Where were you on Pharoah Sanders Day? 

The early years of a Little Rock legend.

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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.

There was "Kan Man," who threw saddlebags bulging with concert flyers over his bicycle handlebars and rode around both sides of the river pasting them to trees or streetlamps. At night he played a Prince Albert can as if it were a harmonica. There was Lloyd Armon, host of "Lloyd's Midnight Ride" on KGHI (and later KOKY) and proprietor of Lloyd's Cafe, Lloyd's Drive-In and the Hotel Del Rio, featuring the ever-exclusive Ebony Room. There were racketeers, pool halls, secret societies and drive-by shootings. Club 67, The Casablanca, The Twin City Club, The Magnolia Room.

At the center of it all, there was Taborian Hall, the heart of Ninth Street with its classical architecture and ever-shifting clubs on all three floors. Sanders picked up early gigs at the second-floor Waiters Club, opened in 1955 and managed by a man named Boo-Boo Douglas. There was an old wooden piano in the corner, and every night a dice game that seemed to never end. He also played the Flamingo Club across the street; it had a more modern vibe and a younger crowd. He backed Junior Parker there, and Bobby "Blue" Bland. On a good night, he could make five dollars.

Around this time he met York Wilborn, who was a couple of years older and who had a car. They bonded immediately over music and quiet. "If he wasn't saying nothing, I wasn't saying nothing," Wilborn told me. "We'd just play and practice, try to figure stuff out." Wilborn, who lived with his mother on Louisiana Street, would regularly make the drive across the river to pick up Sanders so the two of them could listen to records and try their best to play along. Their favorite was John Coltrane's "Blue Train." He played too fast for them, so they'd always have to slow it down, but that was no good either, because it changed the key.

Wilborn led a locally adored rhythm and blues band in those years called The Thrillers, and Sanders frequently sat in on sax. Henry Shead, who would go on to a celebrated career as a Las Vegas lounge act, played piano. The name Thrillers came from an audience call-in contest on a public access "American Bandstand"-type TV show called "Center Stage." They played Ninth Street and anywhere else that would have them. They once backed Minnijean Brown Trickey, not yet famous as one of the Little Rock Nine, at the Dunbar Community Center. She sang "Love Is Strange."

The band recorded one single, billed for whatever reason as O'Henry, for the Memphis label Fernwood: "Wanna Jean" backed by "Why Do I Love You." Wilborn's name is misspelled on the record, and he never received any royalties. Sanders wasn't there at the session, but these are the songs that he played. Harmless, boogie-era dance numbers with a rolling sax-and-piano backbeat. Listening to them now, it's hard to imagine Sanders committing to this stuff. He has been abrasive and cosmic and spiritual and esoteric, but he has rarely been danceable.

Sanders went on tour with the Thrillers in 1958, the summer before his senior year. A former bus driver named Andy had offered to manage the group and they'd agreed, on account of some connections he had to a resort in Idlewild, Mich. The plan was to play a series of gigs before heading to the resort, where they'd audition for the resort's owner and spend the summer there playing for rich people and getting rich themselves in the process. They made it as far as Norfolk, Va., before realizing they were broke. (They'd purchased their matching suits on credit.) Andy pawned a typewriter, and the crew advanced to Philadelphia.

That's where things really went downhill. It turned out Andy had been mishandling their finances, essentially robbing them, and nobody could pay for their hotel, which promptly kicked them out onto the street. Wilborn fired Andy, then Shead contracted jaundice and was hospitalized. They spent the rest of the summer playing at a bar in Philadelphia, trying to earn enough to make it back to Little Rock. The Idlewild resort gig ended up going to a young vocal group from Detroit called The Four Tops.

COURTESY OF SYLVIA "SY" SMITH
  • Courtesy of Sylvia "Sy" Smith

Any relief at returning home must have been tempered by the fact that they were walking into what the historian Grif Stockley has described as "the ugliest period in Little Rock's history," aside from the Civil War. The integration crisis of the previous year had resulted in an atmosphere in which, as Daisy Bates wrote in her autobiography, "hysteria in all its madness enveloped the city." In an old interview with a public access TV show in Brooklyn, Sanders was asked if racism was ever a problem growing up in Arkansas. "When I had to go to the grocery store," he said, "I had to fight going and coming." You can see him considering it, turning it over in his mind. "Yes," he said finally, "there was a lot of racism, a whole lot back there at that time."

