Pharoah Sanders, revered saxophonist and key figure in spiritual jazz, dies at 81

Pharoah Sanders, the saxophonist who was a prominent collaborator with John Coltrane and a key figure in the spiritual jazz scene, has died. He was 81.

Known for his overblowing, harmonic, and multiphonic techniques and his use of the “sheets of sound” improvisational style, Sanders played a major role in the development of free jazz and spiritual jazz throughout his career. Ornette Coleman described him as “probably the best tenor player in the world.”

Sanders died on Saturday at his home in Los Angeles. The news was confirmed by his record label Luaka Bop on Twitter.

“We are devastated to share that Pharoah Sanders has passed away,” the label’s statement read. “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.”

Born Oct. 13, 1940, in Little Rock, Arkansas, Farrell Sanders began playing the tenor saxophone in high school. In the late ’50s, he would often sneak into Black jazz clubs to play with touring acts while they were passing through. He graduated and moved to Oakland, California, in 1959, and then moved on to New York in 1961.

In those early years, he met and befriended John Coltrane and Sun Ra, the latter of whom encouraged him to use the name “Pharoah.” Sanders became a member of John Coltrane’s band in 1965, following his lead as he was adopting the avant-garde jazz styles of Albert Ayler, Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor. He first played on Ascension and recorded a dozen albums within a span of just two years. Sanders also released his first album as a leader, Pharoah’s First, in 1965, but it wasn’t until he signed with Impulse! a year later that he caught the attention of fans and critics. He produced his best-selling work throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s, including seminal albums such as Tauhid and Karma. Among Sanders’ best-known works is his two-part composition The Creator Has a Master Plan from 1969.

Sanders continued recording throughout the decades, releasing more than 30 albums as a leader and many others as a sideman for Alice Coltrane, Leon Thomas, Don Cherry, Kenny Garrett, Tisziji Muñoz, McCoy Tyner and others. His last album Promises was released in 2021.