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Pharoah Sanders' Philosophical Conversation - July 1967

In the July 1967 issue of Canada's Coda Magazine, Pharaoh Sanders held a long conversation with Elisabeth van der Mei. The feature starts out with the comment "You play so good so you made me forget about Trane", and ends with Pharoah saying Coltrane wouldn't have got to where he is now without listening to others. The feature talks about playing in Trane's group and the dynamics between the musicians, how he (and Trane) had dropped playing over chord changes and the concept of time was now radically different. He preferred playing with just Rashied Ali for this very reason.
Making 8 or 9 notes out of 2 by putting them through the horn in different ways; And to achieve what he could, you needed ability, control and emotion.
Poignant given the issue date, the same month of Trane's death, this is a really insightful interview with Pharoah just as he was ending one phase in his career, before taking his deeply felt spirituality into a new phase.

pharoah sanders - A philosophical conversation with Elisabeth van der Mei

"Hey man, is that you on Trane's new album?" I am standing in front of New York's jazz club, Slugs, talking to Pharoah Sanders when we are interrupted by a passer -by. ''Man I didn't know you could play so good. . . you made me forget Trane. . . '' Pharoah Sanders smiled timidly. He seems a bit embarrassed. "All right baby, I'll see you Saturday . . we'll talk."

Saturday afternoon, at Pharoah's place, a back apartment on the fifth floor, walk-up tenement on New York's lower east side, a room overlooking a cemetary, in the middle of a block.

"John has influenced me in my playing much longer than I've been playing with him, from much before. See, John is the kind of person who is trying to create something different all the time. He has a lot of energy and I learned a lot just from being around him, the way he moves around, things like that. The way John and I play. . it's different, we're both natural players and we have our own way of doing things. Somebody like John is playing things on his horn that make you think a lot of things and he makes me think about doing something in my own way. A person is so involved with himself . . . like John, he's an older person, like Sonny Rollins, much older than I am and they've been playing for a long time. John knows a lot about music and about his horn and he has a lot of human wisdom. . . and to me, it is like he is trying to make me aware of things by playing his horn...

"I know that playing with Coltrane has made me much broader in my understanding and my thinking.
I might have been playing the same way, without playing with John, but sometimes I'm not opening up as much as I do when I'm playing with John. When someone else is opening up to what's happening, then I can open up too, because then we are both going in the right direction. But I feel that I am now ready to really get into my horn. I always want to get different sounds on my instruments and sound might lead me into something else altogether again. The music has to start moving its own way, you know."

"Do you feel it is important to keep searching, and possibly changing ?"'

"How would I create without changing? It has taken me a relatively long time to get where I am now and I feel that I haven't even touched on so many things yet. Most of all I have been trying to get a tone...my tone, that seems to be one of the most important things now. The further I shape my tone, towards the way I want it to sound, it will also influence my further musical reactions. Actually, it's all in the mouthpiece. That is really very important. A lot of people should be working at that much harder."

"You mean mouthpiece as opposed to the fingering?"

"Yes, you should control your mouthpiece completely so that you can get out of the music whatever you want. .rather really put it in there...I might take two notes and make 8 or 9 more notes out of them by putting them into the horn in different ways. Every note has to be shaped. It's different from just playing a pattern, out of a book or something, but that's not really being creative. Creativity is purely natural ability . . I try doing things, the more I feel the more comes out. I really couldn't tell anybody how to do it. You can feel maybe just one note and you give that note so much feeling. . as much as you can... and if you overblow it, it begins to go into something else... "

"But somebody else who doesn't really control his horn might not know what to do with such distortions.

"It's not that I'm trying to play everything so perfect. You need of course a technical ability too, but I am trying to get to a higher state of feeling, of personal emotion. When you need to play a tune, you need technical control, of course. . . but there are a whole lot of people who have their technique very together but still they're not happening, they're not really creative. In order to play creatively you have to play good and bad, you have to try and play in as many ways as you can. There are more than just one idea. You just have to have more. . you have to take it as it comes, upside down, crossways. . there are so many things to do."

"You wouldn't mind sounding bad when you know that you are discovering something for yourself?"

"I'm not trying to please people. . but I'm trying to make them listen. When you play a horn, it's like talking. I feel they are somebody and that's the reason why I am trying to reach them. I feel I am somebody myself, not more than that. And it's just the people who don't like the way I play that I want to get to and get them to listen. If you only hear or see one thing, that makes you very narrow minded. Nobody can really talk about something and wrap it up in a bag and say ‘that's nothing'. Everything is something. When I'm playing I am trying to reach as many people as I can, but it seems I haven't gotten there yet. I haven't played enough, or maybe I'm missing something."

