Pharoah Sanders Enters the DownBeat Hall of Fame

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“[Pharoah] was on a level close to Trane with that kind of openness and ferocity,” said former bandmate Tisziji Munñoz.

(Photo: Mark Sheldon)

The moment happened on a cloudy September evening in Los Angeles, in darkness around the neon-lit outline of the Hollywood Bowl. Some 12,000 people sat silent, lost in thought and reverence, held rapt by the upraised arms of conductor Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, whose image from the podium was glowingly displayed on the surrounding video screens. “It was one of the highlights of my life,” he said afterward. “I felt very much present, but also connected to other realms … like we all traveled to so many different realms. In that moment I wanted to make this silence long enough so that we could really get into that space.”

Perhaps Pharoah Sanders was also in that space, inhabiting some mysterious fold in the cosmos, having departed this world nearly a year to the day before that night at the Bowl. He is on the minds of many these days, including the readers of this magazine who have just voted him into the DownBeat Hall of Fame.

On that evening he was in the consciousness of both patron and player, as the in-absentia special guest for this performance of Promises (Luaka Bop), the critically acclaimed collaboration by minimalist composer Sam Shepherd (known as Floating Points) and Pharoah Sanders. It was the final recording the saxophonist would ever make. Shepherd took the stage with Atwood-Ferguson (Shepherd’s handpicked conductor) and seven other keyboardists, the Los Angeles Studio Orchestra and saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, who had the sublime honor of playing Sanders’ part.

Pharoah Sanders’ name also continues to trend online, thanks to a reissue of Pharoah (Luaka Bop), a 1977 album considered a rare Sanders classic. Six days prior to the performance at the Bowl, aficionados packed a large, audiophile-tuned room a block north of Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip for an exclusive listening of the newly pressed vinyl. A tallish, Swedish gent addressed the room, noting the plans he and Sanders had envisioned for this rollout. “I just saw this very exciting year ahead for us,” said Eric Welles-Nyström, “but, yeah, that was just a week before he passed.”

Welles-Nyström manages the record label Luaka Bop, and is responsible for the releases of both Promises and Pharoah. He told the audience, “There were so many people who loved Promises, and what [Pharoah] did on Promises. I wanted to have that same reaction for a record that was just his.” He paused, then said softly, “We’re here today, and it’s very exciting that it’s out, but we’re not here with him, and that’s — that’s a shame.”

The music began to flow from a $30,000 stereo system. And the rapt crowd was there with Pharoah Sanders, sonically reincarnated. The opening track, “Harvest Time,” starts casually with an affected electric guitar vamp.

“It’s just what I felt was the right groove for the moment,” said the guitarist, Tisziji Muñoz, who first played with Sanders in the mid-1970s when the saxophonist asked him to sit in at the Village Vanguard. “With this particular record you hear the sweetness and the love and affection that Pharoah delivered musically, and his kind, gentle spirit, but he could be, as we all know, ferocious.”

Muñoz experienced Sanders’ ferocity on that very first night at the Vanguard, exhorting Muñoz to play “on top of him,” like improvising gladiators.

“I realized that this was not for any other reason except for the psychic interaction of the melodic creativity between both of us,” said Muñoz. “Some people say that’s what he may have done with Trane. If he did it with John, then he would already know what the advantage could be if the vibrations between the two people were correct.”

Pharoah Sanders would not be who he became without John Coltrane. Born on Oct. 13, 1940, in Little Rock, Arkansas, Farrell Lee Sanders moved to New York in the early 1960s — penniless and homeless. He played when he could with a barely functioning saxophone, fortunately catching the ear of trumpeter Don Cherry, who invited Sanders to record with him and drummer Billy Higgins.

Later, Sanders was working as a cook at a club where Sun Ra was playing, and he asked the bandleader to consider him for future work. Ra obliged, bequeathing on him the name “Pharoah.” (Per Shepard’s request, the legacy Sun Ra Arkestra opened for Floating Points at the Hollywood Bowl.)

But in 1965, Sanders rose to another level when Coltrane, on the heels of his magnum opus, A Love Supreme (Impulse!), turned decisively but controversially toward free jazz with Ascension (Impulse!) for which Coltrane would amalgamate both seasoned and fresh-faced horn players: trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Dewey Johnson, and saxophonists Archie Shepp, John Tchicai, Marion Brown and Pharoah Sanders.

