Pharoah Sanders, jazz icon, dies at 81 in Los Angeles

“Always and forever the most beautiful human being, may he rest in peace,” reads a statement released by his label Luaka Bop.

Legendary jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders has died, a representative from his music label Luaka Bop confirmed on Saturday. He was 81.

“We are devastated to share that Pharoah Sanders has passed away,” reads a statement released by the label, per Variety. “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.”

Pharoah Sanders. (Credit: YouTube – National Endowment for the Arts)

The Little Rock, Arkansas native, born Farrell Sanders on October 13, 1940, became revered over six decades for his tenor saxophone compositions. His music had spiritual, avant-garde melodies and drew upon a wide range of feelings – from peaceful to frantic.

Sanders picked up the tenor saxophone in high school after first learning to play drums and clarinet in church, he said in an exclusive 2020 interview with The New Yorker.

“I would rent the school saxophone. You could rent it every day if you wanted to. It wasn’t a great horn. It was sort of beat-up and out of condition. I never owned a saxophone until I finished high school and went to Oakland, California. I had a clarinet, and so I traded that for a new silver tenor saxophone, and that got me started playing the tenor,” Sanders said.

The young musician enrolled at Oakland Junior College in 1959 and developed a friendship with John Coltrane while performing in segregated local clubs, according to Pitchfork.

In 1962, he moved to New York with little money and no place to stay, yet quickly established himself in the city’s thriving jazz scene. In 1964, he began performing with Sun Ra, who gave Sanders the name “Pharoah,” per the outlet.

Sanders began his discography with the solo debut “Pharoah’s First” in 1964. Throughout the reminder of the decade, he performed and collaborated with influential artists of the genre including John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, Kenny Garrett and more, according to Pitchfork.

Among Sanders’ most famous works are “Karma,” his 1969 free jazz record featuring singles “The Creator Has a Master Plan” part one and two, as well as “Colors,” according to the New York Times

The prolific artist in total released over 30 solo albums and several dozen collaborative works, including his most recent release, the acclaimed 2021 album “Promises,” which featured Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra, per Variety.

“A lot of time I don’t know what I want to play,” Sanders told the New Yorker in 2020. “So I just start playing, and try to make it right, and make it join to some other kind of feeling in the music. 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.”

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