"But still a lot of people feel that the 'new thing' musicians are not really very interested in communicating with an audience. How about going back just a little to give them somewhat of a point of reference ?"'

"I could only retrace myself, to where I first started out and before I started to learn about things and these have been mostly good ones. Tunes I have written some time ago . . I could play them over. .
What else could I do? Why should I go back and not use all the things I have learned? No I couldn't go back to say, Charlie Parker. What I do now conveys whatever has been done before and I am trying to put the music beyond all of that . . No, I will never want to play what somebody might be asking me. They either accept what I'm doing, or they should go somewhere else where they can hear what they want to hear . . But if somebody listens to me play he can hear some of my experiences. Personally I am trying to be honest with what I am doing. I am trying to live in a peaceful way and if anybody else can get anything out of my way of living, my way of expressing that state of mind. . if they can use it, then that's good. I'm not trying to convince anybody that what I'm doing is better than what they might be doing, but if we can communicate we might learn from each other . . and I'm not just talking about music now, just in general. It's not really about better these days, you know, it's about people getting together and try and make things happen through their spiritual values. It's not a competitive state of mind anymore. There are still plenty of musicians hung up on that feeling here, but they could never play with us

. . they wouldn't be comfortable."

"But maybe people still react that way, musicians and audiences alike. They seem to be hearing a lot of violence and hatred in the new music and they seem to be afraid of it."

"I suppose that must be what they get from it. I don't really know what they're thinking. I don't go around talking to people much and when I play I can only be talking to myself, I'm meditating . . . And, they don't need to listen, really, if they don't want to. I know for myself, if I go some place and I don't like what's happening, I don't stay . . but if I do like it, I stay and I don't care about people liking it."

"So you're an individualist...

"Well, I guess so, but that's not the only way I can be me and make it mean something to myself. To have respect toward other people and their abilities to hear and observe, you must have respect for yourself and your own abilities. I feel everybody should go their own way and not bother anybody else who wants to do what he likes to. If somebody doesn't want to do what I do, fine, don't do it, but don't bother me..."

"What about the civil rights situation in this country?"

"It's not about race . . it's about music. I really don't know too well what is happening there. This thing has to be solved on a personal level but for that we will need all the strength we have. And I am just trying to play my horn and make music and I have a hard time keeping up with that . . To bring out what's inside of me seems the only solution. We have to bring out God. God is everything, he is all colours and that's really not so important. What I'm playing is about that, is about everything that is in me. I don't look at things and try to make them into something else what they really are not. Everything is everything, all the time. And I really don't want to be worried about anything, newspapers, Vietnam, like that. I like to feel free. I want to gather as much knowledge about life as I can, no matter where it comes from. You know, even if it's a drunk man, if he is talking some good sense, I'll listen to him. He might have had a lot of experiences I can learn from . . You have to become very wise and aware so that you can start to know when things will be coming to you. I worry about things that I feel coming towards me. . people that are coming to me.

"For these few jobs that I now have with my own group, I worry about the people that will play with me. When I last played in Slugs, I just got some people together that I feel good with, Dave Burrell,
Norris Jones, Roger Blank . . all these people have certain capabilities but I would have to play with them much longer to get at what I really want the group to express. But first of all people playing with me have to be able to create constructively next to other people. That is much more important than their technical facilities. Of course we're talking about accomplished musicians, not pure beginners.

"I just want to start out playing music and see wherever it will go into and let it do what it wants to.
I'm not really planning what I'm going to do, as if I would be playing some commercial stuff. I'm just trying to let things happen. But then you need people with you who are able to realize when it starts to happen and who have the mental ability to release that energy you need to create. You know, in music energy is really nothing but emotion . . . Sometimes when you're playing with a lot of emotion, the strength becomes the emotion. . I'm still trying to understand that myself . . A lot of things that I do myself, I still don't know . . well, I know, but I can't really explain that yet. I can't put it into words."

"You often use voices and chanting when you work with your own group. Does that have anything to do with it?"

"I'm trying to bring out everything when I play. I might sing a line, go on from there and play and when I can't find anything more to play, I'll sing some more, over and over again until I feel I have reached something. You know, the music has changed a lot during the last few years. I stopped playing on chord changes some time ago, long before I started playing with Coltrane. They limited me in expressing my feelings and rhythms. I don't live in chord changes. They're not expanded enough to hold every- thing that I live and that comes out in my music. Just as you can't really put a time clock on us these days. I don't feel I can really create any music within a small length of time . . those 30, 40 minute sets in clubs, whatever their system is. . that is very restricting and that whole business thing limits your thinking. But most of all, music should always be creative and it takes a lot of energy to create. That's really the most important change of all I find. A lot of people just don't have that kind of energy to give to the music. . or they haven't learned yet how to release it."

