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Detroit Jazz Masterby Christopher Pitts
Copyright © 2000 Christopher Pittswww.jazznation.com
Sam Sanders, a truly unique saxophonist whose approach to music made him a legend in Detroit Jazz, passed away last October 18th in his home in Senegal, Africa. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, he would have been 63 on November 19th. He succumbed to black lung disease attributed to exposure to asbestos.
While sometimes likened to John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman or Joe Henderson, Sanders had an unmistakably unique style. His group, Sam Sanders and Visions - for many years with bassist Ed Pickens and drummer Jimmy Allen, was known for extremely aggressive post bebop jazz bordering on the Avant Garde. Sanders mainly played the tenor and soprano saxophones, however he would often close his concerts with a signature slow blues on the alto saxophone, revealing his deeply ingrained "roots" and a distinctly Detroit sound. Mixing adventurous bebop with traditional blues is considered a "Detroit" trademark and can be heard in practically every Detroit-bred jazz musician from Tommy Flanagan and Joe Henderson to Geri Allen and Regina Carter. But Sanders was a consummate musician and could "do it all." His extremely sensitive ballads were the perfect balance for his challenging up tempo originals. One such ballad inspired a standing ovation from a packed main stage audience at the Detroit Jazz Festival. Sanders was also active as an educator, and concert producer.
He was an instructor at the Detroit Metro Arts complex and at Oakland University. He was instrumental in creating the Detroit Jazz Center - an open jazz school and concert venue presenting artists such as Jackie MacLean, Donald Byrd and Woody Shaw, with local artists Kenn Cox, Marcus Belgrave, Roy Brooks, Charles Boles, and Danny Spencer among many others. Sanders composed hundreds of compositions which his group would rehearse religiously on a daily basis. Because of their unusual regularity, combined with Sander's prowess and notoriously difficult music, the rehearsals attracted visiting artists and emerging talent who would often come away drenched in sweat and severely humbled.
Sanders began playing while attending Northeastern High School in the 50s with fellow classmates Alice Coltrane, Kenn Cox and Bennie Maupin. He later attended the Teal school of music then studied privately with Detroit Jazz Legend: Yusef Lateef. During his career, Sanders performed with a variety of international artists including: Milt Jackson, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, The Four Tops, James Blood Ulmer, Sonny Stitt, Pharoah Sanders. Prior to forming Visions, Sanders and trumpeter Marcus Belgrave fronted a band with pianist Harold McKinney called the Creative Profile. Belgrave and Sanders would continue to perform together, often with Sander's big band, the Pioneer Orchestra.
During the last decades of his life, Sanders traveled often to Senegal and eventually settled there with his wife, Viola Vaughn. Viola, Sam's wife of 20 years, described Sam passing at lunchtime in a chair overlooking the land, surrounded by many of his friends. He was buried the next day, as is custom in Senegal, and apparently some 2000 people attended. He is the first American to be buried in the cemetery there. Viola currently runs a volunteer clinic.^ Top