LOS ANGELES – Pharoah Sanders, the influential tenor saxophonist revered in the jazz world for the spirituality of his work, has died, his record label announced. He was 81.
Sanders, who launched his career playing alongside John Coltrane in the 1960s, died in Los Angeles early Saturday, said the tweet from Luaka Bop, the label that released his 2021 album, “Promises.” It did not specify a cause. A phone message to Luaka Bop in New York was not immediately returned.
“We are devastated to share that Pharoah Sanders has passed away. He died peacefully surrounded by loving family and friends in Los Angeles earlier this morning. Always and forever the most beautiful human being, may he rest in peace,” said the label's message on Twitter, accompanied by a heart emoji.
Among the saxophonist's best-known works was his two-part “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” from the “Karma” album released in 1969. The combined track is nearly 33 minutes long.
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1940, Sanders began his early musical life by playing drums, then the clarinet in church. In high school, he began renting out the school saxophone. After high school he moved to Oakland, California, where he intended to attend art school. But he soon moved to New York to join the city's avant-garde jazz scene. He hitchhiked his way across country, he told The New Yorker magazine in 2020.
Arriving in 1962, he could hardly afford the New York life. “I was trying to survive some kind of way," he told the magazine. "I used to work a few jobs here and there, earn five dollars, buy some food, buy some pizza. I had no money at all.”
In 1965, he joined Coltrane's band. “I couldn’t figure out why he wanted me to play with him, because I didn’t feel like, at the time, that I was ready to play with John Coltrane,” Sanders said. “He always told me, ‘Play.’ That’s what I did.”
When Coltrane died, Sanders continued playing for a time with his wife, Alice Coltrane. He also started leading his own bands. His most commercially successful work came for Impulse Records, including the renowned “Karma” album.
After more than a decade of performing but not recording albums, Sanders released the much-admired “Promises” in 2021, with producer Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra. Rolling Stone called it “both startlingly minimal and arrestingly gorgeous.”
Known for his style of so-called spiritual jazz, Sanders, still actively playing, confessed in the 2020 New Yorker interview that "a lot of (the) time I don’t know what I want to play.
“So I just start playing, and try to make it right, and make it join to some other kind of feeling in the music,” he said. “Like, I play one note, maybe that one note might mean love. And then another note might mean something else. Keep on going like that until it develops into — maybe something beautiful.”