"You feel that energy might be in everybody?"

"Definitely. You already need a lot of it to really live, but then how many people get to that?"

"You recently did a record date for Impulse and you used Dave Burrell and Roger Blank ?"'

"Yes, and Sonny Sharrock, the guitar player.
"How about that session ?"'

"It sounded all right . . I really can't remember that well but the main thing is that I wanted to get some of my music on record so that people can hear it and hear what we're doing."'

"This is your second record date?"

"Yes, but that first one on ESP. . let's not talk about that. I made that record when I first came to New York and I was going through a lot of changes .. you know, you feel you have to be sharp, neckties and all that stuff and you hang around clubs and try and get something going . . you try to find out where it's at. . but that's really not the way and that didn't last long."'

"You're originally from Arkansas?"

"Yes, North Little Rock, I went to high school there. My grandfather was a music teacher . . he also taught mathematics . . and he really got me interested in music. He showed me and my brother and sister how to play the piano. He used to play in church and my mother would be singing in the choir . . I also tried to play drums for a while, but when I went to high school I switched over to clarinet.

"When I finished high school, I went to college in Oakland, California, when I was about 18. At that time I wasn't planning to go to music school. I wanted to become a painter. I haven't painted in years now and would like to get back to that. I can draw and paint, but then I started hearing other people play. . like Rollins, Charlie Byrd, Clifford Brown, and Coltrane of course . . and that has been taking me on and on into music. When I came to Oakland I had an old tenor that somebody had given me  and a Selmer flute and a Selmer clarinet. I wanted a new horn but I didn't have any money of course,  so the only way to get a new horn was to trade in all the horns I had and just get one good horn, a tenor.. "'

(Pharoah is playing with a little piccolo)

"John gave me this thing about a year ago. I've been picking it up once in a while, but I haven't really gotten into it very much yet."

"You are playing a flute also?"

"Well, I play it but when I'm getting up in front of the people I'll be nervous and shaking and I'll lose the balance and it will just close up on me and nothing comes out . . I can play the flute and the piccolo but it's different than when you hear somebody play who has been playing for a long time. I really want to get ready on them before I get out there with them too much,

"I've been trying to get something together on piccolo with voice, play and sing at the same time, and bend notes . . away from what a piccolo player might do,’

"Is it harder to play piccolo than flute?"

"Piccolo is very hard, technically. Some people feel it's the hardest to play instrument, and they're not lying. But I feel I get a better sound out of the piccolo than out of the flute right now. But, what I really want to do is play tenor, and maybe alto and bass clarinet. When you start out playing clarinet as I did you can really play all the horns. At the moment I only have a tenor though. My alto got stolen some time ago and I have never yet tried to play bass clarinet but I like the sound very much and I am always trying to expand myself..."

"But you never went to music school?"

"Well, the college I went to had a music department but they were not really equipped to teach composing and constructions, etc. I really would like to go to school here, to Julliard maybe and learn a lot more about that. I want to start writing much more than I do now, but I just don't know enough about that yet. In Oakland I learned a lot about the horn though. I started playing around there with Sonny Simmons, Robert Porter, Smiley Winters, lots of people. . Jimmy Lovelace, Marvin Patilloand Jane Getz were also on the West Coast then. Ornette and Cherry were out there too, but I didn't really know them personally yet."

"In 1962 I came to New York . . I was pretty old then, about 22 . . . When I got here, it seemed one big loud city . . when I was in San Francisco I would play all the time. I knew where I could go and sit in and you could always play if you wanted to, nobody would say anything. Here in New York, it's more a business. But the music is more together here also . . people are more together. It is not so much a jam session. People are writing, they're more involved in what they're doing and there are more people around from all over that can get something going together. Music is much more of a reality here and you will have to sound like 'you' and you can't be jiving and messing around. . There are a lot of musicians around here and they know very well what you're doing.

"I started playing in a couple of places in Greenwich Village . . they're all closed now. Actually Cherry gave me my first job. I've been playing with C Sharpe, Billy Higgins, John Hicks, also Lamont Johnson. . lots of people, but nothing very much happened in those days, compared to now. We were still hung up on the changes. We tried, but we were not ready for anything else yet."

"Have you been in New York ever since?"

"No, after about two years I went back to Arkansas, just to see my people. I had not been home in  about 7 years and I was worrying about them. . but of course they were all right and for the rest nothing was really going on there. The music was years behind and something told me to just keep on moving. I went back to the West Coast and had a job with Philly Joe Jones for a while, at the workshop in San Francisco, with Vi Redd, a girl alto player, she'd sing too. . Later on, John Coltrane come on out there and I went to hear him of course. I had already heard him in San Francisco the first time I was there and I had met him in New York. He told me then that he was thinking about changing the group and changing the music, to get different sounds. He asked me to play with him. Carlos Ward, the alto player also joined the group then and we both came back to New York with Trane. Trane then started to play with a larger group, two drummers, Elvin and Rashied Ali

"Yes, I remember that. That was the first time I saw you play, the Village Gate in New York. Did you like playing in that set-up?"

"Playing with Trane is always fantastic, but I like it better with just Rashied. The way he plays, to me, I feel I can play at whatever tempo I want to play against what he is doing. He makes the rhythm flow around what I'm doing.

"And then after a while when McCoy Tyner left, Mrs Coltrane joined the group. What about her?"

"To me, she fits in. She is with everybody else in whatever goes on. She spiritually fits and she is able to feel where the music is going . . she knows. . she's being inside of what's going on. She is being herself, she couldn't do it any other way."

"Since you're in New York you have been playing with various groups. You've been playing with Sun Ra for a while too. ."

"Sun Ra... I learned a lot of wisdom and knowledge from him. I'd go by his house and he has all these books that I'd never seen before, old books, about history and many other things. I learned a lot just being around him."

“How about playing in the group?"

"The feeling was very good and I could contribute to whatever else was happening. The way his group is attuned, I felt I could just play anything that I wanted to and it would fit in somehow. Everybody would freely react to each other. I had been playing free all the time but then it fit in. Now I know much better how to really play free, I control the music much better and I know when music will be coming to me. Sometimes now I again like to play ‘inside’..."

"By inside you mean playing on the changes?"

"Yes, but with my conception of time, especially also tone and I would let things happen. I might play one change for 30 minutes. Coltrane can do that too. He can play one series of changes forever. But if you knowas much about the music and the horn as he does, you can do that and make it work."

"Lately you have been playing with Don Cherry on various occasions, And you did a recording with him. Is that very different from playing with Coltrane?"

"Well, the fact that Don plays trumpet already makes the whole concept of his music different... I really don't feel any different playing with Cherry than I do with John, But Cherry plays lines, you know, and then we solo. John plays lines too, but most of the time he will just start playing something, say in D minor, or G minor and we will go on from there, free . . we're not thinking so much about lines or melodies . . just about music. It's very practical you know, play right away,  without making speeches. When John and I are playing together it often gets to be more rhythmic. It calls for more rests, some more space. I'm spacing myself more when I'm playing with John, while with Don something is happening all the time rhythmically . . . You see, Cherry's music is more about form and line than great intensity and with Trane it's just the other way around.

"But I like playing with different people. The ideas of other musicians will make me discover different aspects and I can use them my way. There are a lot of people doing things right now. I listen to them.
Many times we seem to have the same idea, but really, I'm still learning about so many things, I just try to fit in naturally with whatever is going on.
I don't try to put myself in any kind of bag. . But I like to play with musicians who have a spiritual awareness and the creative people who are really trying to do all over again what already has been done... "'

"I remember one evening that you were playing with Marion Brown. You were playing for a long time.
The rest of the group had stopped playing but you two really seemed to be communicating on your horns, "'

"That could really happen with anybody as long as he goes his own way and that way fits in with mine . . and as long as they have that energy thing going ..."

"Again that energy..."

"You have to work at that you know, not only spiritually. You have to watch what you are eating. I eat a lot of natural foods, nuts, and cheese, brown rice and vegetables . . . that is also part of a personal discipline . . People are eating a whole lot of garbage . . And I'm studying yoga. The exercises are very good and it really teaches you to get at your own
center, at your own energy and to combine your spiritual and physical energy. John is very concerned with that too. . "

"There are people who feel that Coltrane would never be where he is now without Sanders. . "

"Well, John would never be where he is now if he would never have listened to other people . . I listen to a lot of people too, playing their music, or maybe just when they're talking, they'll be talking in their different rhythms . . sometimes I listen to the sounds of the bath tub, the water dripping from the faucet,
the sound of the heater . . but as far as we are concerned, it's just two people out there playing, giving a lot to each other . . and the music will come out while we're going alone, alone, or together, there really is no endto what could happen. That's the way I'm thinking about it and that keeps the way open for change and creativity. I'll just keep playing . . and try and keep everything everything... "

Photos by Bill Smith


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