Sun Ra and His Arkestra

 

Sun Ra Moers 1979. Photograph © H.L.Lindenmaier.

Sun Ra Moers 1979. Photograph © H.L.Lindenmaier.

Some call me Mr Ra, others call me Mr Re. You can call me Mr Mystery”

What do you make of a man who claimed to be the last of the Swing band leaders, yet dosed classic arrangements with LSD? Who wrote poetry about the “coming space age” and who dressed himself and his band in low-budget Flash Gordon outfits? Who lectured his audience on the Creator’s message to the cruel and deceitful Earthman and who declared that he was a member of an “angel race”? Was this guy for real? Sun Ra was very much for real. As well as a purveyor of spectacles, he made over 125 albums and near to 500 compositions over three decades, most of them for his own record label.

Sun Ra’s early years are shrouded in obscurity. He was born (excuse me, arrived on the planet) on May 22 in Birmingham, probably in 1914. It’s said his name was Herman Blount. Most likely the Blounts were his stepfamily; his real last name may have been Lee. His interest in jazz developed early. He listened intently to Louis Armstrong and other “Masters” (“I knew they were Masters. No one had to guide me”). His high school had an excellent band program under “Fess” Whatley, teacher of a generation of black musicians in Birmingham. Sonny played in bands organized by Ethel Harper and others. “I played for social clubs – Black [people], they’d have an event with the tuxes, the eating and the drinking.”

Sonny Blount the musician first surfaces on December 15, 1934, when he substituted for the leader of an Alabama swing band from. He led the peripatetic life of the swing musician; he worked in Nashville with bandleader Oliver Bibb, whose sidemen wore 18th Century French costumes, complete with wigs and lace sleeves. “It fit the kind of music they were playing,” he snorted, but the idea of costuming stuck. He didn’t make his first recorded appearance until 1946 with blues singer Wynonie Harris. Later that year he left Birmingham for good as Fletcher Henderson, the pioneering jazz bandleader, took one of his last bands into Club DeLisa in Chicago and Blount took over piano. “At this time, I was busy with spirit things,” he told Phil Schaap. “I wasn’t even really here.” His concerns about man’s inhumanity to man were coming together with readings around hidden meanings within the Bible.

The Arkestra began modestly. Around 1950, Sun Ra started rehearsing with his Space Trio: Laurdine “Pat” Patrick (alto and baritone saxes) and Robert Barry or Tommy Hunter on drums and they played strip joints in Calumet City. Sonny fell in with a secret society on the South Side of Chicago, whose members studied the occult, advocated a form of Black Nationalism, and preached about outer space. Alton Abraham, later the Arkestra’s manager and head of Saturn Records, was a member and others provided financial support. In 1952, Ra proclaimed his vocation: he was of an angel race and he was to bring the Creator’s message to benighted Planet Earth. He changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra (“Jesus Christ should have registered himself with the authorities. Then he wouldn’t have had any trouble”). Sun Ra was technically his stage name. He began calling his band an Arkestra (a respelling that includes “Ra” both forwards and backwards).

The band slowly grew. Pat Patrick was in and out; other players like Clifford Jordan, Von Freeman, Ronald Wilson and bassist Richard Davis drifted through. Sun Ra had a keen interest in recording technology (in the ‘30s, he used a wire recorder to get popular swing arrangements off the radio ahead of competing bands). He regularly recorded the trio’s sets in Calumet City. He tried other musical directions too. ‘Dreaming’ from 1955 is perfect doo-wop, sung by a vocal quartet called the Cosmic Rays, four teenagers from rough neighborhoods who worked in a barbershop.

In 1954, the Arkestra took on a new tenor player. John Gilmore had attended DuSable High School (the alma mater of Chicago luminaries like Andrew Hill) and, after leaving the Air Force in 1953, he worked with Earl Hines. Sun Ra’s band quickly grew: Pat Patrick returned, Dave Young came in on trumpet, Julian Priester on trombone, Richard Evans on bass. They began to work regularly at Budland, in the Pershing Hotel. In 1956, the Transition label recorded an 11-piece band on an album called simply ‘Jazz By Sun Ra’. Indications of the future are subtle as Ra’s organ conjures pseudo-Oriental mysteries over bells and chimes on ‘Sun Song.’

