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My Conversation with Pharoah Sanders

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I'm not a jazz artist. Don't get me wrong now, it's all music to me. I just played music and if it's likeable, someone liked the sound, then fine, but I'm not interested in being a jazz musician. I don't consider myself a jazz musician. I don't have anything to do with that word.
From the 1995-2003 archive: This article first appeared at All About Jazz in February 1999.

When I first heard "The Father And The Son And The Holy Ghost" off of John Coltrane's Meditations, I was floored. I got the same reaction when I first heard Maria Callas sing "Vissi d'arte" in Victor de Sabata's interpretation of Puccini's Tosca. Callas was simply better than everyone else. She was on a whole different level than we were and thus the moments we shared with her were truly a gift. In that same way, Coltrane was on a different playing field. So to share a moment with Coltrane was precious. Pharoah Sanders was only twenty-five when he made that record with Coltrane, but he played the shit out of his horn, and I can't imagine Meditations would have worked without him. Through the years, Sanders has had his share of bad press. Too out, too soft, nothing seemed to be enough. This takes a toll on a person and Sanders became more and more reticent as the years went by and the criticism grew. This is an opportunity to get a unique look into one of the legends of avant-garde, uncensored, uncut, and in his own words.

All About Jazz: You came from a humble background in Little Rock, Arkansas, bring me up to date on how you came to play the music?

Pharoah Sanders: Well, I was always playing music. I played in school, played in the school band. If I can get away from the question for a bit, people refer to me as a jazz artist. I'm not a jazz artist. Don't get me wrong now, it's all music to me. I just played music and if it's likable, someone liked the sound, then fine, but I'm not interested in being a jazz musician. I don't consider myself a jazz musician. I don't have anything to do with that word.

AAJ: At that time, was the saxophone your instrument of choice?

PS: No, clarinet was.

AAJ: What propelled you to make the transition to playing the saxophone?

PS: I was always fooling around with several different instruments. When I was in high school, I always played the tenor on the weekends. I was, maybe, about sixteen years old, so I got to know the saxophone just as well as the clarinet. The real transition started when I started playing jobs, like blues jobs, back in Arkansas. That's where I learned the tenor. This is after I finished high school and I stopped playing clarinet and concentrated more on the tenor saxophone.

AAJ: At that early stage, did you have any particular influences musically?

PS: I had influences back in my hometown. A tenor saxophonist from Memphis, Tennesse. I listened to him. I also listened to my band teacher. He was a great person and a great teacher, and I admired him. He was my influence. I used to listen to him play a whole lot. I always wanted to play like him. He used to always encourage me. He encouraged everybody to practice, practice and try to stay ahead. He didn't pressure or look at me, in life, to play jazz music or rhythm and blues or whatever. He just always wanted you to work hard and practice very hard. I remember it was long, long hours.

AAJ: Let's talk about your relationship with John Coltrane.

PS: I don't think John had any problems with letting me come into the band. I think his main concern at that time, when he hired me, well, in other words, I had met John before when he came to San Francisco, because after I left high school, I came to Oakland, California. And I met him in San Francisco and at that time he was looking for a mouthpiece or something like that. So I helped him go out into the stores and into the pawnshops, so he could find what he could find, whatever he could find. I didn't know what he was looking for at the time. When he asked me to come and play, excuse me, before that time, we had talked on the phone and had a conversation. We got into talking about health foods and different books that he may be interested in reading, and eventually that, kind of, merged into him asking me to play. He was always a very easy-going kind of person and he asked me if I wanted to come down and sit in and play. I said I'd think about it because I wasn't really ready to play with John Coltrane at that time.

So, one time, he was in town, in San Francisco and I just happened to be in Oakland, California and this was another time, and we had a little conversation, just like we always do, and he asked me if I wanted to come down and sit in. It was very difficult for me to say yes, but he said come on down and play, so I played and the next day he asked me to come and work. I don't think asking me to come work with the band was something that he needed. He wasn't trying to find different directions or anything. I don't think it was about that. It was about the fact that we both played saxophones and we were trying to practice and trying to grow into the music and trying to grow as a person. I felt I interested him in a lot of other knowledge, like, a lot of other wisdom, and maybe other knowledge he learned from me. There was a reason why he let me play and he asked me to play. I don't know if he had some problems with the band, at the time, when he asked me to play. I'm sure that it wasn't about a different direction that he needed to play or, like, to change. That's the way he was. That's the kind of person he was.

