In Memoriam: The Healing Force of Pharoah Sanders’ Music


This jazz musician, in his own way, helped improve mental health.




For the hard copy of the August 2022 issue of Psychiatric Times™, I wrote the third annual article on addressing racism and psychiatry, “A Personal and Psychiatric Jazz Riff on Racism.” The death of the Black American jazz great Pharoah Sanders on Saturday is a follow-up riff.

I do not usually do a eulogy on nonpsychiatrists. I think the last one was on the neurologist Oliver Sacks, and before that, the actor Robin Williams. However, since “Music is the Healing Force of the Universe,” as the recording title by his colleague Albert Ayler argues, how can psychiatry ignore another contribution to mental healing?

Born on October 13, 1940, his birth first name was Farrell. The jazz iconoclast Sun Ra nicknamed him Pharoah. He played saxophones, ranging from gentle caressing ballads in rolling rhythms to shrieking long expressions of protest. The shrieks seemed to be somewhat akin to the sounds of the Shofar now being blown for the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah, in order to wake us up and turn to the better in the upcoming year.

Without hearing his music, perhaps his importance can be suggested by these selected album titles.

1967: Tauhid. The word Tauhid refers to the union of the individual soul with God. The first side consists of “Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt.” I was in my first year of medical school at Yale, as if in a foreign land, and, and as the saying of the times goes, it “blew my mind.”

1969: Karma. This came out the year after my wife Rusti and I were married, and had 1 cut that covered almost the whole album, “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” That plan, as sung by Leon Thomas, was “peace and happiness for every man.” We named our cat Karma after it.

1973: Black Unity. The title song was the whole album, a call for black unity as the Civil Rights era was winding down and I was starting my psychiatric residency at the University of Chicago. Seeing poverty, racism, and other social determinants of mental disturbances across an esplanade, it was where I decided to become a community psychiatrist.

1978: Love Will Find a Way. Though Sanders had a penetrating and fierce stare, he showed a loving softer side here.

1982: Pharaoh Sanders: Live. A powerful, almost desperate, call on the track “You’ve Got to Have Freedom.” I assumed that included mental health freedom, perhaps the essential freedom of all.

2021: Promises. There were long gaps in recording over the prior 40 years, in part because of conflict with recording label owners. This is a collaboration with the white electronic musician Sam Shepherd and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

At concerts, his audience was often multicultural. From the Civil Rights era to our current divisiveness, he was an antiracist force of nature, not needing to say a word. His healing music survives him.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times™.

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