The band began recording under the Saturn label as Sun Ra took the crucial step of starting his own record company. Artist-owned labels in the ‘50s were unusual. Mingus and Max Roach had Debut; Stan Kenton had Creative World, both better bank-rolled operations. Saturn was operated by a friend of the Arkestra, Alton Abraham, who taped the band in Chicago and served as its manager. The records were indifferently mastered, often roughly pressed. The covers featured drawings by friends of the Arkestra. The primary distribution was at gigs where records were sold (cash only, please) by band members. When asked how he decided what appeared on Saturn, Sun Ra’s answer was, “Whatever I think people are not going to listen to. When it’ll take them time – maybe 20 years to really hear it.”

Only one other LP was issued during the Chicago period – the immortal ‘Jazz In Silhouette.’ In 1957, the alto saxophonists James Spaulding And Marshall Allen began to work with the Arkestra; Allen had studied in Paris and made his flute a permanent addition to the Arkestra’s tonal palette. Ronald Boykins (another DuSable graduate) was a bassist extraordinaire. Their impact was immediate – the Arkestra’s music kept right on mutating. The LP ‘The Nubians Of Plutonia’ included Sun Ra’s all-too-brief take on West African highlife, ‘Watusa.’ In the second half of 1958, the Arkestra returned to the studio to make ‘Jazz In Silhouette.’ Here, Hobart Dotson, Ra’s erstwhile companion in the Dukes Of Swing, came in on trumpet, one of the greatest lead trumpeters of all time. ‘Enlightenment’ is a fascinating through-composed piece, themes by Dotson, orchestration by Ra.

Sun Ra had been talking about outer space for several years now. But that Arkestra staple, the space chant, did not appear until 1959 or 1960, following a session with an R&B singer called Yochannan (aka “The Muck Muck Man” and “The Man from Mars”). On the album ‘We Travel The Spaceways’, ‘Interplanetary Music’ is a warped Broadway chorus and the rollicking title track is known today by audiences from Kyoto to Cairo.

From 1957 to 1959, the Arkestra sometimes swelled to big-band dimensions, but with the loss of key players like Charles Davis, James Spaulding, Jim Herndon, and others, the basic group shrank to 6 or 7 pieces. However, John Gilmore and Marshall Allen had steadily grown as soloists; Ronnie Boykins had full command of the bow and Phil Cohran, a Saint Louis bop trumpeter, became a regular. Though chamber-like in its sonorities, the 1960 Arkestra was tight – on the ‘Interstellar Low Ways’ LP, Marshall Allen is disconsolate on the world-weary ‘Space Loneliness’.

During the Chicago years, the Arkestra worked hard. Sun Ra had always been fond of marathon rehearsals and Alton Abraham kept them in gigs but Ra’s priority was always chances to play, not pay. Toward the end of the ‘50s, the Chicago jazz scene shrank and sidemen kept moving to New York.

In the spring of 1961, Sun Ra received an offer to play at the El Morocco club in Montréal and rounded up Allen, Gilmore, and Boykins. The club owner fired them on the second night, telling them that they were “playing God’s music.” In the fall, they were booted out of Canada when their visas expired, and made their way to New York. They were broke and Boykins’ car was totalled in an accident. Facing high rents, Sun Ra and the core Arkestra lived communally in a place in the East Village that, despite its cramped confines, was grandly dubbed Sun Studios. Band members made pop recordings to keep food on the table. In the Winter of 1966, Sun Ra and Arkestra members made an LP called ‘Batman And Robin’ for the toy company Tifton. Al Kooper and members of the Blues Project joined them. They were billed as The Sensational Guitars of Dan And Dale, but that swelling intro to the ‘Batman Theme’ is unmistakable.

By the end of 1961, the Arkestra affiliated with the Choreographers’ Workshop in West 51st Street, where they could practice at night and on weekends. Their official debut in the City took place at the Charles Theatre on the Lower East Side in February 1962. Critic John S. Wilson made fun of the “exotically named assortment of musical weapons” like the fireplace and the flying saucer, a spinning disk with colored lights that made no sound at all. Unfazed, Ra and his musicians kept on moving out. They made ‘Secrets Of The Sun’ where the sentimental perennial ‘Love In Outer Space’ first appeared; On the sprawling ‘Reflects Motion,’ Gilmore reached for high notes and threw out split tones. Another collection of amateur recordings from the Choreographers’ Workshop titled ‘Art Forms Of Dimensions Tomorrow,’ featured the echoey, spaced out ‘Cluster Of Galaxies’.