Once he said you can come in and play, he meant it. At first, I didn't take it very seriously, about working with him. He would call me from time to time when he had some jobs. I didn't work all the jobs with him. I would work occasionally. If he had some work, or the money was right, he would call me occasionally and ask me to come and play, ask me to come and join the band. Still, we were on the same path of trying to learn. His thing was very kind and very, he was a person that didn't talk. He didn't talk much at all. And I didn't talk that much to him. I never asked him anything about music. Sometimes, he would ask me about different things that I could do. He was a very religious type of person. I remember one time, he asked me one time if I could get a low A on my saxophone. I told him, no, I didn't know how to do it. I would have to put my knee in my bell to get a whole step down from the B flat. He mentioned that Earl Bostic could do that without putting his knee into the bell. These were just things we would share, like, collective knowledge about things, like, could I do this and he could do that. He went on to talk about his health, because at the time, he wanted to lose weight and he would ask me about it and some things. I had told him to go to health food stores because I was always staying in health food stores all the time. He was very interested in cleaning his life, I guess, into cleaning his body up. A lot of our conversations were on that. That was most of it. All the time I worked with him or played with him, he never talked too much about the music. I played solo or whatever and we never talked about it. He was quiet and he seemed to like me. He liked my qualities as a person and that's the reason why he let me play with him. It wasn't what I was doing musically or my instrument or anything like that. He let me play whatever I wanted to play.

AAJ: So it was more personal?

PS: Uh huh.

AAJ: What was the feedback you got from critics and writers?

PS: They spoke of me, a little bit, harsh, on the harsh side. I don't know whether they liked me or not. It wasn't a big concern of mine, about the writers. I just played. I do what I have to do and if they want to talk about me in a negative way or in a positive way, that's what they want to do, that's them. I'm just trying to survive, trying to survive, trying to play the music, and trying to do what I can do best. It seems to me they'll always be saying that I'm playing high, squeaky sounds or whatever. I'm only trying to express myself musically. People like what they want to like and do what they have to do. And I do what I have to do. I don't know let the people bother me. I don't worry about them. I'm not a talker. I don't talk that much. I let my music speak for itself. I just am always just trying to convey what I am about.

AAJ: Bill Laswell has produced both Message From Home and Save Our Children, what did he bring to the table?

PS: I think, at the time, the time that I was playing, back in the sixties, I think that he probably heard me play, and there were a lot of things sound-wise that, maybe, was not being expressed enough. There's a type of spirit in my playing is hidden. Back in the past, it seemed like, nobody had really captured my sound. All of a sudden, he comes along and I think he understands. He is a person who tried to capture all the sounds and all the sounds that I play to make it a little bit more pronounced and open. Sometimes, I have made albums where they only used about four tracks or something and we needed at least ten. They put me with another horn and so the sound was very muddy, it wasn't very clear. I don't know why. It wasn't very good engineering. It wasn't engineered properly. I sounded bad and I felt like, maybe, I should just do my own album if it's going to be that way. The albums were done with major companies and how can they make a mistake like that? They make mistakes and they apologize, but I don't think they should make mistakes like that. They put a lot of money into it.

AAJ: Are you happy with how Save Our Children came out?

PS: I'm happy with it. There are some things that we tried to do, some other musicians that we tried to get, but they were busy. I had to do some tunes by changing the whole concept and the whole concept of the tune, that I had written. It's one of those things you wish you could have done all over again. That didn't happen, so I had to make it sound, like, I had to change the whole thing, especially a tune on there called, a tune I named "Jewels of Love," that was supposed to have been a different type of tune, but I couldn't get the musicians that I wanted so I had to put it in another type of perspective and a different way of playing it, which wasn't too fun, but anyway it came out even better than I thought it would have.

AAJ: Any touring plans for the album?

PS: I'll be at Catalina's (Los Angeles) on February 23rd and in Europe for a while. I'll be at Yoshi's (San Francisco) in June. I'll be touring more in Europe and in the United States somewhere. I don't work that much myself. I would love to work, but nobody calls me. I have to just rely on and pray that I work somewhere.

AAJ: Why do you feel you are not getting work?

PS: I think that it may be the agencies keep me from working. I have asked many, many times, but I don't know. What is the point? I don't have anything personal against anybody. I feel like, maybe, it's me. Maybe it's the music, or maybe it's the way I express myself. I know that it may be hard for somebody to listen to me play the way I play, but I don't know. I'm just going to keep on playing and hope that I can do better, play better, and keep learning. I can only try to live healthy and try to live life.

AAJ: What attracted you about living in the Bay Area? Why didn't you stay in New York?

PS: Well, I like living in New York City. I just couldn't afford to be around the pressures of New York. I like being in New York. I like living there, but the lifestyle didn't really agree with me. I felt like I had been in New York City for a long time, into the cold weather and I just wanted to get away from that and change my whole thing around. I never had any space or an apartment. I've lived in an apartment in New York and it wasn't very much space and I couldn't do so much. I couldn't practice but for so long. There were lots of things that I wanted to do, practice on some other instruments, and I had the time, but I didn't have the space. The rent was so expensive and I just had to make a move. I couldn't move back and forth. I couldn't afford to lay around in New York City and try to find a place. I wanted a place, like, right away. I wasn't lucky enough to find an apartment right away. I didn't want to be in a situation, a location where my instruments would be stolen.

AAJ: Are you more at peace in the Bay Area?

PS: Maybe halfway. Maybe halfway. I'd like to have a place in New York City and have a place here, maybe. So if I want some excitement where I could go and hear some music, New York would certainly be the place for me to hear that. In everyday life, I didn't want to go upstate in New York and I didn't want to go to New Jersey, like a lot of guys did. I have a lot of relatives out here, so I feel like, maybe, I could spend some time with them. Sometimes I feel like I'm not seeing enough of them. I'm not around my relatives enough. I owe that to them, to be around them.

