As Pharoah Sanders Tours the US, What Are the Origins of His ‘Searching Sound’?

Pharoah demonstrates a way to be in the world as a Black artist, expressing a sense of pride that does not violate privacy

Pharoah Sanders performing at Deutsches Jazzfestival, Frankfurt, Germany, 2013. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Oliver Abels

Pharoah Sanders performing at Deutsches Jazzfestival, Frankfurt, Germany, 2013. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Oliver Abels

‘Are there things you’ve never been able to say because no one ever asked you the right questions?’

Arthur Taylor, Notes and Tones: Musician-to-Musician Interviews (1993)

How Do We Plead this Blood?

We meet jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders’s searching sound in the mid-1960s on recordings with John Coltrane: Ascension and Meditations (both 1966). His tone carries the turmoil and resolve of Black survival, of donating blood to blood banks for money, sleeping on the mourners’ bench alongside actor and director Melvin Van Peebles, working as a chef in a basement restaurant in Greenwich Village; he did everything but give up his pursuit of a life as a jazz musician during his first years in New York. It was while working as a chef in that restaurant that Pharoah met and auditioned for Sun Ra’s band between cooking sessions. ‘If you’re looking for a new saxophonist, I might be a better one,’ he explained to Ra.

Pharoah Sanders in Warsaw, Poland, 1981. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Wojciech Soporek

Born Farrell Sanders in 1940 in Little Rock, Arkansas, everyone affiliated with him claims they gave him his stage name, but he credits his grandmother for devising the moniker ‘Pharoah’. He spent time in Oakland, California, where his nickname was Little Rock, to denote his natal location. And it’s accurate: there is something so resonant and mineral about his demeanour, his conduct, the way he speaks, what he withholds, so that, when convulsive bleating leaves his horn, a strange congruence emerges, an equation always balancing between composure and total release, between calm and tantrum.

Pharoah was born into the air-element, under the zodiac sign of Libra, and he rules the scales of that sonic justice as such, he upholds that sign’s origin myth, plays like a child of Venus, always aiming skyward in his sound, toward a divine and unlimited love not confined to this planet. For a while, he played with the Sun Ra Arkestra after that serendipitous audition, but, it’s almost like a shrug when he discusses its aesthetic influence, or he hides his awe well. Unlike many other Arkestra members, he was not put into a trance of never-ending loyalty to Ra’s sound. Pharoah is a leader in his own right, with a less saturnine message. He is also a master collaborator, and as compared to other jazz musicians of his era, pretty laconic; he has resisted the spectacle of jazz folklore by simply not revealing many details of his private life. This sparse biographical information allows him to live up to the iconic proportion his moniker demands: he is our royal court troubadour, a true, almost hermetic, iconoclast in an industry of personalities fragmented by gossip and trivia, and inextricably linked because of the intimacy of the collectively improvised music. He manages to be a part of that community without being a part of the hype factory. Pharoah’s spirit feels impervious to petty registers: his mission is too sacred; his aura is a destiny of healing sounds. He demonstrates a different way to be in the world as a Black artist – how to express a sense of pride that does not violate emotional privacy. His intimacy, rather, lies in his ability to collaborate, while remaining authentically himself. The singularity of his approach to identity is refreshing, and it floods his music with a voice even he cannot name or contain.

The Sun Ra Arkestra performing in London, UK, 2010. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Andy Newcombe

Why Play a Healing Song?