‘When Sun Comes Out’ marks a watershed: the Arkestra had begun to play completely outside. On ‘We Travel The Spaceways’, Teddy Nance and Bernard Pettaway paint an ominous background, Allen flashes like lightning, Ra runs up and down the piano in tone clusters. Onward in space. ‘Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy’ was pure psychedelia before there was such a word (Sun Ra liked to talk about “the transmolecularization of man’s future mind”). Gilmore’s bass clarinet sings cheerfully on ‘Adventure-Equation’.

By 1964, John Gilmore was in demand for sessions and he went on tour with the Jazz Messengers. His hand-picked replacement was Pharoah Sanders, then a waiter in Greenwich Village. Gilmore returned to the fold in early 1965 after falling out with Blakey in Japan. The Arkestra, after four years in New York, was reaching another peak. In April 1965, the band made a series of dry, almost ghostly improvisations, marketed as ‘Heliocentric Worlds Volume 1’ for Bernard Stollman’s ESP Disk. In November, an octet produced a second volume. With its carefully graded dynamics and helped by an excellent recording, this music bore little resemblance to the “energy” happenings of the day. The ESPs were the first Sun Ra albums to receive commercial distribution.

The Arkestra was finally starting to get work. At Slug’s Saloon, they were a fixture from 1966 until 1972. They appeared at Swarthmore College, driving the audience out the doors with howls and screeches as the lights came up. The Arkestra even played incidental music for a radio horror play by Imamu Amiri Baraka, telling how the evil angel Yaqub created that soulless, time-driven monster, the White Man.

Sun Ra began to collect different electronic organs, and turned next to the Jimmy Smith tradition. On ‘My Brother the Wind Volume II’, the organ has the mellowness of spaced-out barbecue music. The breathless ‘Somebody Else’s World’ is sung by June Tyson. Tyson joined the Arkestra early in 1968, around the time that her husband, Richard Wilkinson, became their road manager. Her specialty had been outdoor theater productions of Broadway musicals but she bore the burden of projecting Sun Ra’s lyrics, which were full of indigestible phrases (“Astro Black mythology / Astro timeless immortality…”). Nonetheless, ‘Astro Black’ was a triumph. In the midst of a pedestrian collection called ‘Universe In Blue’, Tyson electrified with her delivery of the lines, “When the Black Man ruled this land / I hope you’ll understand / Pharaoh was on his throne.”

In 1968-1969, Ra lost the lease on Sun Studios. Luckily, Marshall Allen’s father owned a house in Philadelphia that he was willing to give to the Arkestra so they took up residence in the dilapidated rowhouse in the Germantown area. Ra was unhappy with the move and commuted regularly to New York on Amtrak. Over time, though, he and the band became accustomed to their new home, where the Arkestra remain today.

In 1970, Sun Ra produced ‘Janus’ and the Arkestra made two records for the French label BYG. On ‘Scene 1, Take 1,’ Sun Ra showed off his brand-new Mini-Moog. Soon after, he rounded up Danny Davis, Marshall Allen, John Gilmore and made ‘My Brother the Wind Volume I.’ His sonic universe now encompassed the lonely whishes of ‘My Brother the Wind.’ Another set of small-group explorations centered on a new electric piano called the Rocksichord. Sun Ra had a thing about the color purple (he believed that you had to eat purple food to be healthy), so the album was titled ‘Night Of The Purple Moon,’ one of Sun Ra’s most accessible outings, suffused with gentle strangeness.

By 1970, there was a new emphasis on blues, swing and mainstream. European periodicals had been writing about Ra for some time, and in August, the Arkestra embarked on its first trip to Europe for an appearance at the Fondation Maeght in Saint Paul de Vence, France. For this grand occasion, the Arkestra bulked up to 16 or 17 instrumentalists, June Tyson, and a corps of dancers, acrobats, jugglers and fire eaters.

Two months later, they returned to Europe for their first real tour, covering London, Paris, Amsterdam, Donaueschingen, and Berlin. With a band this large, an arranger as creative as Ra took advantage of new possibilities but lost the space that had been distinctive in his best work from 1961 to 1966. The tour also placed emphasis on vocals. Ra began to preach about his home planet, Saturn, the coming space age and the illusory value of Earthly life. Tyson seconded with melodramatic declamations, assisted by a corps of back-up singers dubbed the Space Ethnic Voices.