AAJ: How do you feel your journey is progressing thus far?

PS: I feel now, I feel that I'm getting more work. I feel people listen to me and to my music, those out there who do buy my records. The agents seem to be a little bit more interested in my music, some of them. Most of them don't know how to sell my music. They don't know how to get jobs for me. They have to sell me with more, like, a jazz quartet. I don't want to be put in one kind of category in my music. They do that. The business is not enhanced like it should be. I don't know what they're doing, how they do that, but surely if I want to use more musicians, it would have to funded a little bit better. The business should be a little bit better. They would have to ask for a little bit more money to have these musicians in my band. Otherwise, it keeps me with just a quartet. I always want to have at least seven or eight people. I would rather just do my part and pay for them anyway and make nothing.

AAJ: What attracts you about playing with a larger ensemble?

PS: All the things that I can do. I love more percussions more than anything. I always wanted to be a drummer. It enables me to put the horn down and get into more rhythms and play along with the drummers.

AAJ: What are your feelings towards the younger crop of musicians today?

PS: I don't think they are developing their own voice. I think it's good to learn from all the schools, like of Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, all those, there's a whole lot you can get from them, but then you have to put something of your own in that. I even listen to a lot of the older stuff. I listen to a lot of Duke Ellington, Oliver Nelson, Miles Davis, and George Coleman's music. I don't look at it as going backward. I just look at it as something that they do and that I still have a lot to learn. So it's all knowledge to me because they never played the same thing twice. They played the same tune, but not the same solo. I study how they approach their solos and their whole concept. Today, the whole electronic thing makes it different.

AAJ: It is obvious that you do not like being categorized, is it a disservice to categorize music as jazz or bebop or fusion?

PS: I think it's bad, but there's an argument with the companies, I mean, you can not tell record companies how to market someone. They need to understand a little bit more about what the artist is doing and what the artist's concept is. They need to understand the direction of the artist. I think they should try the sell the artist according to the direction he's taking, instead of trying to do things that are not in harmony with the artist. You can't look at it from a business standpoint of trying to sell a whole lot of records and try to put me with a bebop player or jazz player. If you do that it might conflict. I don't know what I might do. It would be better to try to sell the music according to the artist's concept and their playing. The young guys with Verve understand what my concept is and if you package it according to my concept, I think it will be rewarding to the artist and the record company. All big labels have problems like that. They don't know how to sell you. The music may be great music, but how do you sell the music. I would love to go to India and play, go to some other countries and play, like Turkey and some other places.

AAJ: What directions would you like to pursue in the future?

PS: I would love to do some bigger things, maybe go to other countries and play with local musicians. Local musicians that know the most spiritual part of their music and use more percussion and more string instruments, maybe some vocals. I want to just play with musicians from some other countries that I haven't been to. I would like to do something different, instead of playing a concert here or a concert there. I do those, but going to other counties and playing with their musicians is my dream.

AAJ: What other interests do you have outside of your music that soothes your soul?

PS: I may not make a living at it, but I like to paint. That's what I was doing before.

AAJ: Elaborate on that for me.

PS: That's what I am, a painter. That's what I do. Later in life that's what I want to do. Music takes up all my time. I have to practice this and practice that and do so many things that you must do to really accomplish anything and play the horn properly. You leave the horn just one day and it's like you didn't play for a whole year. I just like colors and like to paint different scenes. It gives me inner peace. It gives me the same thing as playing music. It's all the same. It's all beautiful. Life can be beautiful.

AAJ: So practicing is very important to you.

PS: Yes, it is. Most definitely. If you want to get better, you have to really practice. It's not about running your fingers up and down your horn. There are a lot of things that are constructive that you have to participate in. You have to be very serious about it. It's all in what kind of direction or what kind of path that you're waiting for. Each person is different. I had thought about that one time if I could get to a point where I could just stop playing and concentrate on other things in life. I have not arrived there yet. I almost think that I should just stop playing and just grow spiritually.

AAJ: How important is spirituality to you and your music?

PS: For me, it's the only way that I can deal with life. There are a lot of things more important then just playing your instrument, and I love music and I love listening to music. I like meditation and praying, trying to build my life up, trying to eat right, and trying to not abuse your body. All my life, my family was very religious. I grew up that way. I was raised in a very spiritual way. My family was very religious and I feel that you have to take an intermission in life to pray and all your prayers will be answered.

AAJ: What would you like people to take away from your music?

PS: I hope that I'm playing the right stuff. I worry about this sometimes. I'm up there playing, and they're listening, and they make me want to be a better person. When I can get a job and the house is full, it bothers me so I have to keep my life straight and be together spiritually, and hope that I can give them the same thing. I want to give them hope that they can take home, so they can feel that they can change their lives and make it better. I feel like I am in an arena with all the people around me listening and it's a very dangerous place for me to be, and I hope that they enjoy it. If I am playing and they're thinking about something else and they think very negatively when they leave and then what I'm doing is not right.

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