Everyone knows what happened to the students who tried entering Central High in 1957, but there's less attention given to the similar showdown that occurred at North Little Rock High. It's there on the front page of the Arkansas Gazette: Sept. 10, 1957. Six students from Scipio A. Jones, Sanders' classmates, walked up the steps to the public high school and were swarmed and blocked by hundreds of their repulsed, snarling white neighbors. The photo caption reads, "This Time It's Across The River." "The Negroes were shoved and pushed but not struck," wrote the Gazette's Roy Reed. "They did not resist."

By 1959, Club Morocco had gone bankrupt. For that matter, so had the Arkansas State Press. That was the year Sanders left for California. As to why exactly he left, there is no definitive answer. Maybe it was because his own city made very clear the notion that it did not want him, his family or his peers. The local trumpeter Walter Henderson, who played with Sanders as a 17-year-old and later met him a few times in Chicago, thinks it might have been something else, too. "There is a certain kind of complacency here that stops people from following their dreams," Henderson told me. "And maybe the only way you can follow them is to get the hell out."

***

York Wilborn and The Thrillers became York Wilborn and The Invaders became York Wilborn and The Psychedelic Six became Classic Funk. York Wilborn became a band director in Marianna. After Sanders moved away, Wilborn saw him a few more times. Once, in the '60s, he brought one of his albums home so that his mother could hear it, and Wilborn dropped by to see his old friend. By then, he was already playing with Coltrane, the musician they had imitated as kids, and Wilborn asked him how he played all those "long lines and crazy stuff." Sanders told him, "Music is just like a circle," which he didn't understand. He said, "Well, OK."

Charles Stewart, founder of the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, which inducted Sanders into its ranks in 2004, remembers spending time with Sanders before and after the ceremony. He said he took his saxophone with him everywhere, even kept it in his lap in the car. He told Stewart, "I don't want it to fall over." Watching him perform at the Statehouse Convention Center, Stewart said, "He did something I've never seen anyone do before. He blew so much air — and I don't even know how you do that — but he was able to take his mouth away from the reed and still play it for several minutes."

One of the most unusual and physically difficult techniques associated with Sanders over the course of his career is called circular breathing, in which, by inhaling through his nose and keeping stores of air in his cheeks while still blowing on his instrument, he can create the impression of a continuous, unbroken breath. There's a 1982 video you can find online of him playing his song "Kazuko" in an abandoned tunnel, accompanied only by a hand-pumped harmonium. Near the middle of the 10-minute song, the camera zooms in on his face as he begins playing a series of quick and sharp arpeggios. His cheeks inflate and deflate rapidly, and because of the acoustics of the tunnel, it sounds for a while as though he's doing something actually impossible. It sounds like a choir of saxophones, but it's just him. It's one of the strangest things I've ever seen.

Amiri Baraka, always Sanders' most acute listener and maybe the most important real-time chronicler of the free jazz movement ("New Black Music is this: Find the self, then kill it," he once wrote), claimed that Sanders in particular standardized the technique, claimed even that he "has advanced the science of breathing." Baraka described Sanders' implausible strings of notes beautifully, as "long tissues of sounded emotion." In his book "Black Music," Baraka includes Sanders in his pantheon of musicians who are also "God-seekers."

In his history of the saxophone, "The Devil's Horn," the writer Michael Segell goes to see Sanders play and speaks to him briefly after the show. They talk about what he learned from Coltrane. "He often said the saxophone is not completed," Sanders says. "He heard something else in it; he thought there was more there but it hadn't been heard yet. So that's my mission, that's what I've been looking for the past forty years. I think he would be pleased with all the new sounds I've discovered." Then, after hesitating for a while, he seems to reconsider. "Except, of course, they're not new sounds," he says. "They're very old sounds."

What he means, I think, is that music is just like a circle.

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