Pharoah Sanders Found His Voice in New York City

Photo: Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

A prodigious talent like Pharoah Sanders wasn’t meant to live in Little Rock, Arkansas. The racism in his hometown was too thick, too stifling, too on the nose. “You had to play behind the curtain,” the tenor saxophonist once said. “They didn’t want to see Black people. They fed us, we had our little place where we ate, but they didn’t allow white people in there. Most of the jobs I played, a lot of parties and weddings, that’s how it was.”

So, in 1959, Sanders headed west some 1,900 miles to Oakland, California, where he lived for two years before decamping to New York City at the urging of his friend Smiley Winters, a Bay Area drummer who earned money by tarring parking lots. “He told me, ‘Yeah, man, with your sound, you don’t need to be here, you need to go to New York City,’” Sanders recalled. “And I listened to him. He said, ‘You want to go, know all your standard tunes, and you have to have a tuxedo when you work.’ I didn’t have no suit.”

Sanders, a wandering spirit who died at the age of 81 on Saturday, maintained an easygoing nature well into his golden years. Known as a spiritual jazz pioneer alongside saxophonists John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, his style centered piercing shrieks that divided critics and listeners who bad-mouthed his atonal wails and frenetic rhythmic structure. But Sanders always held true to his vision, releasing several albums that merged the textures of jazz, soul, and gospel, amassing a fan base of equally adventurous listeners who felt the introspective aspects of his work. It was in New York City where Sanders solidified that vision and met other would-be legends who, like him, were just trying to make a way.

He got to New York in 1961 with just the clothes on his back and his saxophone, which he carried in a heavy old case made of lumber. With no place to go, he walked all the way from 1st Street to 116th Street, trying to make sense of his new environment. “I don’t know how I survived,” Sanders once recalled of those years in New York. “I was hungry.” He was also broke. To earn money, Sanders started giving blood at a center he found on 42nd Street; each time he donated, he got five dollars. Sanders took that money and bought small hamburgers, 15-cent pizza slices, and wheat germ. He’d go into movie theaters and sleep during the day; at night, he’d head down Bleecker Street and stroll around with his horn, trying to land gigs. When Sanders learned a café on MacDougal Street was in need of a chef, he applied and got the gig. Later, he would meet Sun Ra — whose idiosyncratic blend of jazz often sought life on other planets — while performing in the café’s main room. Sanders introduced himself to the eccentric pianist and bandleader, telling him he played saxophone. “He looked at me and said, ‘I already have somebody,’” Sanders said. (By 1964, Sun Ra had changed his tune, inviting Sanders to play with him at Judson Hall on New Year’s Eve.)

When Sanders wasn’t performing music or working at the café, he would ride the subway — anywhere and everywhere, trying to figure out the city as quickly as possible. He’d take the train to the end of line, then to Washington Square Park, where he’d sit on a bench and play his saxophone. He’d venture to the Five Spot jazz club on Third Avenue but couldn’t go inside because he looked raggedy. “I looked pretty bad at that time, so I can understand why they didn’t want [me] hanging around the club,” Sanders said. “People were just getting out of their limousines in suits and ties and all that. I’m on the street, with the shoes I’d been walking around with, hair messy.” He’d listen through the windows as the legendary Thelonious Monk played piano: “Seemed like Monk was playing every night.” Around this time, Sanders started developing his own playing style, a sound rooted in the emerging free jazz scene but connected to bebop. In his earlier work, you can hear Sanders’s horn shrieking and squealing over straight-ahead swing.

Despite his personal hardships, it was an exciting time to be in New York City. Not only was a new jazz movement exploding in downtown coffee shops and tiny clubs, a young man from Minnesota named Bob Dylan was making his way through the neighborhood with a harmonica and acoustic guitar, carving out his own creative corner. It was there in the Village where Sanders’s life would change forever.

One night, he went to a club called the Speakeasy and told the talent booker that he played saxophone. The man asked Sanders if he had a band; he said yes, even though he didn’t. So he called his friend, the Philadelphia-born alto-sax player Clarence “C” Sharpe, and soon rounded out the group with bassist Wilbur Ware, pianist John Hicks, and drummer Billy Higgins. Sanders was officially a bandleader. Sanders didn’t have a grand coming-out moment like Dylan. He didn’t play gorgeous notes like Coltrane or see the future like Sun Ra — who would sometimes give him a place to stay, and even bought him a fresh pair of pants to help replace the tattered clothes he’d been wearing. Sanders simply kept grinding and making genuine connections that helped him professionally.

