Saxophonist and spiritual jazz innovator Pharoah Sanders has died, according to an announcement from David Byrne‘s Luaka Bop label. His cause of death has not been made public, but the label stated, “He died peacefully surrounded by loving family and friends in Los Angeles earlier this morning. Always and forever the most beautiful human being, may he rest in peace.” Sanders was 81 years old.

Born Farrell Sanders on October 13, 1940 in Arkansas, he learned to play clarinet and drums in church before switching to the alto saxophone in high school. In 1959, having graduated from high school, he moved to Oakland, CA, where he traded his clarinet for a tenor sax, the instrument he would become known for playing. He briefly studied music at Oakland Junior College while starting to perform in both Black and white clubs in the Bay Area, which was when he first met John Coltrane. He relocated to New York and played with Sun Ra, who gave him the nickname “Pharoah,” and in 1964, he released his solo debut, Pharoah’s First.

The following year, Sander began playing with Coltrane regularly both live and during studio sessions, ultimately contributing to more than a dozen of Coltrane’s albums including Ascension, Meditations, and A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle (which was recorded in 1965 but remained unreleased until 2021).

Sanders was modest when recalling his role playing alongside Coltrane: “I couldn’t figure out why he wanted me to play with him, because I didn’t feel like, at the time, that I was ready to play with John Coltrane,” he told The New Yorker. “Being around him was almost, like, ‘Well, what do you want me to do? I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.’ He always told me, ‘Play.’ That’s what I did.”

Sanders was one of the leading figures of the spiritual jazz movement, lending his voice to Alice Coltrane on her 1968 album A Monastic Trio and releasing his seminal album Karma in 1969. He also collaborated with numerous other jazz stars, from Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman to Kenny Garrett and McCoy Tyner, to name just a few.

Despite downplaying his technical abilities, Sanders helped popularize techniques like overblowing and multiphonics. His greatest contribution, though, was his emotional and spiritual approach to playing. “I’m probably not that much of an intellectual player, as some other musicians,” he humbly explained in a 1995 interview. “What I do is… express. That’s what I do.”

Though he is best known for the albums he released via Impulse! Records in the ’60s and ’70s, including Karma, ThembiElevation, Black Unity, and Love in Us All, Sanders continued making new music into the ’90s and 2000s, releasing his most recent LP, Promises, in collaboration with Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra in 2021.

Fellow musicians and fans have shown an outpouring of love, appreciation, and grief following Sanders’s death, including Sun Ra Arkestra, Nigel GodrichYasmin Williams, and Floating Points. “Singular, unique, creative, avant-garde, independent man,” wrote actor Wendell Pierce. “Never will I forget, on my 21st birthday I saw him live in NY at 7th Ave. South. It made an indelible impact on my soul. Rest In Peace.”