Of the aforementioned, only Sanders was retained by Coltrane for the short remainder of his life. Sanders had gone to San Francisco a few months after recording Ascension to see Coltrane’s quartet at the Jazz Workshop, just as his soon-to-be-mentor was, in Sanders’ words, “thinking of changing the group and changing the music, to get different sounds.”

Sanders was invited to sit in, and the following week, he traveled up to Seattle with Coltrane for a week’s run at The Penthouse, documented by three remarkable albums made in a 24-hour span: Live In Seattle, recorded at The Penthouse; Om, recorded in a studio the next day; and A Love Supreme: Live In Seattle, captured that same night back at The Penthouse. All three have been released on the Impulse! label.

On these crucial albums, where Coltrane first elevated Sanders to his side, Sanders, who never felt he deserved that place of honor, rises to challenge Coltrane, at times playing over the venerated saxophonist, as he one day would instruct his guitarist Muñoz to do. Perhaps Sanders was a living arrow, pointing to where Coltrane himself wished to go. Surely his presence reminded Coltrane they had crossed the Rubicon — there was no returning to things he once did.

And there was no turning back for Sanders, either. Coltrane passed the baton to complete their mission. Before he died, Coltrane had convinced Impulse! to sign Sanders, who rewarded the label with indelible albums, including Tauhid, Thembi, Jewels Of Thought and, most notably, Karma, from which his best-known work, “The Creator Has A Master Plan,” has become a generation-to-generation spiritual anthem.

Eleven minutes into “Harvest Time,” a new instrument is heard: a harmonium, played by Bedria Sanders, who had travelled with her then-husband to the countryside of Rockland County, New York, to a modest studio owned by engineer Bob Cummings.

“We were inseparable — everywhere he went, I went,” Bedria said over the phone from Ohio, where she grew up and where she first heard Pharoah play, under a big revival tent at a music festival. She gave “Harvest Time” its name, for the overcast autumn day when they recorded. Another song, “Love Will Find A Way,” was dedicated to her, featuring Pharoah’s own voice as he sings with passion and sincerity to his love right there in the studio.

“I loved his singing, you know, because he was so soulful,” said Dwight Trible, who himself sang with Sanders in Los Angeles, where the saxophonist lived the last decades of his life. “I stole a few licks from him myself,” he confessed over the phone.

Trible was mentored by Billy Higgins, who returned to L.A. in the late 1980s and co-founded the World Stage, a humble community space that became an incubator for multiple generations of West Coast jazz musicians. Sanders was one of countless influential and inspirational artists invited by Higgins to play there, witnessed by a 9-year-old Kamasi Washington, attending his first jazz show with his father.

Higgins advocated for Trible, whose deep voice conjures the power of a Paul Robeson, the sensitivity of a Johnny Hartman, and the intensity of a Pharoah Sanders. “[Billy] would always try to get them to let me sing,” Trible said of Higgins’ efforts with Sanders and other notable musicians. It was only until after Higgins’ death in 2001 that Sanders acquiesced, inviting Trible on stage. Sanders soon relocated to Los Angeles, and Trible joined his band, becoming a close friend.

“We were up in Oakland,” Trible recalled, “and on his bedside [Pharoah] had a recorder or something and he was listening to John Coltrane, and I was like, “Wow, he’s still listening to John … because, of course, he revered John Coltrane so much.

“They both had some kind of highly evolved spirituality about them … how do you go that deep in the well, where everything is scary, where it’s life and death? That’s the thing with John Coltrane and Pharoah — they went all the way down in the well. I just wonder, when you go down there, sometimes you have to pay the price, and maybe that might be why John Coltrane didn’t live very long.”

John Coltrane has a church named after him in San Francisco, but part of his spirit moves through Los Angeles, even more so after Sanders’ arrival. Trible is now the executive director of the World Stage, and there are whispers of his mentors in the endeavors of those from his community — Flying Lotus (a nephew of Alice Coltrane), Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin, Madlib, Mark de Clive-Lowe, Carlos Niño. So much of the creative music crafted by current artists in Los Angeles has direct or indirect inspiration from the same spirituality that guided Higgins, Coltrane and Sanders.

In 2014, Luaka Bop invited Sanders to New York’s Central Park to perform with Nigerian funk musician William Onyeabor, thus beginning Welles-Nyström’s role to look after Sanders whenever he performed for the label.

