Contrasting studies in Jazz

Jazz means so many things to so many people. It has a huge expressive array, a range that continues to broaden with each passing decade. Jazz is played and listened to in all five continents and always co-opts local musical and cultural influences- Scandinavian, folk forms, samba, bossa, township, civil rights struggles, klezmer, rock- wherever it is played. One of my earlier blogs on jazz styles briefly and by no means comprehensively discussed some of the predominant styles in jazz from its birth in and around New Orleans to the present day.

It is the ubiquitous nature of jazz that forms one of its major attractions and establishes jazz as a truly significant art form.

I have been reflecting on the “broad church” that is jazz following the deaths, in September 2022 of two of its most distinctive voices, the saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and the pianist Ramsey Lewis. Lewis and Sanders had parallel careers extending over 60 years, were firmly within the jazz tradition while inhabiting quite distinct corners of the music and neither could have been more different in terms of their approach, sound, impact and audience. The one connecting thread between the two was, naturally, the mother lode of jazz, namely the blues. They both remained musically active into their eighties and, interestingly were both recipients of the prestigious NEA Masters awards, the highest U.S. honour for a jazz musician. My clip of Pharoah Sanders’ receiving the award gives an insight into his humility and authenticity and the high regard In which he was held by his peers. 

Pharoah Sanders

In terms of my personal journey through jazz Sanders has had a much greater significance. His emergence at the end of John Coltrane’s short life, the ferocity of his free jazz recordings that were part of Trane’s legacy, his immediately recognisable sound, the ethereal, passionate nature of his stage presence, his wonderful ballad playing and his unique mastery of circular breath control on his saxophone all added up to a huge impact. I also had the opportunity to hear him live in London, over 30 years, always one of my personal musical highlights in any year. In person, Pharoah Sanders never failed to be uplifting

My relationship with Ramsey Lewis was more distant. In my early years I tended to dismiss him precisely because he was so/too popular, a classic example of inverted jazz snobbery. His ever-presence and success disrupted my notion of jazz as a minority taste. How could you take a multiple Grammy winning pianist with such wide crossover appeal seriously?!  As I listened to him more, I became more appreciative of what he had to offer. Yes, his output came close to easy listening, but there was always a distinctive jazz aesthetic at the core of his music and Ramsey Lewis made his own contribution to the art of the jazz trio, giving space to his bass and drums while always remaining the predominant voice. Blues and soul lay at the heart of Ramsey Lewis’s music and none the worse for that. Within his own terms he was a consummate performer and gave real joy to large audiences particularly in the 1960’s and 70’s.

“Farrell Sanders was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, a segregated world where his mother was a school cook, his father was a council worker, and he grew up steeped in the music of the church” Guardian obituary September 2022.

Pharaoh made the essential move to New York in the mid 60’s where following a hand-to-mouth couple of years he joined the Sun Ra Arkestra. Sun Ra, the pioneer of Afro-futurism had a big impact on Sanders’s creative sensibilities and also insisted that he adopted the name Pharoah. In 1966, searching for freer more mystical connections John Coltrane controversially broke up his classic quartet and recruited Pharoah who appears on Trane’s last albums, going on to tour and record a distinctively yearning, spiritual brand of jazz with Alice Coltrane the great harpist and pianist. Sanders continued to record and tour profusely, always as a leader. 

By all accounts he was a humble man. He gave interviews rarely and once claimed that “I was just trying to see if I could play a pretty note, a pretty sound.” “In later years, those who arrived at his concerts expecting the white-bearded figure to produce the squalls of sound that characterised Coltrane’s late period were often surprised by the gentleness with which he could enunciate a ballad. “When I’m trying to play music,” he said, “I’m telling the truth about myself.” (Guardian obituary.

Sanders’s uplifting tune The Creator Has a Master Plan was a surprise crossover hit in the 1970’s and he continued to perform it throughout his life. Here’s a sample…

At the very end of his life Sanders participated in a remarkable orchestral composition and recording dedicated to him by the producer Floating Points accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra.

Ramsey Lewis

Ramsey Lewis was born in Chicago in 1935, and like Sanders was strongly influenced by his childhood immersion in the music of the black churches. Lewis’s initial ambition was to become a concert pianist, an unlikely prospect for a black player in those times (and to a degree these times). He formed his first trio in the mid-50’s and worked as a sideman with such jazz luminaries as Max Roach, Sonny Stitt and Clark Terry. Lewis found prominence in 1967 with his first big hit The In Crowd.

Ramsey Lewis hosted a weekly syndicated Legends of Jazz broadcast for over 30 years. In this capacity he became an important advocate for jazz.  His tunes and style were widely copied and sampled. His classic mid-60’s live recordings underlined the popularity and danceability of his distinctive style of jazz.

Lewis released more than 80 albums, received five US gold records and won three Grammy awards. Ramsey Lewis was the living proof that jazz could be popular, fun, soulful and danceable.

The Playlist

My playlist offers a mix of the recordings of both musicians. While some of Pharaoh’s early material may and does sound challenging and far out (epithets that could never be associated with Ramsey Lewis) I would encourage you to stick with it, not least to increase your appreciation for some of his more meditative tracks.