I think the point that Jazz has its share of the eccentric and the quirky is pretty clear. What may not be quite so clear is how the, arguably, most eccentric and quirky “celebrity” in the landscape of American “popular culture” was a Jazz musician: Sun Ra, born Herman Poole Blount, legal name Le Sony'r Ra; May 22, 1914 – May 30, 1993.
To put it another way, when George Clinton boarded the mothership…Sun Ra was already there piloting the craft. Sun Ra claims that he was transported to planet Saturn in the 1930s. Sun Ra claimed to have been originally from Saturn.
Sun Ra also made some damn good music. For decades. He kept his band together until his death in 1993 and they also maintained a kind of communal living, all living in the same building; first in Chicago, the New York and eventually in Philadelphia. And with all of the heroin mentions last week and the foreshadowing of tragedies that my narrative didn’t get to yet, I think it’s nice to take note that Sun Ra had none of those issues. He lived a drug/alcohol free life. And for the most part, so did his band mates.
Scheduling notes: I’ll do “Miles and Trane part 2” in two weeks. I didn’t want to do it all two weeks in a row. Since next Sunday will be Easter and also still Passover, I don’t want to post “Miles and Trane part 2” and have it lost in the diary shuffle for those who would normally be around, but wont due to the nature of the day. I will post a Jazz diary next Sunday, but it will be family friendly and familiar (and will also be essentially drug free…it gets depressing thinking about all the guys who died long before their time).
Onward through the orange squiggle to the planet, to the planet….venus…..
When I started to get stuff together for this diary, I noticed something. I have been aware of Sun Ra for decades now. My dad had one of his albums and I also remember us watching a documentary about him on PBS when i was young. I’ve also seen Sun Ra perform live a few times. The one that sticks in my memory was in Military Park in Newark, NJ, just outside of the Robert Treat Hotel where WBGO has its facilities. What I noticed was how little about Sun Ra I actually knew…and more importantly I noticed how none of Sun Ra’s compositions have made their way into the cannon of Jazz.
And not just that, the Anthropologist in me, trained in political-economic analysis and intellectually motivated to theorize music as “work,” is rather fascinated by how Sun Ra sustained his career and his band. I don’t have any economic data, but the small business nature of it all is rather impressive. And it also makes me think of Sun Ra’s shtick as shtick. If Sun Ra captures your imagination, the biography written by John Szwed appears to be very good. Szwed is one of the best ethnomusicologists of his generation.
Born in Birmingham Alabama, Sun Ra showed a great deal of musical talent at a young age. He played around Birmingham as a young man and earned a scholarship to go to college and study music education in 1936. He dropped out after one year. Sun Ra claims to have been transported to the planet Saturn in 1936 or 37. Here he was given a mission to spread his music throughout the world. Apparently his biographer, John Szwed, could not verify Sun Ra ever saying this before 1952. Regardless of whether this was revisionist history on Sun Ra’s part; he is making claims of having been abducted by aliens incredibly early. “Flying Saucers” don’t really enter public consciousness until around 1947 (and while that is the year of the supposed Roswell crash…Roswell doesn’t enter public consciousness until about 1980). The idea of “benevolent” aliens coming to earth and/or abducting people does not even enter the public consciousness until 1950 and even then it is far from a mainstream idea.
After dropping out of college, Sun Ra becomes a very hard working musician around Alabama, running his own big band and gathering local notoriety. When he was called for selective service in 1942, he claimed conscientious objector. The Wikipedia entry sums it up:
….His case was rejected by the local draft board, and in his appeal to the national draft board, Blount (Sun Ra) wrote that the lack of black men on the draft appeal board "smacks of Hitlerism”…. Although eventually approved for alternate service at Civilian Public Service camp in Pennsylvania, he did not appear at the camp as required on December 8, 1942. Shortly after, he was arrested in Alabama.In 1945 he moved to Chicago and began working with blues singer Wynonie Harris.
In court, Blount (Sun Ra) said that alternate service was unacceptable; he debated the judge on points of law and Biblical interpretation. Though sympathetic, the judge ruled that Blount was violating the law….Blount responded that if inducted, he would use military weapons and training to kill the first high-ranking military officer possible. The judge sentenced Blount to jail (pending draft board and CPS rulings), and then said, "I've never seen a nXXXXr like you before;" Blount replied, "No, and you never will again."
