My redemptive meeting with Upper Pharaoh in American Jerusalem

photo 4I had a meeting with Pharaoh recently that was nothing short of redemptive. Not at the die-ins of the East or West Coast. But in line at the bar, chatting with this Pharaoh’s aunt about the pilgrimage people of all colors and persuasion continue to make across the earth to hear this legendary sax player.

In the diversely populated 770 seat forum of the San Francisco Jazz Center this past Sunday eve, the Pharaoh of Pharaohs was in effect as he mesmerized all those gathered, freeing us from our Lower Egypts that dominate the times. Rather than merely dwelling in Lower Egypt, this musical meeting ascended quickly to Upper Egypt, and all who gathered ascended with this Pharaoh. To understand this journey is to understand the story of Farrell becoming Pharaoh while sessioning with Sun Ra and John Coltrane in the 1960s. From there, the Arkansas born tenor sax player, Farrell “Pharaoh” Sanders (b. 1940), who began by sessioning in Oakland, California, through to New York in 1962, emerged with the Pharaoh Sanders Quintent by 1964, fusing free-jazz with African rhythms and Nubian space jazz. His quest for enlightenment reaches a pinnacle in 1966 with Tauid (1967) and the epic composition, “Upper & Lower Egypt”.

This station of the musical journey of Pharaoh Sanders concatenates and recoils me immediately into the ascent from the descent of the lowest point in the journey of spiritual illumination that Jewish mystics call, Egypt.

Such constricted, exilic space of consciousness is the opposite of the expansive, creative spirit. Moments before the music sets in, I find myself entangled in my egoistic nature, not allowing me to care for anyone except myself—this the state of Pharaoh in Lower Egypt. When I am trapped by such despotism of my ego, it is incredibly hard to be open to the sublime and subtle states of consciousness for which I always yearn but fall short of during the week. Pharaoh that the Torah speaks of is opposing my expansion of spirit at every step, whereas, Moses, the force of my liberation is yearning to emerge. This is how the Jewish mystics riff on the Torah’s telling the story of Pharaoh, Moses and everything in the Book of Exodus that Jewish communities are beginning to pour over again in the cyclical liturgical reading this week. More than an annual reading, this is an everyday project. When I work on my ego-self, I have to descend into the “exile in Egypt”, knowing that through this process, I can eventually rediscover my veiled true nature. That shift from egoism to altruism, from Lower Egypt to Upper Egypt is a difference in knowing that there is the freedom of desire. But that freedom is only in the choice of whom to serve: Pharaoh or Moses, Lower or Upper Egypt.

Liberation happens in my crying out, in the wailing of saxophone to the creative source. Without such an outpouring, this Pharaoh of Lower Egypt will not let me go.

Returning to those precious moments of sax sound, from 1967 till this very moment, when Pharaoh Sanders finally enters his composition, “Upper & Lower Egypt” for the first time, everyone listening must wonder throughout this 17 minute long epic: “Where is Pharaoh?” Is it just a contraction or is Pharaoh trying to enhance his role as leader by waiting so long to enter the musical fray? The answer emerges even stronger later on with his recording, Love in Us All (1973) that splits Upper Egypt between the experimental (To John) and the emotional outpouring (Love is Everywhere).

The subtlety of illumined states could be no finer. And it was this very subtle, redemptive quality that was in display at the San Francisco Jazz Center, where each set was marked by three words or less, hovering under the music, intoned antiphonally: the first set—“The power of God”; and the second set—“Save our children”. This Pharaoh of Pharoahs was transmitting this eternal lesson through music— to redeem ourselves from Lower Egypt, each and every one of us must begin to make that shift from egoism to altruism, from Me to We, from the narrow confines of my concerns to the concerns of the others in the world. Only then will the song of freedom play itself…

About the Author
Aubrey L. Glazer, Ph.D. serves as rabbi at Beth Sholom, San Francisco. Aubrey is the author of Mystical Vertigo: Kabbalistic Hebrew Poetry Dancing Cross the Divide (Academic Studies Press, 2013), A New Physiognomy of Jewish Thinking: Critical Theory After Adorno as Applied to Jewish Thought (New York: Continuum, 2011) and Contemporary Hebrew Mystical Poetry: How It Redeems Jewish Thinking (Edwin Mellen Press: New York, 2009).