Pharoah Sanders, legendary jazz musician, dies at 81

Pharoah Sanders, the legendary jazz saxophonist perhaps best known for his transcendent work with John Coltrane and for a solo appearance for Impulse Records beginning in the mid-1960s, who helped define the so-called spiritual jazz movement, has died. He was 81.

Sanders died in Los Angeles on Saturday morning, his record label Luaka Bop confirmed on Twitter. The cause of death was not specified.

“We are devastated to announce that Pharoah Sanders has passed away,” the label reads expression. “He passed away peacefully this morning surrounded by loving family and friends in Los Angeles. Always and forever the most beautiful person, may he rest in peace.”

Born into a musical family in Little Rock, Ark., Sanders grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he played with many of the area’s finest musicians, including saxophonists Dewey Redman and Sonny Simmons, pianist Ed Kelly and the Drummer Smiley Winters.

In 1961 he moved to New York where he was initially unable to make a living from his music but soon found work jamming with Sun Ra, Don Cherry, Billy Higgins and other jazz greats.

In 1965, Sanders joined Coltrane’s band as tenor saxophonist, and together they broke traditional jazz forms with albums like Ascension and Meditations.

“Coltrane’s ensembles with Sanders have been among the most controversial in jazz history,” according to Sanders’ website.

“Their music represents an almost total departure from traditional jazz concepts such as swing and functional harmony in favor of a teeming, irregularly textured, organic sonic blend for sound’s sake. Strength was a necessity in this band, and as Coltrane recognized, Sanders had it in abundance.”

After Coltrane’s death in 1967, Sanders performed briefly with his widow, Alice Coltrane, before separating to do his own projects.

A black man with a white beard and a hat sits on a couch and looks at the camera.

Jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders in 2020 in Los Angeles.

(Josie Norris/Los Angeles Times)

In 1969, Sanders released his most famous work, Karma, which included The Creator Has a Master Plan, a recording that became one of the most influential tracks of its time.

Sanders continued to release records as a bandleader and sideman through the 1970s and 1980s before his output waned in the ’90s.

After a long hiatus, he returned to the studio in 2021 to record Promises with electronic music producer Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra.

“My beautiful friend passed away this morning,” Floating Points wrote on Instagram following news of his death. “I am so fortunate to have known this man and we are all blessed that his art will stay with us forever. Thank you Pharaoh.”

Sanders’ complex and structurally fluid instrumental ideas influenced subsequent generations of musicians, including the LA scene that spawned Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington, Madlib, Carlos Niño and Terrace Martin.

In a 2020 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Sanders spoke softly and answered questions with one-sentence answers. When asked about his famous work, The Creator Has A Master Plan, and if the state of the world made him doubt a great design, his answer was short: The Creator Has A Master Plan. That’s it.”

At his side was his longtime friend and saxophonist Azar Lawrence, who added: “The message Pharoah has continued to give us is one of enduring hope. The Creator has a master plan – which means that all of this is within the master plan even during this time. Everything works together for our good.” Pharoah Sanders, legendary jazz musician, dies at 81

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