Ferrell “Pharoah” Sanders was a Grammy Award-winning jazz saxophonist who showed a remarkable facility performing in a variety of styles, from free to mainstream, displaying what has been called “hard-edged lyricism.” Emerging from John Coltrane's groups of the mid-1960s, Sanders was known for his distinctive sound marked by overblowing, harmonic, and multiphonic techniques.
Sanders was born into a musical family, and he took up the clarinet as a child. In high school, he was first exposed to jazz by his band director. He switched to the tenor saxophone and soon played blues gigs around Little Rock. After high school, Sanders moved to Oakland, California, studying art and music at the Oakland Junior College. Known in the San Francisco Bay Area as "Little Rock," Sanders expanded his repertoire to include bebop, rhythm and blues, classical, and free jazz, performing with musicians such as Ed Kelly and Smiley Winters.
In 1961, he moved to New York City, where he first began to use the name "Pharoah." Sanders formed his first group in 1963 with pianist John Hicks, bassist Wilbur Ware, and drummer Billy Higgins. However, he came to greater prominence playing and recording with John Coltrane's band, first on the album Ascension and then on their dual-tenor recording Meditations (both 1965). Sanders was strongly influenced by Coltrane, including spiritual elements such as the chanting in his release Om. In 1968, he participated in Michael Mantler and Carla Bley's Jazz Composer's Orchestra Association album The Jazz Composer's Orchestra. A year later, Sanders recorded one of his most commercially successful albums, Karma, featuring the 33-minute track, "The Creator has a Master Plan," with pianist Lonnie Liston Smith and vocalist Leon Thomas' yodeling.
In the 1970s, Sanders began experimenting with African rhythms, such as on his 1971 album Black Unity with bassist Stanley Clarke, which continues to influence his music. In 1994 he traveled to Morocco to record The Trance of Seven Colors with Gnawa musician Mahmoud Guinia. Towards the end of the decade and into the 1980s, he continued to explore other styles of jazz, such as modal and hard bop, and ventured into rhythm and blues.
In 1988, Sanders received a Grammy Award (along with McCoy Tyner, Roy Haynes, Cecil McBee, and David Murray) for the album Blues for Coltrane: A Tribute to John Coltrane. His last recording Promises, released in 2021, was a collaboration with the British electronic musician Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra and was critically acclaimed.
Tauhid, Impulse!, 1966
Karma, Impulse!, 1969
Live, Theresa Records, 1981
The Creator Has a Master Plan, Tokuma Records, 2003
Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, & the London Symphony Orchestra, Promises, 2019-20
"I may be a man of few words to some, but the music I’ve produced 'says it all.' I am deeply grateful and humbly moved to be acknowledged and honored for the embodiments of my jazz works which has lasted for over more than a half century."