In Oakland, California, where he was born, Pharoah Sanders started out as a professional musician on the tenor saxophone. After playing in rhythm and blues bands for a while, he relocated to New York City in the year 1961. Sanders was often homeless, and Sun Ra reportedly gave him a place to live, clothes, and encouraged him to use the name “Pharoah.” This information was included in the biography of Sun Ra. In 1965, he joined the band of John Coltrane, just as Coltrane was beginning to incorporate elements of the avant-garde jazz style popularized by Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, and Cecil Taylor. Sanders made his debut with John Coltrane on the album Ascension, which was released in June 1965. They then collaborated on the album Meditations, which featured both of their tenors (recorded in November 1965). Following this, Sanders became a member of Coltrane’s final quintet, where he typically played lengthy, discordant solos. Sanders was a major contributor to the development of Coltrane’s later style.
Sanders was affected by Sanders and Coltrane’s partnership, despite the fact that Sanders’ voice evolved differently from John Coltrane’s. Later on, Sanders would include chanting and other spiritual practices into many of his own works, similar to how he did in Om. Sanders would also go on to produce a great deal of free jazz, albeit it would be influenced by Coltrane’s solo-centric approach. In 1968, he was a contributor to the record The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, which was produced by Michael Mantler and Carla Bley under the auspices of the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra Association and featured Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, Larry Coryell, and Gato Barbieri.
The first album released by Pharoah, titled Pharoah’s First, did not turn out the way he had anticipated. Sanders was considerably more plain in his performance than the other musicians who were performing with him, which caused the solos that were played by the other players to seem a little out of place. Sanders began his association with Impulse! by signing a contract with the label in 1966, the same year he recorded Tauhid. During his time with Impulse!, he was able to attract the attention of jazz fans, reviewers, and performers alike, including John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Albert Ayler.
Sanders maintained his role as a producer for his own albums throughout the 1970s, while also maintaining his collaboration with Alice Coltrane on the album Journey in Satchidananda. The majority of Sanders’ best-selling work was created in the late 1960s and early 1970s for Impulse Records. This includes the free jazz wave-on-wave composition “The Creator has a Master Plan” from the album Karma, which is thirty minutes long. The distinctive “umbo weti” yodeling of vocalist Leon Thomas was incorporated in this piece, along with Sanders’ primary musical partner, pianist Lonnie Liston Smith, who collaborated with Sanders from 1969 until 1971. On albums like Jewels of Thought, Izipho Zam, Deaf Dumb Blind, and Thembi, his other ensembles featured musicians like bassist Cecil McBee, who was a part of his groups during this time period.
Sanders’ kind of bold free jazz was backed by African-American radio, but it ultimately failed to gain widespread popularity. Beginning with his exploration of African rhythms on the 1971 album Black Unity (which he recorded with bassist Stanley Clarke), he gradually diversified his musical style over time. Sanders experimented with a variety of musical styles throughout the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, including R&B (Love Will Find a Way), modal jazz, and hard bop. Sanders parted up with Impulse! in 1973 and thereafter refocused his compositional efforts on previous jazz standards. He continued his investigation into music from a variety of cultures while simultaneously refining his own works. On the other hand, he found himself jumping from one label to the next. In 1980, he joined the roster of a relatively obscure label known as Theresa; the following decade saw the label’s acquisition by Evidence. Despite this, Sanders would continue to feel a lack of support from record labels for the majority of the 1990s. Additionally, during this time period, he participated in a cultural exchange program sponsored by the United States Department of State and traveled to Africa.
Sanders made an appearance on a reissue of a song that he had finished for Theresa Records in 1979 and named Ed Kelly and Friend. This recording was released in 1992 by the Evidence label under the title Ed Kelly and Pharoah Sanders.
The version released in 1992 includes bonus tracks, some of which feature Robert Stewart, who was Pharoah’s student. Sanders traveled to Morocco in 1994 in order to record the album “The Trance of Seven Colors” with the Gnawa artist Mahmoud Guinia, which was produced by Bill Laswell. In the same year, he made an appearance on the album Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool by Red Hot Organization. He collaborated with Umar Bin Hassan and Abiodun Oyewole on the single “This is Madness,” and he was included on the bonus track “The Creator Has A Master Plan (Trip Hop Remix).” Time magazine honored the album by bestowing upon it the “Album of the Year” title. In addition, he worked along with drummer and composer Franklin Kiermyer on the album Solomon’s Daughter, which was also released on the Evidence label (re-released with 3 previously unreleased tracks on the Dot Time label in 2019).
Sanders made his comeback to big labels in 1995 with the publication of Message from Home by Verve Records, which was immediately followed by Save Our Children (1998). But again, Sanders’ loathing for the recording industry was the driving force for his decision to leave the label. Sanders collaborated on the albums Message From Home (1996) and Save Our Children (1997) with a number of other musicians, including Laswell and Jah Wobble (1999). In an interview in 1999, he expressed his frustration that, despite his impressive background, he was unable to secure gainful employment. In 1997, he made appearances on multiple albums released by Tisziji Muoz, one of which was titled Rashied Ali.
Sanders was able to continue giving concerts, playing festivals such as the 2004 Bluesfest Byron Bay, the 2007 Melbourne Jazz Festival, and the 2008 Big Chill Festival, as well as releasing recordings, since there was a revival of interest in jazz in the 2000s. In 2003, he collaborated with the band Sleep Walker on a recording, and he has a sizable fanbase in Japan. Spirits was released by Sanders in the year 2000, and The Creator Has a Master Plan was a live album released by Sanders in the year 2003. He was presented with an NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship for 2016, and on April 4, 2016, he was honored at a concert in Washington, DC, dedicated to his memory.
In the year 2020, Sanders participated in the recording of a collaborative effort with the electronic music producer Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra. The record, which was published in March 2021 and was given the name Promises, was the first significant new album to be issued by Sanders in almost two decades and was the first of its kind in over two decades. The album received very positive reviews from music publications, with Pitchfork referring to it as “a definite late-career masterpiece.”
Anna Sala, an artist manager working for AMS Artists and AB Artists, was the one in charge of Sanders’s career both at the time of his passing and in the years leading up to it.