In 1965, Coltrane — having been impressed with Sanders’s work in the city — tapped Sanders to play in his band, appearing on the free-jazz-focused Ascension a year later. That year also saw the release of Sanders’s debut album, Pharoah’s First, a sprawling 50-minute opus recorded for the ESP-Disk label and with music far more traditional than what the bandleader would craft just three years later. You could still hear the smoke, though: “Seven by Seven” is all breathy, discordant saxophone wails set atop a swinging drum loop and undulating bass. The album’s other song, “Bethera,” is a bebop tune, with quick drum taps and billowing horns that seem to restrict Sanders’s best asset: his bluster.

At Coltrane’s urging, Sanders was given a deal with Impulse! Records and released his major-label debut, Tauhid, a year later. Here, he took the first steps toward the sound for which he’d become known, releasing an enlightened set of probing art tethered to spiritual healing. Across three expansive tracks, there was a sense that he wanted to go somewhere, and at the very least, heal a jazz community in a constant state of upheaval. In 1967, Coltrane died of liver cancer at the age of 40. By 1970, another spiritual jazz pioneer, Albert Ayler, died under mysterious circumstances in Brooklyn. Suddenly, the Holy Trinity of Spiritual Jazz had been winnowed to one — Pharoah Sanders, the Son to Coltrane’s “Father” and Ayler’s “Holy Ghost,” as Ayler once put it — who had to carry the mantle himself. The year prior, Sanders released his biggest and most celebrated album, Karma, carried by the propulsive 32-minute epic, “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” a sprawling mass of yodeling (courtesy of the experimental vocalist Leon Thomas), blazing saxophone wails, and meditative chants.

Sanders’s style had detractors in the media: New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett compared it to “elephant shrieks,” and Dennis Hunt, in the San Francisco Chronicle, deemed it “primitive” and “nerve-wracking.” Nonetheless, Sanders kept ascending: In 1971, he was a featured player on Alice Coltrane’s most acclaimed album, Journey in Satchidananda, his billowing horn adding fumes to the bandleader’s celestial orchestration. By 1974, Sanders had released eight albums — Thembi, Live at the East, Black Unity, Village of the Pharoahs, Wisdom Through Music, Izipho Zam (My Gifts), Elevation, and Love in Us All — with the mix of African rhythm, folk, Indian classical, and gospel becoming the epicenter of spiritual jazz.

As the fire of free jazz dimmed in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Sanders downshifted to ambient and smooth jazz, slowing his output and fading from public view. A record like Moon Child — released in 1990 on the Dutch label Timeless Records — showed that he still had the chops, even though it flew under the radar. Still he persevered, playing various nightclubs throughout the world and surviving on publishing royalties. “I have just been lucky,” he told All About Jazz in 2003. “They come in at the right time. Sometimes they don’t, but I am not wealthy or anything like that.” By then, Sanders had moved to Los Angeles, but was having trouble finding bandmates with the same energy he exuded. As he once put it, the musicians he linked with in New York City could match his intensity and play shows all night long. In L.A., he told All About Jazz, “they play a little bit and that’s about it.”

By 2015, with America divided along racial and political lines, there was a newfound appreciation for the type of spiritual work Sanders, Coltrane, and Ayler played some 50 years prior. The music conveyed the angst of watching unarmed Black people be killed by police without consequence. Kamasi Washington, an L.A.–raised saxophonist and bandleader, released an album called The Epic that not only traversed the spectrum of spiritual jazz, it scanned bebop, big band, and post-bop as well. Then there was Shabaka Hutchings, a British saxophonist who, in 2016, put out the excellent Wisdom of Elders with the collective the Ancestors, a direct callback to the iconoclastic sound Sanders developed in Greenwich Village. All of a sudden, “jazz was back,” so went the narrative, and so was Sanders. His reemergence culminated with the release of Promises, the Floating Points–led LP featuring Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra, in 2021. Though technically a Floating Points album, much of the critical praise went to Sanders, whose melodic chords and light coos brought character to the producer’s looping harpsichord. For a generation of Pharoah Sanders fans, we were just happy he had returned. It felt like a new beginning and a full-circle moment for one of jazz music’s last innovators.

Even up to his passing, and now in reflection beyond it, there’s this feeling that Sanders is underrated in the pantheon of jazz luminaries. It’s likely because he was never enamored with such accolades, and he never presented himself as better than the musicians he worked with. To see Sanders was to see a man still learning, still searching, still resting idly as the orbit swirled around him. There was an almost indescribable aura with both him and the music, a regal perch that shines through Instagram photos and brief conversations on the telephone. Sanders didn’t say much, but he didn’t need to: There was a palpable energy to the icon that you felt instantly, the same sort of hypnotism that transfers through songs like “Astral Traveling” and “Elevation.” Sanders not only represented the heart and hustle of New York City, he embodied its communal spirit as well. Be it the volcanic peaks or meditative valleys of his work, Sanders always spoke a very clear message: Love is everywhere, and it always finds a way.

Pharoah Sanders Found His Voice in New York City