Pharoah’s real name is Ferrell Sanders, and he was born in Little Rock, Arkansas on October 13. It was his grandfather, a choir director, who first inspired him to enjoy music. While in high school, Sanders switched from the clarinet to the alto saxophone before settling on the tenor sax. Around 1959, he moved to the West Coast to attend Oakland Junior College, where he broadened his musical horizons by sitting in with avant-garde saxophonists like Sonny Simmons and Dewey Redman. It was there that Sanders first met and became friends with John Coltrane; nevertheless, it would be many years before the two would collaborate professionally.
Sanders moved to New York in 1961 to be a part of the city’s thriving jazz scene, at the time led by Coltrane. However, Sanders’ arrival in New York was rough, and he found himself living on the streets as he occasionally rehearsed with Sun Ra and his Arkestra. (It is supposed that Sun Ra inspired him to assume the title of Pharoah.) He had to pawn his horn after a while.
As Sanders built his solo career in New York, his luck began to flip, and by 1965 he was a member of Coltrane’s final quartet.
Late in life, Coltrane and, by extension, Sanders, who would become known for using his instrument in unique — anarchic and atonal — ways, reached a turning point with the 1965 recording and release of Ascension. A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle, recorded a few months after Ascension and released by Impulse! last year, showcases Sanders as an essential member of Coltrane’s four, elaborating on his most celebrated artistic statement. (Another recording from the same engagement, titled “Live in Seattle,” had been used as a benchmark by the avant-garde left for years following Coltrane’s death in 1967.)
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Sanders, despite his groundbreaking work, played down his technical accomplishments in favour of the emotional resonance he was after. Sanders said of himself in an interview from 1995, “I’m not too much of a technical player myself.” “In comparison to other musicians, I’m probably not all that cerebral of a performer. My specialty is… expression. So, I’ll just explain that that’s what I do.”
Sanders’s reputation as a spiritual elder allowed him to expand outside the jazz avant-garde scene, and his ability to convey emotion through music endured into new settings. Together with electronic artist Sam Shepherd (using the moniker Floating Points), and the London Symphony Orchestra, he released the album Promises in 2021, which was quickly heralded as a standout of that year’s music. The album is slow and contemplative, and at times it sounds like it was constructed specifically to provide space for Sanders’ voice and saxophone to float.
For a long time, Sanders’ music was underappreciated by the jazz establishment, particularly when considered independently of Sanders’ association with Coltrane. A rising generation of musicians, including tenor saxophonists Kamasi Washington, James Brandon Lewis, and Nubya Garcia, and multi-reedist Shabaka Hutchings, have been inspired by his powerful example and the scope of his music.
In an assessment of Black Unity for The Vinyl Factory, Hutchings said, “I find it difficult to view Pharoah Sanders as an individual.” My gut tells me that he exemplifies a creative philosophy that places communalism at the heart of the engine that propels spirit to materialise as sound.