Legendary Jazz Giant Pharoah Sanders Dies at 81

Pharoah Sanders, who played with John Coltrane and who was a crucial component of the spiritual jazz movement, died at the age of 81.

Legendary jazz musician Pharoah Sanders has died. His label, Luaka Bop, made the announcement on Saturday morning (September 24th.) The jazz giant was 81 years old.

The label did not reveal the cause of death. In the social media message announcing the death, the label wrote:

“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 was born Farrell Sanders, in 1940. Raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, Sanders would head to Oakland after high school. In 1961, he ended up in New York City, where he started collaborating with Sun Ra. Sanders, who was often homeless, would crash at his apartment. (Legend has it, that one point Sanders had to pawn his horn.) Sun Ra was the one who gave him the name Pharoah. 

In the mid 1960s, he became a member of John Coltrane’s band, playing with the jazz giant until his death in 1967. Although he was never an official member, Sanders played on all of the Coltrane albums throughout the last phase of Coltrane’s career (known as Coltrane’s free jazz stage.) Sanders was a crucial component to Meditations, which was released in 1966. 

In an expansive interview with the New Yorker released in 2020, Sanders talked about his relationship with Coltrane, saying:

“He always had some kind of a way of looking to the future, like a kaleidoscope. He saw himself playing something different. And it seemed like he wanted to get to that level of playing — I don’t know if it was a dream that came to him, but that’s what he wanted to do. 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. Being around him was almost, like, “Well, what do you want me to do? I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”

He always told me, “Play.” That’s what I did.”

After Coltrane’s death, Sanders would play with John’s widow, Alice. In 1969, Sanders would release what many would call his greatest piece of work as a lead artist: Karma. The album, alongside A Love Supreme and Journey in Satchidananda”, is considered to be one of the most crucial spiritual jazz albums. 

Sanders would record albums throughout the ’70s and ’80s, but results — commercially and critically — were often mixed (There was even a disco stage.) During these years, Sanders had a hard time finding a record label home, doing albums with labels like Arista Records, Theresa, and Doctor Jazz.

In the ’90s and 2000s Sander’s output slowed, even as he still put out albums sporadically. In 2021, he released Promises, a collaboration with Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra. He also reissued a number of his older albums, with his last being Live in Paris (1975) (Lost ORTF Recordings).

When his death was announced, a number of  collaborators and admirers posted tributes on social media.



Dimas Sanfiorenzo

Dimas Sanfiorenzo is the Managing Editor for Okayplayer. He specializes in coverage centered around music, pop culture, and politics. Email:

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