In January 1943 Blount wrote to the United States Marshals Service from the Walker County, Alabama jail in Jasper. He said he was facing a nervous breakdown from the stress of imprisonment, that he was suicidal, and that he was in constant fear of sexual assault. When his conscientious objector status was reaffirmed in February 1943, he was escorted to Pennsylvania. He did forestry work as assigned during the day and was allowed to play piano at night. Psychiatrists there described him as "a psychopathic personality [and] sexually perverted" but also as "a well-educated colored intellectual"
In 1946 he worked with Fletcher Henderson and in 48 with Coleman Hawkins and Stuff Smith (though nothing was recorded). He was also deeply influenced by the African American political awareness and movements growing in Chicago. It is in Chicago the Sun Ra comes to the conclusion that contributions of Africans to world history and the history of Africans were being suppressed by European culture.
IN 1952, Sun Ra formed a trio with Pat Patrick and Tommy “Bugs” Hunter. Parick would leave soon, but would be in and out of Sun Ra’s bands for years. Tenor Saxophonist John Gilmore replaced Patrick and Alto Saxophonist Marshal Allen joined shortly after that. While in Chicago, saxophonist James Spaulding played with Sun Ra as well. Earl Boykins joined on Bass in 1957
In Chicago, Sun Ra really began to take off and began calling his group The Arkestra. By the latter 50s they began releasing full length albums. Here is where the music starts to get good.
Sunology from 1956's Supersonic Jazz
The majority of Sun Ra recordings were released on his own label, El Saturn Records, which was started along with Alton Abraham. Apparently album were produced at about 75 per run and sold primarily at live performances. In late 1950s Chicago, the band also worked as a band for hire backing up doo wop acts and whoever else might be willing to pay.
Plutonian Nights from 1958/59's Nubians of Plutonia
Jazz in Silhouette is oft cited as one Sun Ra’s best albums, especially of this period of his music. But what gets me and many others is how much John Gilmore sounds like Coltrane. Gilmore claims to have influenced Trane, and while it really does sound plausible, it’s not something that was formally ever acknowledged by Coltrane. (and if I’m wrong about that, I’m sure someone will correct me in the comments!)
Blues at Midnight from 1959's Jazz in silhouette
It’s been suggested that perhaps Sun Ra helped Trane to realize something he was searching for musically, or put him on some sort of spiritual path. Again, to the best of my knowledge this is all conjecture. It certainly could be true.
It’s also around this time that the band begins to wear Egyptian inspired clothing. It gave them a far out look and also a band uniform.
This next tune is one of Sun Ra’s better known recordings. The tune was covered by the great “bar band” NRBQ and apparently it’s somewhat been used by Lady Gaga recently in a tune called Venus. (By the way…am I the only one who thinks Gaga is a lot like a modern Bette Midler and wonders when Gaga is going to start running around the stage in a mermaid costume?)
Rocket Number 9 Take off for the planet Venus from 1960's Interstellar Low Way
Its hard to imagine in what context that recording was received. Did folks hear it and think of it as a novelty number (the one eyed one horn flying purple eater syndrome)? It’s certainly not as far out as Ornette was.
In 1961, the band relocated to New York City. Just a few of the musicians in his band came to NYC with him and their intention was to earn some money and return to Chicago. But upon arrival, something happened to their car (I think it was Boykin’s father’s car) which needed immediate repair and they spent all the money they brought with them. The first record they make in NY is somewhat accessible.
The space jam reverie from 1961'The Futuristic sounds of sun ra
And then things get “out.” The next few selections may not be very listenable.
This next tune is one that Sun Ra continues to perform into the 1970s
The shadow world from 1965's The Magic City
Helocentric from 1965's The Heliocentirc worlds of sun ra
Strange stuff? Yes, but a few points. In 1966 the band secured a steady Monday gig in NYC which attracted the early psychedelic crowd and eventually musicians and music critics, including the support from two jazz heavy weights: Dizzy and Monk. Now let’s remember that this is going to be same environment and time period that creates the Velvet Underground. Not to mention that the style of free jazz Sun Ra delves into makes me wonder about his influence on the early Grateful Dead. I don’t mean Americana “ripple” or “sugar magnolia” grateful dead…I mean a 45 minute long “Dark Star” into 30 minute “St Stephen” into 75 minute long “that’s it for the other one” Grateful dead. Dead 1967-69, not post American Beauty/Workingman’s Dead . (The dead heads reading this understand lol). Was Jerry Garcia listening Sun Ra? Probably not, although maybe when they performed in San Francisco he did. But did Phil Lesh listen to Sun Ra? It is quite plausible.
