We're sorry to announce that Merl Saunders, at age 74, passed away early yesterday. After Saunders suffered a debilitating stroke in 2002, he lost his ability to speak but continued to sit in on performances, playing with one hand.
Saunders started his music career after attending Polytechnic High School with singer Johnny Mathis and then serving in the Army from 1953 to 1957. He then started playing jazz organ on the music circuit playing with anyone from Jimmy Smith to Dinah Washington and even jamming with Miles Davis.
Saunders then met Jerry Garcia in 1970 after being introduced by John Kahn. This first developed into the Saunders-Garcia Band recording two albums for the Berkeley's Fantasy Record label. Then, with the addition of saxophonist Martin Fierro in 1974, this group of musicians became the legionary Legion of Mary, which unfortunately disbanded the following year. The next meeting for Saunders and Garcia would come in 1979-1980 in Reconstruction, then again in 1990 for the "Blue From the Rainforest" album.
Saunders has had an amazing music career spanning many genres and many years and he will be sadly missed. But, a little know fact is that Saunders has already cheated death twice before. First, when he was booked on United Flight 93 out of Newark, NJ on 9/11/2001, but decided to change his flight so he could get home to watch a Monday Night Football game. And second, when he survived cancer in 2002. Unfortunately, soon after undergoing cancer surgery, Saunders suffered the stroke which would eventually cause the complications resulting in his passing yesterday.
Here is a message from the Saunders' family:
"Merl Saunders stood for music and love – his smile alone told you that. We loved him very much – and we know that you, his fans, did too. Sad as we are to lose him, we’re very aware of being comforted by the affection coming from all those touched by that smile and that wonderful music. He was a special man, a beautiful companion, father, grandfather, and family patriarch, and the proof of that spirit is in the way you’ve reached out to us at his passing. From our hearts, thank you. And we know Merl thanks you too.
Keep on keepin’ on, The Saunders Family"
A memorial service will be held on Wednesday, October 29th, at 11 am at First AME Zion Church, 2159 Golden Gate Ave., San Francisco.
In lieu of flowers, we request that donations be made to either the Rainforest Action Network (www.ran.org) or the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic (www.HAFCl.org).