Important Arkansan: Pharoah Sanders

Department of Arkansas Heritage - Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Born in Little Rock in 1940, Grammy award-winning Ferrell “Pharoah” Sanders, noted jazz saxophonist, is recognized as a pioneer of the “free jazz” movement. Collaborations with artists such as Sun Ra and John Coltrane remain his most noted work, but his solo efforts stretch over four decades from 1964 to the present.

Click here to watch Sanders perform with William Henderson (piano), Dennis Carrol (bass) and George Fludas (drums), concluding the Iowa City Jazz Festival on July 7, 2013.

Sanders began his musical career accompanying church hymns on clarinet, but his initial artistic accomplishments were in art. He discovered the tenor saxophone while attending Scipio Jones High School in North Little Rock. His band director, Jimmy Cannon, introduced the student to jazz. When Cannon left the school, Sanders (still a student!) took over as the band director until a replacement was found. During the late 1950s, Sanders sneaked into clubs in downtown Little Rock to play with acts that were passing through. At the time, Little Rock was part of the touring route through Memphis, Tennessee, and Hot Springs for rhythm and blues (R&B) and jazz musicians, including Junior Parker. Limited by the state’s segregation and the R&B and jazz standards that dominated the Little Rock music scene, Sanders left for Oakland, California, where he lived with relatives and could play in both white and black clubs. While in the Bay Area, Sanders was given the nickname, “Little Rock.” During his stay in California, Sanders met and befriended John Coltrane.

Sanders transplanted himself again in 1961, this time to New York City. Making a living in the city is hard and Sanders had to sell his sax for money more than once. A year after moving, he joined Sun Ra’s “Arkestra” and received a new nickname, “Pharoah.” Sanders formed his first band in 1963 while still collaborating and making appearances on records with Don Cherry and Sun Ra. Beginning in 1964, Sanders and Coltrane began to work together on a regular basis. Critics have often claimed that Sanders pushed Coltrane into a more radical and experimental direction, but it is a claim that Sanders denies. The two played together and with Coltrane’s “free” group until Coltrane’s death in 1967.

Sanders’s first album, “Pharoah’s First,” was released on the Calibre label in 1964. Along with other experimental musicians, Sanders began to restructure and re-conceptualize the boundaries of jazz compositions. This movement was called “free jazz” and earned both acclaim and ridicule from critics. In 1966, Sanders released the first of a string of albums with Impulse! Records. Among these was his most critically acclaimed, “Karma” (1969). Sanders left Impulse! in 1973 and redirected his compositions back to earlier jazz conventions. He continued to explore the music of different cultures and refine his compositions. However, he found himself floating from label to label. He found a permanent home with a small label called Theresa in 1987, which was sold to Evidence in 1991. Frustration with record labels continued to plague Sanders for most of the 1990s. Also during this time, he went to Africa for a cultural exchange program for the U.S. State Department. Sanders’s major-label debut would finally come in 1995 when Verve Records released “Message from Home,” followed by “Save Our Children" (1998). But again, Sanders’s disgust with the recording business prompted him to leave the label. In 2000, Sanders released “Spirits” and, in 2003, a live album titled “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” Sanders lives in the Bay Area. He continues to compose music, including ballets, and tours in Europe and the United States. Read the Encyclopedia of Arkansas entry for more about the great Pharoah Sanders. [Pictured: Jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders in Little Rock; 2013. Photo by Mike Keckhaver.]