The Creator’s Master Plan: How Pharoah Sanders Went From Living On The Streets Of NYC To Becoming A Jazz Legend

Pharoah Sanders
– Pharoah Sanders
In retrospect, it would seem jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders had a master plan, much like the title to one of his most famous compositions. The 78-year-old Grammy-winning musician and recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master honors built his luminous legacy on the hard scrabble streets of 1960s New York City where no matter how difficult things got, he always had his horn nearby.
Here, in conversation with his manager Anna M. Sala of AB Artists, Sanders goes into depth on making his way from Little Rock to Oakland to New York City in the early 1960s, living on the streets and having to go to blood banks to survive.
Through it all, Sanders remained focused on his sublime art which would take him from city park benches to the most prestigious music halls in the world and beyond. He would come to meet and/or sit-in with a number of all-time jazz greats including Sun Ra, Eric Dolphy, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, and, most notably, John Coltrane, whose quartet he played in and whose 1965 albums Ascension and Meditations he played on. At the same time Sanders developed his own style playing in a wide variety of modes from free jazz and avant-garde to be-bop and more traditional jazz. 
Sanders continues to travel the globe with his horn. On Jan. 10 he returned to New York to perform with Gary Bartz at NYC’s (Le) Poisson Rouge as part of the 2019 Winter Jazzfest to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bartz’s 1969 album Another Earth, which he played tenor sax on. 
Pollstar: How did you get from Little Rock to New York City? 
Pharoah Sanders: I went to Oakland first. I had a lot of relatives there. I left Arkansas in about 1959. Arkansas was so racist, I had to get out of there. It wasn’t too good for people like me. I wanted more, so I left and went to Oakland where I had a lot of relatives, my mother’s brothers and sisters. It was a lot better there.

What was it like playing in Little Rock?  
In Arkansas you had to play behind the curtain. They didn’t want to see black people. They fed us, we had our little place where we ate, but they didn’t allow white people in there. Most of the jobs I played, a lot of parties and weddings, that’s how it was.
Do you think people today know that’s how it was?
No. They wouldn’t know.
That wasn’t that long ago.
Yeah, well, it was long enough.
What was Oakland like?
I was a little shy. I stayed with my aunt and that worked out for a while but I couldn’t practice so I left. I stayed with my first cousin. She had three boys, so I helped her out babysitting and practiced while she was at work.

Anna M. Sala and Pharoah Sanders
– Anna M. Sala and Pharoah Sanders
How many years were you in Oakland?
I left Arkansas in 1959 and stayed in Oakland until around 1961. I played with some guys in Oakland, like Sonny Simmons, an alto player, and one time with Philly Joe Jones, he was looking for a horn player. I was still young and learning. I stayed with my relatives in Oakland until I hitchhiked a ride to New York City.
That’s a long way to hitchhike.
I don’t know how I did all that, but I had to get to New York City. A Mexican guy was going and I asked him, “Could I go along with you?” I didn’t know how to drive, I didn’t have one penny.
What made you go to New York?
Because of the musicians there. In Oakland, there’s a good time but all they wanted to do was drink wine and smoke. I wasn’t really into it. A friend of mine back in Oakland, Smiley Winters, a left-handed drummer, had to work tarring parking lots. He told me, “Yeah, man, with your sound, you don’t need to be here, you need to go to New York City.” And I listened to him. He said, “You want to go to New York City, know all your standard tunes, and you have to have a tuxedo when you work.” I didn’t have no suit.
What was New York like?
I’d never seen buildings so elevated. I just started looking around and walking. I walked from First Street to 116th Street, and kept walking. I didn’t know where I was going. I was just moving, moving, moving. I didn’t have one thing to my name, no place to go, or nothing. I don’t know how I survived. I was hungry.
How did you survive?
I saw a place where you give blood and make some money. It was on 42nd Street and I was paid $5 and went and bought some small hamburgers. I would walk into the movies and sleep all day long. At night I would walk all the way back downtown where the clubs were on Bleecker Street. I wasn’t thinking about, “Am I going to make it.” I was just walking with my horn. I used to live off of pizza. When I made $5 from giving blood, I bought pizza. If I got hungry, I’d eat wheat germ.
What were some of your first gigs?
One time I got a job just walking around in Greenwich with my horn. A guy asked “Do you play any? I got a job for you. I’ll pay $10.” I said, “Yeah, I’ll take it.” The job was playing saxophone and piano. I didn’t have no clean clothes, I had nothing, except my horn. I went there, and from the outside it looked kind of raggedy, but inside it was pretty. It was close to the Blue Note.
Having that horn was a good thing. 
I took my horn everywhere I went and it was a heavy case. It was an old, old horn case, made out of lumber.
So you were all over Greenwich Village.
That was my neighborhood. Every day I just walked down Bleecker, crossed Thompson and Sixth Avenue. I met Sun Ra in a club there on MacDougal. That’s where I heard a bugle from the outside and was wondering what was going on. I wasn’t really looking to hear music, I was hungry and trying to find a place to eat. In the basement they had a restaurant. It was more like a coffee house serving food. The guy needed a cook and so I said, “Well, I’m a chef. I’ll take the job.” I stayed there for a month maybe more, but the job paid no money. I was asking him, “Do I get some money?” I didn’t know how things go. I’m from the deep South, I didn’t understand the lifestyle.