“I started visiting [Pharoah] here in L.A. in 2016, and that was the same time that we started working with Sam [Shepherd],” he recalled. Welles-Nyström played one of Shepherd’s albums for Sanders, who enjoyed it very much, and suddenly the quest materialized to get the two of them to record together. Furthermore, Welles-Nyström and Luaka Bop were keen on trying to make the reissue of Pharoah a reality.

The hardest part was convincing Sanders because he hadn’t released a new album for well over a decade, and he wasn’t eager to end his hiatus. Trible explained that Sanders had become wary of producers and record labels, many whom had shamelessly exploited him. He was especially paranoid about Pharoah, due to the anguish he felt from the numerous bootleg recordings already in existence. Welles-Nyström confirmed, “It made it really hard in many ways to reissue it because it was emotionally really stressful for him. He would see it on YouTube or heard about people pressing it, and it would just upset him so much.”

Welles-Nyström spent years trying to change Sanders’ mind. He flew to Los Angeles repeatedly to meet with the saxophonist, careful not to push too hard. They would often just hang out, eating Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles or ordering his favorite sandwich at Langer’s Deli. “Corned beef sandwich on egg bread with Russian dressing on the side,” Welles-Nyström recounted, “and if you ate there he would have a hot chocolate.”

It took the next three years for the friendship and trust to develop to the point where Sanders was finally ready. Welles-Nyström was, too, having secured a trove of archival photos (many from Bedria), press clippings and interviews, along with recordings of live performances of “Harvest Time,” all to be compiled into a box set that rightfully honored the celebrated album and its creator.

As the production of Pharoah moved forward, Sanders recorded Promises with Shepherd in June 2019. The entire piece revolves and evolves around a repeating four-chord sequence of intermittent arpeggiations between harpsichord and celeste. Sanders plays only occasionally but pivotally, his robust tone interchanging mysteriously with kaleidoscopic textures of keyboards and strings. It seems he is quite at home with this minimalist treatment, an epiphany that maybe Sanders has been playing his own version of minimalist music over his entire career.

The last time Welles-Nyström spoke with him face-to-face, Sanders had suffered a stroke and was moved to a health care facility. Yet he seemed revitalized, eager to recover and perform the music from Promises. Welles-Nyström flew back to New York, only to receive an urgent message 10 days later.

“Sam and I got on the next flight to Los Angeles,” he said, “And I think as we were touching down, he passed at like 2 a.m. that Saturday morning.”

They managed to make it all the way back to him. “He was still in his bed; he was still warm. We held his hand, we listened to music. He was just so beautiful, his long beard kind of like a mane, like a lion.”

In getting to know Pharoah Sanders, Shepherd and Welles-Nyström grew to love him.

And their efforts at the end of Sanders’ life allowed others who knew and loved him to express those sentiments one final time. Muñoz did so by listening again to Sprirt World (Anami), a favorite album of his from 1997, that Sanders played on. “[Pharoah] was on a level close to Trane with that kind of openness and ferocity — and I think I would call it generosity, because I think that’s what this spirit requires of us as musicians, to make what we what we feel is deepest and most powerful for ourselves available to the public,” he said.

Bedria Sanders affirmed, “He was a very good person, very generous. He had the heart of a baby, a baby’s heart.” She remembered Sanders often leading the crowd in meditation at the end of his shows with the aid of some metal, bowl-shaped gongs.

“The end of the concerts would be in complete silence,” she said. “He had the meditation bowls … and he would wait until they stopped vibrating, and people got quiet as it went down, and at the end it would just be silent.”

Trible had those same thoughts about Sanders’ shows as he was watching Promises performed at the Bowl.

“He would have those meditation bowls … it would be completely quiet in [the club] for anywhere from five minutes to something … And the thing about [Promises] is it felt like that same vibe … but this thing went on for an hour, that same feeling that you felt at his concerts.” Trible concluded, “I never would have thought to do a tribute to Pharaoh where you just play that sort of reverent kind of vibration to honor him.”

If Sanders’ life were a singular, epic performance, then the entire Hollywood Bowl vibrating into silent meditation was the ultimate ending.

“Sometimes the best moments would be in silence,” said Welles-Nyström of his time with Sanders. And so, the silence that Sam Shepherd wrote into the score, marking the end of his own time with Pharoah Sanders, was the best moment given to all of us that night, a quiet coda to this requiem for a ferociously generous spirit who was making one last journey down the deep well, exiting through some mysterious fold in the cosmos, to meet the creator of the master plan. DB



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