Sanders belonged to a cohort of musicians who, in the middle 20th Century, threw open the doors of jazz to allow for fierce dissonances, extended instrumental techniques, and a new style of improvisation oriented toward freeform collective expression rather than individual solos. Born in 1940 in Little Rock, Arkansas, he was at least a decade younger than the players who ushered in free jazz’s first wave, a generation that included John Coltrane, his greatest collaborator and mentor.
Whereas this first generation arrived at free jazz through complex elaborations of tonal harmony, the system of relationships between notes and chords that had undergirded bebop and earlier forms of jazz and classical music, Sanders and peers like Albert Ayler sometimes seemed to leave the precepts of harmony and melody behind entirely. At its most impassioned, their playing arrived in outbursts of pure sound—shrieks, sighs, thundercracks—that traditionalist critics and contemporaries of the era dismissed as unmusical. “I listen to things that maybe some guys don’t,” Sanders said in the New Yorker interview. “I listen to the waves of the water. Train coming down. Or I listen to an airplane taking off.” After Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Cecil Taylor broke down the wall, Sanders and the second vanguard were free to explore the territory on the other side.