. He took to wearing robes and referencing different religions and ethnic music from around the world as he fused fiery improvisations with majestic tunes.

He offered a rare insight into his philosophy on the sleeve notes for his first Impulse! album, Tauhid (1966): “I don’t really see the horn any more, I’m just trying to see myself. Everything you do has to mean something. It has to be more than just notes.”

The 1969 follow-up to Tauhid, Karma, was built around a 32-minute track, The Creator Has a Master Plan, and broke new boundaries with its extensive use of African percussion, non-western instrumentation, the guttural vocals of Leon Thomas, chants, and a form of yodelling apparently learnt from a tribe of African pygmies.

He also worked extensively with the pianist and harpist Alice Coltrane, John’s widow, and played soprano sax and percussion on her 1971 breakthrough record Journey in Satchidananda , though he was still seemingly full of self-doubt. “I loved what she was doing but I always felt I wasn’t good enough. She was more intellectual than I was.”

In the 1970s he was briefly signed to a major label, Arista, but despised the shallowness of the record industry and found a happier home on the independent label Theresa. There he followed his own unpredictable path, switching from extreme avant garde music to playing standards like Body and Soul and re-structuring old Coltrane compositions, while composing and producing his own records and touring with contemporaries like the pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Idris Muhammad and guitarist Sonny Sharrock.

Live at the Rose Bowl, Pasadena, in 2018 - Dave Safley/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News
Live at the Rose Bowl, Pasadena, in 2018 - Dave Safley/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News

Sanders’s star faded through the 1980s, but he broke new ground again in the following decade, working with the producer Bill Laswell and with Mahmoud Guinia, a Moroccan Gnawi singer and guembri player (a guembri is a three-stringed lute) on the album The Trance Of Seven Colours.

He worked with Laswell again on the 1998 album Save Our Children, which he regarded as one of his best. He also found a new audience when a trip hop remix of The Creator Has a Master Plan was included on an Aids benefit record, Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool, which Time named album of the year in 1994.

His last major achievement was Promises, a groundbreaking 2021 collaboration with the electronic producer and DJ Sam Shepherd (aka Floating Points) and the London Symphony Orchestra, which topped the US contemporary jazz album chart.

Pharoah Sanders, born October 13 1940, died September 24 2022