Pharoah Sanders
Sam Polcer – Pharoah Sanders
What was your life like there outside of music? 
With the money I made from giving blood, I used to ride the subway. I didn’t know anything about the subway. I would ride the subway until the end of the line and then come back. I would go to Washington Square Park and sit on a bench with my horn in my hand. I used to try to sleep, but I could hardly sleep because I was thinking somebody might grab my horn.
Then I found out some other clubs, a new one called the Five Spot on 3rd and St. Mark’s. I heard a lot of guys play there. I was on the outside, because I couldn’t come in looking like I was looking. I’d come around and listen to [Thelonious] Monk through the windows. I looked pretty bad at that time, so I can understand why they didn’t want anybody hanging around the club. People were just getting out of their limousines and suits and ties and all that. I’m on the street, with the shoes I’d been walking around with, hair [messy]. I never bothered anybody, I just went to listen to Monk. Seemed like Monk was playing every night.
How did you get from being homeless to performing? 
There was another person on the street at that time named C Sharp [Clarence “C” Sharpe], an alto player from Philadelphia. I gave him some of my money because he had his wife with him. I was staying at a place for maybe $1.50 a night and I let them take my place. On Bleecker, there was this place called the Speakeasy between MacDougal and Thompson. I told the guy I played saxophone, and he asked me would I bring my group in and play, and I said, “Yeah.”
At that time, I didn’t know how to get musicians, so I called C Sharp and he told me that he knew some musicians, so I hired him, Wilbur Ware, a bassist from Chicago and John Hicks on piano. At that time, another person walking around, sort of like homeless, was Billy Higgins, the drummer, so that was our rhythm section – one of the best rhythm sections I could get.
So that became a regular gig? 
Yeah, and people used to come sit in. Bill Cosby came by. He told me he played drums, I didn’t know anything about him. A lot of them cats played. They saw somebody working and they were trying to figure out what’s going on. So I let them sit in and play and then I’d take over.
How come you were so focused on the Village?
The Village, at that time, was the only place I knew to go. My instinct told me to hang around here, that things will be better. It was better, because I saw a lot of musicians who I didn’t know. You see their cases, trumpet players, saxophone players and I’d find out where they were going.
There was another club on Bleecker, a little bit past Thompson I can’t think of the name but it didn’t cost much to get in. I don’t know how I got in, but that’s when I first met Eric Dolphy. I knew how he looked, so I said, “How you doing, Eric?” He was very nice. Art Blakey was playing there. He was playing weekends.

Pharoah Sanders
Manfred Roth / ullstein bild / Getty Images – Pharoah Sanders
I also played at the Five Spot with George Coleman and Harold Baker. I just always had my horn with me so I could get it out and play it when I wanted or sit in if somebody let me sit in.
At the Speakeasy on Bleecker Street was where Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane came and sat down by the door. I was playing, me and C Sharp, and I looked toward the door and saw them sitting with their arms folded on their chests. I turned back around and said, “Is that John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy?” So I said, “I’d better play it right now,” they kind of scared me.
So Trane and Eric Dolphy came to hear you?
I think they just came to hear whoever was playing, I don’t know. I had met John before in San Francisco working at a club and the piano player introduced me to John Coltrane. When he came in to see me, it was a whole different thing. You have to come to New York City already knowing how to play.
How did you get your name? 
When I came to Oakland, they named me Little Rock. I remember one time John Coltrane, asked “Man, what is your name? Somebody said your name was Little Rock, what is your name?” I told him, “My name is Farrell Sanders.” He said, “You’re a man of many names.” I said, “Well, you just call me Farrell or Little Rock or whatever.”
How did it become Pharoah? 
I used that name when I joined the union. I had to fill out papers and they wanted your artist name so I put Pharoah. At that time, nobody knew my name. I’ve put down Pharaoh forever since.
So all those stories of other people naming you Pharoah are wrong? 
Yeah, somebody was saying Sun Ra or somebody else named me Pharoah, that’s wrong.

Gary Bartz and Pharoah Sanders
– Gary Bartz and Pharoah Sanders

When did you meet Gary Bartz?
I met Gary Bartz around the same time. I worked at a club called Slugs, I was there when it first started. They didn’t have a bandstand, they had a piano in the middle of the room, and I told the guy, I said, “You need a band? I could get a band together.” When I met Gary we talked, and sort of hung out at Slugs for a minute. Then he invited me to his place. I got to know Gary pretty well. Every time I saw him, we talked some.
Tell me about how you approach performing.
I play very free. Other saxophone players, they know I don’t even worry about chord progressions or anything like that. I use my ear and I just play what I want to play, even now.
What would you say to a talented young person coming up today?
I would tell them to learn as much as you can, get your education. New York City, it’s a place where you’ve got to have money. You don’t need a car, there’s a subway, but you need money to eat and that was my concern every day.
One of the first gigs we put together at (Le) Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village was packed like sardines. People were crying they were so excited to hear you play. How does it feel for you to play New York now? Is it different?
It’s a little bit harder now to be in New York City without money. New York’s not a place where you come to hang out if you don’t have money. You’ve got to have some kind of money, or some kind of something. I lived off pizzas for a long time.