Jazz Musician | Class of 2004
Pharoah Sanders is a noted jazz saxophonist who is recognized as a pioneer of the “free jazz” movement. Collaborations with artists such as Sun Ra and John Coltrane remain his most noted work, but his solo efforts stretch over five decades from 1964 to the present.
An only child, Pharoah Sanders was born Ferrell 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. Sanders began his musical career accompanying church hymns on his clarinet. His initial artistic accomplishments were in art, and it was not until he was at Scipio Jones High School in North Little Rock that Sanders discovered the tenor saxophone. The band director, Jimmy Cannon, was also a saxophone player and introduced Sanders to jazz. When Cannon left Scipio Jones High School, Sanders—still a student—took over as the band director until a permanent director could be found.
During the late 1950s, Sanders sneaked 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, Arkansas, for rhythm and blues (R&B) and jazz musicians, including Junior Parker. Sanders found himself limited by both 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 during this time that he met and befriended John Coltrane.
Sanders transplanted himself again in 1961, this time to New York City. He often found himself financially destitute and on more than one occasion had to sell his saxophone. A year after moving to New York, Sanders joined Sun Ra’s Arkestra and received another nickname, “Pharoah,” which proved to have more staying power than the name “Little Rock.”
Sanders formed his first band in 1963 while still collaborating and making appearances on records with Don Cherry and Sun Ra. Beginning in 1964, Sanders and Coltrane began to work together on a regular basis. Critics have often claimed that Sanders pushed Coltrane into a more radical and experimental direction, but it is a claim that Sanders denies. Sanders continued to play with Coltrane and his “free” group until Coltrane’s death in 1967.
The same year that Sanders began playing with Coltrane, Sanders’s first album, Pharoah’s First, was released on the Calibre label. Along with other experimental musicians, Sanders began to restructure and re-conceptualize the boundaries of jazz compositions. This movement was called “free jazz” and earned both acclaim and ridicule from critics. In 1966, Sanders released the first of a string of albums with Impulse! Records. Among these was his most critically acclaimed, Karma (1969), containing his most recognized recording, “The Creator Has a Master Plan.”
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. Frustration with record labels continued to plague Sanders 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 debut would finally come in 1995 when Verve Records released Message from Home, followed by Save Our Children (1998). Again, Sanders’s disgust with the recording business prompted him to leave that label, as well. In 2000, Sanders released Spirits and, in 2003, a live album titled The Creator Has a Master Plan.
Sanders lives in the Bay Area. He continues to compose music, including ballets, and he tours in Europe and the United States. In October 2015, he was named one of the recipients of a 2016 Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts.