BURLINGTON -- As a child, Pharoah Sanders watched a blind guitarist perform in front of houses in his Little Rock, Arkansas, neighborhood.

The guitarist placed a little cup out to collect donations.

"I always remember that," said Sanders, a tenor saxophone legend. "That turned me on and gave me more passion for music at a young age."

Sanders was born into a musical family.

"They always sang well in church choirs. My grandfather directed a church choir. He was a school teacher. He taught math. My mother and her sister, they went to church to sing in the choir. Choir was a big thing in the church."

His elders and mentors told him to study hard.

"Get your lessons, history and math and other things that go with this music, chemistry. Whatever you do, study hard and learn all your skills and work on playing arpeggios. Create a new arpeggio every day. That helps you get into all kinds of music. It feels like you're telling a story, you have something to give."

His first instrument was clarinet but he picked up tenor sax in high school.

"I heard all the guys I really love playing sax -- Charlie Parker and James Moody. I really became in love with the saxophone. It cost money to have one."

His band teacher and mentor, Jimmy Cannon, introduced him to jazz.

"He played the trumpet. I used to listen to him about every day. I would cut class to hear him. That was an English class. I cut it all the time. I made good grades. The English teacher put out a message, Mr. Sanders, I hope you can come to my class sometime.'

"I had to give her some kind of her respect. She knew how much I loved music but she said you need to learn to speak well and a lot of other things to write song lyrics."

While in high school, he gigged in Little Rock, blues jobs mostly playing alto and tenor saxophone. In the day when cool was measured in cats and not dogs, Sanders relocated to Oakland, where he studied art and music at Oakland Junior College.

In the Bay Area, "Little Rock" bebopped, R&BBed and free jazzed with the likes of drummer Smiley Winters, pianist Ed Kelly and saxophonists Dewey Redman and Sonny Simmons.

"I was playing around in little jazz clubs, several spots, so called jazz music. They had sessions on the weekends. Sometimes, some places they had sessions almost every night. I wanted to get out and do some playing and see what was happening."

Those experiences helped him grow musically.

"I would study at the daytime and the nighttime go out and check out the music and see what I could do. At that time, I had to learn a whole lot of things. I was just trying to try them out on a set or something. It paid off. I used to set up with some of the local blues bands. That helped me out a whole lot."

He met John Coltrane at the Jazz Workshop on Broadway in San Francisco. Sanders was 18. During intermission, Scotty, a tenor sax player, introduced Sanders to Coltrane.

"Man, I never heard anything like it. It was a kind of music and playing I had never heard before. I always heard him on records but in person it was another kind of music. It was live and like very powerful."

In 1961, Sanders relocated east to New York where he performed with free jazz comets such as Sun Ra and Don Cherry. Sanders organized his first ensemble two years later with pianist John Hicks, bassist Wilbur War and drummer Billy Higgins.

Amongst jazz aficionados the world over, Sanders' distinctive "sheets of sound" can be raw or refined. He tries to keep it on the highest level.

"I always use my sound to do what I wanted to do," Sanders said. "It's all inside. It's just how I feel. It's all music; you play a lot of patterns, a lot of little melodies you might play that sort of help you to extend your creativity. I try to simplify my music so it gets to all kinds of people at the same time. I can get very intellectual but at the same time I try to draw them in to focus on the music and sound and the spirit will take them there. I try to be the player in the audience when I play."

rcaudell@pressrepublican.com

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