Ra had not lost interest in composing for his ensemble. Whilst in Berkeley, California, in 1971, he turned out an instrumental piece a day, all with the word “discipline” in their titles. Ra bridled when his music was called free jazz: “I’m not one of the freedom boys – I believe in discipline.” This became a watchword, with implications of order in music and authoritarianism in politics. An especially attractive composition from this series was ‘Discipline 27-II,’ also known as ‘Children Of The Sun.’ Following a performance featuring a 20-minute version of ‘Space Is The Place’, the track was used to title a low-budget movie. The soundtrack affords a perfect snapshot of the Arkestra in early ‘72. Sun Ra signed with ABC / Impulse, an established jazz label that had handled John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. The Arkestra made an excellent new album, ‘Astro Black’ and Impulse began reissuing the early Saturns. Sun Ra’s distrust of record companies grew. As he explained in 1977, “I finally consented to make some for them (Impulse) and they cut the ends off so I don’t get any royalties.”

The changes in the Arkestra’s style during the Impulse period were hastened by the loss of some regulars. Robert Cummings was replaced by his taciturn section mate, Leroy Taylor (a.k.a. Eloe Omoe). Art Jenkins packed up and Pat Patrick signed up with Thelonious Monk’s quartet. Danny Ray Thompson took the baritone chair, a colorful character who also chauffeured Sun Ra around in his Cadillac and handled business matters for the band. By far the biggest loss was that of Ronnie Boykins who was tired of the constant scuffling and gigs that didn’t pay. The Arkestra went through many bassists after 1969. Few could lay down the rock-solid vamps that Ra needed.

In the summer of 1976, Sun Ra put together one of the greatest of all Arkestras for his fourth tour of Europe including rising talents Ahmed Abdullah on trumpet and French hornist Vincent Chancey alongside veterans Clifford Jarvis and Pat Patrick. At the Montreux Festival in July, the emphasis on conventional swing made the 20-piece band manageable. Back in the US, ‘Taking A Chance On Chances’ was made cheaply on the road – probably at Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase in Chicago – and on the companion album from the same gig, ‘The Soul Vibrations Of Man,’ the ensemble premieres ‘Hallowe’en In Harlem’ that became a centerpiece of their Hallowe’en concerts. These LPs marked the end for Saturn in Chicago. Later, in 1985, fire struck Alton Abraham’s warehouse, closing down the Chicago operation for good.

Two 1977 albums included something new for Ra – performances of ‘St. Louis Blues.’ Ra had always played the blues but his conception had been based on mainstream jazz, hard bop or barbecue music. Now he summoned the rolling tradition of blues piano and began to give solo concerts; he adopted ‘Over The Rainbow’ as a theme song, an apt vehicle expressing his strivings for “a state of innocence.” As John Litweiler put it, “an absence of guilt – the guilt that follows cruelty, violence, inhumanity.” Toward the end of the year, the Arkestra lost two more veterans. Danny Davis had contributed to the reed section for 15 years. Eloe Omoe picked up the alto sax and Sun Ra employed occasional altoists like Hutch Jones and Noël Scott. Akh Tal Ebah was replaced by a boisterous performer named Michael Ray.

In January 1978, Sun Ra brought a quartet to Italy. He bought himself a Crumar Mainman keyboard, then made two double albums in Rome. His new drummer, Luqman Ali, had been in the Arkestra in Chicago; Sun Ra hadn’t brought a bassist, so programmed some keyboard ostinatos; his trumpeter, Michael Ray, broke into stratospheric runs, battling John Gilmore in furious improvisations. Gilmore was closer to Coltrane now than ever been and they fittingly made a driving version of ‘My Favorite Things’. But laments like ‘When There Is No Sun’ are equally inspired.

In the Summer, Philadelphia entrepreneurs Tom Buchler and Rick Barry started the Philly Jazz label and talked Sun Ra into making a bid for the Adult Contemporary market. In July, the Arkestra went into a New York studio with Bob Blank and made a curious artifact called ‘Lanquidity.’ The multi-tracked Space Ethnic Voices whispered, “There are other worlds they have not told you of / They wish to speak to you,” making this perhaps the silliest album in the Ra canon. Pop flirtations continued with the slick studio productions of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘On Jupiter,’ followed by ‘Strange Celestial Road’ in 1979.

