Arkansas Black Hall of Fame Distinguished Laureate Series Eight presented in Partnership with UA – Pulaski Tech Center for Humanities and Arts presents
Feb. 24 at 7 p.m.
Tickets must be reserved in advance
5:30 - 6:30 p.m. - Reception w/ appetizers and drinks
7 p.m. - concert
Pharoah Sanders - Biography
By Nick Castro
Pharoah Sanders is a leading figure in the world of jazz and one of last living legends with connections to players like Sun Ra and John Coltrane. His tenor saxophone playing has earned him royal status amongst free jazz players, critics and collectors. He was born Farrell Sanders in 1940 in Little Rock, AR. He came from a musical family. His grandfather was a teacher who taught both math and music. Sanders' mother and sisters sang in clubs as well as giving piano lessons. Sanders was musical himself, from an early age. He learned to play drums and played in his high school band. While playing in this group Sanders began to play tenor saxophone and quickly adapted to the instrument.
Originally Sanders was very interested in urban blues music and would often sneak into late night music clubs while still in high school. He got a gig playing with Bobby Bland and soon was doing short tours with a band called The Thrillers. His High School teacher, Jimmy Cannon, who was also a working jazz musician, exposed him to jazz and this took Sanders in an entirely new direction.
Once completing high school Sanders quickly packed his belongings and headed west to Oakland, where he attended Oakland Junior College to study commercial art. He was moonlighting in r&b, bebop and proto-free jazz combos and got a chance to work, while still very young, with musicians of high caliber such as saxophone players Sonny Simmons and Dewey Redman, who were both later to be major forces in new jazz and free jazz. Soon Sanders met Coltrane and the two would spend time searching local second hand shop for musical instruments. More and more Sanders was feeling attracted to the life as a professional musician and it overtook his aspirations to be an advertising artist. By the early sixties Sanders was listening to records by Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman and this inspired him to follow suit and move to New York where the major jazz scene was still happening. He would intermittently gain employment as a musician but he spent most his time honing his skills at rehearsals with Sun Ra and his Arkestra. He was not making much money though the the Arkestra and soon was living on the streets, trying to stay up all night playing and then scrounging for money during the day, often selling blood to eat. This was not uncommon among some of the new, progressive and dedicated members of the then burgeoning jazz scene. One of Sanders's hopes when moving to New York was to reunite with his friend John Coltrane but he soon realized that Coltrane's phone number had changed and it was proving rather difficult to find him. Soon Sanders realized that Coltrane was doing a residency at the famed Half Note club. This was in 1963. Sanders recalls that they would not allow him entry as he was dirty from living on the streets. Coltrane spotted him through the window and brought Sanders inside. The two, connected both through their music and through their devout muslim beliefs, played together on stage for the first time that night. This was not the true beginning of their musical partnership though. They did keep in touch but their musical paths would not cross again until 1965. Until then Sanders continued to pursue his career as a solo artist.
He agreed to do a record for New York indie label ESP and released his first album as a leader of a band. This was called Pharoah's First(1965 - ESP) and featured trumpet player Stan Foster, pianist Jane Getz, bassist William Bennett and drummer Marvin Pattillo. This album is still caught in between free jazz and swinging bebop, not unlike Cecil Taylor's first outings. This record can sound awkward, in retrospect of Sanders' later sound, as Sanders tries to restrain himself within the confines of his musical accompanists. He had previously recorded with Don Cherry and Sun Ra but it wasn't until he started playing with John Coltrane that he would fully unleash the fury of his saxophone on the world of free jazz.
One the records Sanders played on for Coltrane was Live at the Village Vanguard Again! (1966 - Impulse!). This record might be the most highly contested of all of the albums has done with Coltrane. Sanders' harsh squawking saxophone can sometimes sound grating against the gentle backdrop of pianist Alice Coltrane, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Rashied Ali. Others claim it to be a groundbreaking proclamation of free jazz. Either way it is a severe statement for both Sanders and Coltrane. Prior to this though Sanders played on Coltrane's Ascension (1965 - Impulse!) and Om (1965 - Impulse!), which laid the foundation of what was to come for both the world of free jazz and for Sanders as a musician and key figure in this scene. Om was a cathartic and spiritual release and truly one of the deepest and earliest musical explorations of this sort. Many have disregarded this album as brash, as offensive or as noise rather than music but Coltrane had often complained that critics never gave the artists the benefit of the doubt or a fair listen before jumping to their conclusions. Many see Om as standing the test of time as an important iconic album. It is definitely not light listening. Sanders would also play on Coltrane's last sessions which were released as Expression (1967 - Impulse!), which features Sanders on piccolo and flute. This album finds all of the musicians more subdued than on previous efforts, perhaps due to Coltranes failing health or perhaps due to the spiritual development the group was going through at the time.
After Coltrane's tragic death Sanders would record with further with Alice Coltrane, John's widow, on the album Karma (1969 - Impulse!), which is universally accepted as Sanders' masterpiece. Along with musicians Alice Coltrane and singer Leon Thomas, Sanders helps to create the genre of spiritual jazz with this album. Saxophonist Archie Shepp also shines on this one. In contrast to Sanders' earlier works, this album is relaxed and evocative through gentle invocations of mood.
Though sanders would continue to create works of artistic beauty and social/politcal relevance, such as Black Unity (1971 - Impulse!) and Deaf Dumb Blind (Summun Bukmun Umyum) (1970 - Impulse), his popularity would steadily decline until he could barely find work by the 90's. In the 80's Sanders attempted different style of music including new age, r&b and straight ahead jazz but nothing was selling well. Luckily in the recent decade their has been a resurgence of interest in free jazz and people are taking advantage of opportunities to see the living legend in action.
University of Arkansas - Pulaski Technical College
3000 West Scenic Drive
North Little Rock, AR 72118
Phone: (501) 812-2715