But listen to this tune. I think in the context of listening to some of this later John Coltrane, Sun Ra’s 60s recordings make more sense.
The following is from 1967’s Atlantis. For this diary, I used the internets for advice on which albums to take clips from. Atlantis seems to appear on everyone’s list of favorite Sun Ra albums. It’s pretty out there.
Most of these recordings are still coming out on EL Saturn Records. I think it’s important to note how much Sun Ra remained in control of his own music. Whether you care for the more free jazz stuff or not, it is easy to notice how his retaining total control allowed him and his band to go in whatever musical direction they wanted. This diary is getting long and I’ve written more text than in past jazz diaries, though I think it is important to get this iconic figure’s story out there. However, originally my intention was to do a second artist whose relationship with the music industry did just the opposite as it did to Sun Ra, an artist who started off as utterly brilliant but was courted and seduced by the biz. But Sun Ra by himself is enough for today, I’ll get to Wes Montgomery soon. But never forget: Industry rule #4080, record company people are shady.
In 1968, the band moves to Philadelphia where they reside until this day. I’m at a loss for a lot the stuff at this period. Recordings keep getting made, but I don’t have much idea as to which ones are the ones to hear. I know some of the good ones. I also do know that Sun Ra begins to tour Europe and also makes some trips to Egypt.
friendly galaxy no 2 from 1971's live in Egypt vol 1
I read this week that Sun Ra would rarely engage any problems with musicians he might be having, if he didn’t like how someone was playing (or perhaps acting) he would just leave them stranded. The band would leave town without them. Sun Ra did this in Europe frequently enough for the State Department to ask him not to leave band mates behind.
In 1971, Sun Ra taught a course at UC Berkeley called “The Black Man in the Cosmos”. These lectures were the basis of the film made and released in 1972 “Space is the Place”.
It should also be noted (and if you listened to that NYC 60s stuff above, maybe you noticed) that Sun Ra begins using electronic keyboards and synthesizers very early.
I’ve heard that 1972’s Cymbals and 1977’s Unity are great albums from this period. I don’t know these records, but this did strike me as interesting…
I rather like 1978’s Lanquidity
In 1980, there was PBS documentary on Sun Ra. I think seeing that back in 1980 (when I was 12 or 13) might have been my first introduction to Sun Ra. By the 1980s, the band’s sound is somewhat “Conventional.” It’s still out there, but not as strange as the 60s stuff at all. It is a kind of big band sound.
The intertubes tell me that 1990’s Mayan Temples is one of the best recordings he did in the last years of his life. The tune Mayan Temples was first recorded in 1979, making it hard to find the 1990 one on youtube. So here’s the whole darn record!
Sun Ra returned to Saturn on May 30th of 1993. John Gilmore, born September 28, 1931, led the band until his death on August 19, 1995. Marshall Allen, born May 25, 1924, took over the band and continues to lead it today. Allen is engaged in drafting new members to the Arkestra and seeking people who will continue to profess Sun Ra’s philosophies. I do not think the public is done with Sun Ra yet. I’ve left a lot out of his story here and the truth is that Sun Ra’s life would make an excellent movie. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see that film sometime within the next 20 years.
Cutting and pasting from Wikipedia, ethnomusicologist David Martinelli wrote in 1990:
Sun Ra presents a unified conception, incorporating music, myth, and performance into his multi-leveled equations. Every aspect of the Sun Ra experience, from business practices like Saturn Records to published collections of poetry to his 35-year career in music, is a manifestation of his equations. Sun Ra seeks to elevate humanity beyond their current earthbound state, tied to outmoded conceptions of life and death when the potential future of immortality awaits them. As Hall has put it, 'In this era of 'practical' things men ridicule even the existence of God. They scoff at goodness while they ponder with befuddled minds the phantasmagoria of materiality. They have forgotten the path which leads beyond the stars.
Thanks for listening everyone! And thanks for your support! We’ll come back to Miles and Trane in two weeks. Next week: Easter special! Don’t forget to support your local Jazz musicians and any live music in your area!