In the liner notes to his album New Music-New Poetry (1982), Amiri Baraka describes Black poetry as ‘music running into words’. Black music is sometimes words running into scream; everyone we love to hear has improvised on the scream. Pharoah Sanders has used screaming and yelling and growling and moaning and yodelling on his instrument to suggest new territory for language and sound grammar. Revolutionary Black music accesses that scream – the shrill obscenity of loudness – with matter-of-fact agility and approaches it as if it were the sole source of peace, tuning and atonement. On his 1972 recording Live at the East, we hear Pharoah eulogize John Coltrane in festival style and, in the track ‘Healing Song’, Coltrane’s spirit re-enters the earth plane through Pharoah and they have a conversation in brushes, whispers and a percussive bellow. Joe Bonner’s accompaniment on piano stands out, responding to Coltrane’s haunting presence with delight and meditative frenzy. This is a piece of music that heals and absolves and discloses the urgency of that reconciliation, the triumph of the heart that call and response between worlds is in Black musical tradition. Even as the audience interrupts to cheer, it complies with the aura of the song, which cannot be blurred by fanfare. Pharoah and Coltrane spent hours together playing music, but they also discussed health and healing extensively. Coltrane wanted to understand the body and to redeem his own after years of drug use, incessant rehearsing and reed pressure had rendered his vessel more difficult to inhabit, made his teeth vibrate with the intensity of his will. In Pharoah’s ‘Healing Song’, we hear the vitality Coltrane pursued restored to his spirit as the piece moves from dense and reverent to dancing, lilting, almost giggling release propelled by Bonner’s roiling rhythm. Flautist Carlos Garnett and saxophonist Harold Vick chant this eternal return into our mythic imagination as Pharoah re-enters, beyond scream now, in a state of ecstatic acceptance, as if he’s marching with the saints, his friends. This song heals by teaching us how to stand up and dance among ghosts, how to transition from haunted to empowered by simply deciding to raise the dead and let them speak, celebrating their lives through ours. This is Pharoah’s jazz funeral for John Coltrane. When Pharoah returns to howl toward the end of the 21-minute piece, he is at capacity, so full of triumph as he claps for his immortal friend, so healed of his longing to express that love. If we’ve truly listened to ‘Healing Song’, we’ve confessed something ourselves, given up our own ghosts, fallen back in love with something. No one hears this song completely until they need to. That’s the kind of music Coltrane and Pharoah make, together between two worlds: light and hesitant gongs, roaring applause and a kind of endlessly unravelling Black eucharist.

John Coltrane at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, the Netherlands, 1963. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Dutch National Archives; photograph: Hugo van Gelderen/Anefo

What Is the Karma of Contradictions?

Imagine having nothing to prove that you cannot sing. Imagine successfully resisting divulging personal information in interviews, refusing to have your private life exploited in the service of your talent and, instead, communicating your deepest feelings on stage. Imagine understanding the power of being understated in one realm and effusive in another and sticking to that dualistic force. As Baraka wrote in his liner notes for Pharoah’s album Karma (1969): ‘Pharoah has become one long song.’ That song embodies the stubborn grace of lament, a reverent mourning of what cannot but must be said, chanted, screamed. Album titles like Deaf Dumb Blind (1970) push that implication to its edge, while songs such as ‘Love Will Find a Way’ (1977) wrest it back with the confrontational optimism that keeps us believing in a way beyond what we have seen and experienced, beyond the karma of the West – he forces us to witness the invisible, but present and probable. As a singer, Pharoah is sincere, with a gnarled and soulful tone. ‘Sometimes I feel so good, giving love to you, and hope you feel the same as I do,’ he chants in ‘Love Will Find a Way’ before putting lips to saxophone and accompanying himself in hum and growl and stream. Pharoah remains most knowable as a master accompanist, whether in bands – with everyone from Norman Connors to Alice Coltrane to Sonny Sharrock – or for dancers, such as Alonzo King, or in spirit. Once you’ve heard him, the vibration never leaves you. Pharoah’s is the music of true Black optimism and dignity, the privacy of our own language as we invent it, as it strangles and liberates us in the same note.

Pharoah Sanders at Iridium, New York, USA, 2006. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Dmitry Scherbie

Without buying into the cult of persona, Pharoah manages to sustain our devotion to him and his music because he chooses to find the truth in his sound, as in his quietness. I embarked on profiling Pharoah Sanders’s sound, hoping to dig up some of the many unknowns of his biography but, ultimately, I realized how refreshing it is that, to know him, you have to listen to his music. Recently, while backstage with Pharoah and some bandmates post-show in Los Angeles, I was shown a photograph of Pharoah seated on an indigo-lit stage, his saxophone in his palms like a prayer, about a foot away from his mouth, eyes closed. It was explained to me that this was an image from Pharoah playing his horn without blowing into it, that’s how much resonance he creates, how deep his understanding of breath, beat, and life force is. Pharoah Sanders is a man with a sound that cannot be silenced or over-deciphered. He is a man as song, a force, and his songs tell us what they need us to know, not what we ask of them, the great ones demand understanding beyond explanation, they have to be known and heard on their own terms. Such is Pharoah Sanders, giving blood to every reed and reminding us of the space for quiet, for privacy, for mystery, that screams and chants and gorgeously mangled eternal love calls, afford.

Harmony Holiday is a poet and performer based in Los Angeles, USA. Her books Maafa and Reparations are both forthcoming in June. A third book, A Jazz Funeral for Uncle Tom, will be published in July.

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