In the early 1980s, the Arkestra was in greater demand than ever. They returned to Egypt in 1983 and held guerrilla concerts in front of the Pyramids. They toured Europe annually and were featured in Robert Mugge’s 1980 documentary, ‘A Joyful Noise.’ Meanwhile, Saturn’s output was starting to falter. Sun Ra wasn’t composing as much, shifting to synth and organ improvisations. The Arkestra members still weren’t making a lot of money but had all the work they could ask for. Sun Ra chafed at the restraints of nightclubs with their one-hour sets and long intermissions. When it could, the Arkestra would play for 4 hours without stopping.

In 1988, the Arkestra was asked to contribute to an anthology of tunes from Walt Disney movies called ‘Stay Awake.’ Sun Ra selected ‘Pink Elephants On Parade’ and proceeded to inform interviewers of his spiritual kinship with Dumbo. Throughout 1989, the Arkestra played entire concerts of Disney tunes.

In September 1982, Ra brought the Arkestra into Variety Studios in New York for a marathon session, producing music to fill two Saturn albums, ‘A Fireside Chat With Lucifer’ and ‘Celestial Love.’ On ‘Nuclear War,’ Mr. Re ponders global annihilation. Although June Tyson sang affectingly on the sessions, she was having trouble with her voice. The hoarseness got worse as the 1980s progressed. Saturn spiralled on into a decaying orbit. Out of a marathon 1982 concert at New York’s Squat Theater came the varied ‘Ra To The Rescue’ including a new chant: “They plan to leave this world some day / In splendid rocket ships to sail away.” In 1983, Sun Ra appeared in Europe with his All-Stars, a group that included Lester Bowie and Don Cherry on trumpets and Archie Shepp on tenor and soprano sax.

By 1986, Sun Ra was stressing the swing element more than ever in the Arkestra’s live appearances. Ahmed Abdullah and Al Evans strengthened his trumpet section alongside Billy Bang, the premier violinist in contemporary jazz. Veterans Pat Patrick and Ronald Wilson rejoined the sax section. The 1986 Arkestra swung as hard as any band Sun Ra ever put together. In December, they made two albums in Milan for Giovanni Bonandrini’s Black Saint label, the best recording and mixing job the Arkestra ever received. Saturn flamed one last time with two albums from a three-day run at New York’s Knitting Factory in January 1988. Despite its eccentricities, the label had been successful in its primary mission, to preserve Sun Ra’s compositions and the Arkestra’s performances. Altogether, Saturn released 71 albums and 18 singles by Sun Ra, a legacy of abundant creativity and of great courage and perseverance.

In August 1988, the Arkestra made their first trip to Japan, packing houses, while their New York concerts featured more distinguished guests like Julian Priester, bassist John Ore, and drummer Art Taylor. Ra was in his mid-70s and, though overweight for 20 years, he never let up from a gruelling rehearsal and touring schedule. Though his pianistics were still strong on a European tour in July 1990, by the time of his September concert at Town Hall in New York, he looked alarmingly feeble. In October, he put together an excellent band for another tour of Europe and made an unusual session called ‘Pleiades’ in which the Arkestra was accompanied by a chamber orchestra. Exhausted, he was hospitalized in November for an irregular heart rhythm, before suffering a stroke. He insisted on performing but curtailed his pianistics to a few skeletal, Monkish solos. Another stroke at the end of October 1992 sent Sun Ra back to hospital. He did not recover and, in January 1993, he left Philadelphia for his hometown, but contracted pneumonia within a week. His death on May 30, 1993, came as a relief to those who knew him. Memorial services were held in Birmingham and in New York City. The Arkestra continued to play under the direction of John Gilmore and, today, plays under Marshall Allen.

Sun Ra’s influence is hard to measure. The ‘50s recordings inspired jazz horn players to double on percussion (the Art Ensemble of Chicago, with their “little instruments,” took this trend the farthest). Sun Ra’s pioneering use of electronic instruments inspired little direct imitation but space-minded groups like Kraftwerk and early Pink Floyd must have been paying attention. Not the least of his accomplishments was to restore the element of entertainment to jazz after the cool ‘50s and angry ‘60s had sought to banish any kind of showmanship.

Robert L. Campbell

Extract from ‘Omniverse Sun Ra’, Published 11/2015

Omniverse Sun Ra is Distributed by Art Yard and Central Books in the UK.

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