"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Last March, in a conference room at the former Peabody Hotel, Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola stood up to address a small gathering of mostly out-of-town academics. He cleared his throat, thanked everyone for coming. To the mayor's immediate left was seated Pharoah Sanders, the pioneering avant-garde saxophonist who Ornette Coleman, no amateur, once called "probably the best tenor player in the world." "I want you all to know," said the mayor, looking out at the sparse crowd, "I come from a musical family."
Sanders, 73, wore a long, loose-fitting white shirt that fell far below his waist. He kept his eyes closed while the mayor spoke, facing down into his lap as if meditating or in great pain. "I was very pleased to hear about all the talent that Pharoah has exhibited over the years," the mayor continued, not hiding the fact that he knew very little about the man sitting next to him. Sanders hung his head even lower, which hadn't previously seemed possible. The speech went on for a few more minutes and ended with the mayor proclaiming that day, March 8, "Pharoah Sanders Day here in the city of Little Rock."
Light applause, and then Sanders finally opened his eyes, stood and shuffled over to the podium. His beard was jagged, white, Zeus-like. He threw up his hands, the international sign of speechlessness. "God bless everybody, all of you," he said very slowly, his voice almost inscrutably deep. There was silence for a while, but for the awkward hum of an AC unit. "I don't know what else I can really say," he said. "I will remember this day my whole life."
Maybe you were there that day at the Peabody, but I doubt it. Not many were. I wasn't. The moment is preserved on an old VHS tape somewhere deep in the catacombs of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. I visited the Center not long ago and met with John Miller, coordinator of the concert series Arkansas Sounds. Miller was there, he introduced Sanders and he remains visibly shaken by the encounter. "He's got this weird, heavy presence," he told me, sitting in his office surrounded by stacks of local cultural debris. "It was like I could walk into a room, and I'd just know, 'He's here.' Then I'd look around and there he'd be. You could feel that heaviness."
Why weren't we there? Consider that there is arguably no musician more influential or interesting, no one more central to the story of the development of music-as-art, to grow up and develop creatively in Little Rock than Pharoah Sanders. This is the man who, at 25, was handpicked by John Coltrane to join his band, and who Coltrane would go on to say, "helps me stay alive sometimes." The man who the poet and playwright Amiri Baraka wrote "has produced some of the most significant and moving, beautiful music identified by the name Jazz." If there is a Pharoah Sanders Day, then, why does nobody celebrate it?
I've been asking that question of a lot of people lately, and the best answer I've gotten so far was from John E. Bush IV, great-grandson of the John E. Bush who founded the Mosaic Templars in 1883. Bush is younger than Sanders, but he's met him a few times, even played with him some out in Oakland, Calif., decades ago. (When they were first introduced, in the '60s, Sanders asked him if he had a saxophone mouthpiece he could buy, then lost interest and walked off.)
"Little Rock has never accepted him," Bush said, sounding defeated, flustered. "With Pharoah, it's like the story of Jesus. When he went home, they said to Jesus, 'Ain't you Joseph's son? The carpenter? We know you.' And Jesus knew then that he couldn't work no miracles there. He was just Joseph and Mary's boy. That's the feeling Pharoah has about Little Rock. People here don't know Pharoah Sanders. They've just heard the name."
Back before they called him Pharoah, after he'd fled Arkansas and was living broke and routinely homeless in Oakland and New York, he had another name. Back then they called him "Little Rock."
Whenever Sanders talks about his upbringing in interviews, which isn't often, he never fails to mention Jimmie Cannon. A Korean War vet from Oklahoma, Cannon was the band director at Scipio A. Jones, the black high school in segregated North Little Rock, where Sanders lived with his mother and father in the 1940s and '50s. Cannon played tenor sax and spent his nights out on an endless string of gigs across the river in downtown Little Rock, a lifestyle that seems to have appealed to Sanders right away. "Say what you got to say, then shut up," was one of his maxims, and that seems to have appealed to Sanders, too.
Sanders' lifelong introversion, his deeply felt inner solitude, is fundamental. Going by the accounts of those who have known him, it is one of his most notable qualities: He hardly speaks. On the other hand, all he ever did was make noise. His parents, by all accounts musical themselves, didn't approve of music as a career route, and so as a boy, living in a small house on Hazel Street across the street from a drive-in movie theater, Sanders would stand outside on the porch and practice his scales for hours. Out in public, he was rarely seen without a neck strap.
In those days he went by his given name, Farrell, a name that's oddly appropriate considering the atavistic, primal, feral imagery that early critics would resort to years later in describing his sound. Whitney Balliet of the New Yorker referred to his "elephant shrieks" in 1966, while the jazz historian Eric Nisenson, confronting one his solos, wrote, "One is reminded of a child having a tantrum, who begins by whining and complaining and builds to out-of-control howls and shrieks." Picture young Farrell out on his porch at night with his sax, a child having a tantrum.
Cannon went on to play with Count Basie's Orchestra, as did his friend, the Little Rock-born trombonist Richard Boone, who would often sit in on Sanders' band classes. In this way, he learned how professional musicians — adults — spoke and joked with one other, how they carried themselves. By the time he was 15, he was sneaking into clubs across the river. In a mid-'90s interview with Down Beat magazine, he remembered dressing up in a suit, wearing dark shades and a fake, drawn-on mustache, slipping past the bouncers into the darkness of a nightclub.
Little Rock nightlife in the postwar years meant West Ninth Street, a dense, vibrant ecosystem that some called "Little Harlem" and others called simply "The Line." It meant two-for-one dances at Club Morocco, where the house band was Ulysses S. Brown and The Castlerockers. Glance through the listings in any given issue of the Arkansas State Press, the black newspaper of record, and every week is a blur: Ella Fitzgerald and B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf and Redd Foxx. At Robinson Auditorium there would be Little Richard or Fats Domino or Bo Diddley. Lil' Green and the Jumping Jive Maestro.
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