A church with open doors: the ecstatic power of Pharoah Sanders

The spiritual jazz legend was a man of few words – but his expansive, effusive playing said everything

John Coltrane, speaking to jazz musician Albert Ayler, once described himself, Pharoah Sanders and Ayler as “the father, the son and [the] holy ghost”. Sanders played sideman to Coltrane on many crucial recordings, and, like Coltrane, Sanders could cut it both ways: roll out a spiritual groove that landed like breakers on the shore, or splice the air itself into a trigonometry of fire and aether. He leant into a broadly multicultural spiritualism in his music, but could take flight in ferocious exaltations on his saxophone. His music spoke volumes, while he himself preferred not to, and is at the core of any spiritual jazz discography. As Ben Ratliff wrote in the New York Times in 1999, Sanders was “one of the holy monsters of American music”. With the passing of the son, the last member of Coltrane’s last band is gone, and a crucial connection to the potent and now legendary New York jazz scene of the 1960s and 70s is severed.

Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Farrell Sanders began by playing a clarinet he bought from a recently deceased member of the congregation at his church for $17. He moved briefly to Oakland, California, then in 1962 hitch-hiked to New York without a plan. He arrived homeless, essentially, and took to donating blood to earn money to eat. He listened to jazz being played in the clubs from outside, lived off cheap pizza and worked odd jobs, sometimes sleeping in cinemas in the day. He was not alone in this deprivation – in a review of reissues in The Wire 343, music journalist Philip Clark reminds us that: “learning the vicissitudes of the jazz life, you’re reminded of how thoroughly these musicians were marginalised, socially and culturally”. In a 2020 New Yorker interview he was described as still seeming like just another musician trying to make a living – which has much to say about the lack of provision for towering cultural figures of American jazz such as Sanders.

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