Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Sun Ra Arkestra. Used with permission.
The next show will air on Sunday, May 4, 2014 from 11:00 PM – 1:00 AM Monday Eastern Standard Time on WBAI, 99.5 FM in the NYC metro area or streaming online at wbai.org. During this installment, Suga’ in My Bowl will celebrate the Sun Ra centennial with former and present Arkestra members Marshall Allen, Danny Ray Thompson, Knoel Scott, Michael Ray, Dick Griffin, Craig Harris, Ahmed Abdullah, Vincent Chancey, Craig Holiday Haynes, Pharoah Sanders and James Spaulding.
He was born Herman Blount on May 22, 1914, in Birmingham, Alabama, as discovered by his biographer, John F. Szwed, and published in his 1998 book Space is the Place. The boy was named after the popular vaudeville stage magician Black Herman, who had deeply impressed his mother. He was nicknamed “Sonny” from his childhood, had an older sister and half-brother, and was doted upon by his mother and grandmother.
In the 1940’s Sun Ra became the house arranger for stage shows at the famous Chicago night spot, the Club DeLisa and played for the band led by Fletcher Henderson. Henderson was the arranger for the Benny Goodman Orquestra as well as his own and was a great inspiration to Ra who encouraged him to continue writing. In the early 50’s, Ra’s more radical compositions and arrangements found their way into his own groups which featured exotic costumes and unusual instruments.
By 1955 while in Chicago, Le Sony’r Ra had become “Le Sun Ra” or Sun Ra, leader of the Solar Arkestra which has also been known by many other names such as the Myth-Science Arkestra, the Solar Myth Arkestra, and the Omniverse Arkestra. In addition to saxophonists Gilmore and Allen, the band boasted a number of musicians who have contributed much to jazz, including bassist Richard Davis, trombonist Julian Priester, drummer Clifford Jarvis, and reedman James Spaulding. The Arkestra itself started as what was thought to be a hard-bop big band at the Grand Terrace and Birdland night clubs – a rare enough item – but soon was incorporating free improvisation. As such, it was a major influence on the emerging avant-garde jazz musicians in Chicago, such as Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
From its inception, the Arkestra’s music was infused with Sun Ra’s unique philosophy, an unexpected hybrid of space-age science fiction and ancient Egyptian cosmo religious trappings. This philosophy gained a visual manifestation in the colorful robes, mock-metallic capes, and space headgear worn by the band (it’s the only jazz orchestra that brings a tailor on tour), and in a stage presentation that usually features several dancers, a number of group chants (“We travel the spaceways/From planet to planet”), and at least one instance of the entire band juking its way, single-file, through the audience.
In 1960, Sun Ra moved his earthbound base of operations to New York, then in 1968 settled in Philadelphia. In both cities, as in Chicago, the band lived and worked as a sort of collective, with the hard-core nucleus sharing living quarters with the leader and assuming the role of cosmo-friends to the master. Throughout the 60’s Sun Ra continued to record for his own deliberately poorly distributed Saturn Records label, and also on various European labels, while touring widely and continuing to spread the fame of his live performances.
In early 1971, Sun Ra was appointed as artist-in-residence at University of California, Berkeley, teaching a course called “The Black Man In the Cosmos”. Few students enrolled, but his classes were often full of curious persons from the surrounding community. One half-hour of each class was devoted to a lecture (complete with handouts and homework assignments), the other half-hour to an Arkestra performance or Sun Ra keyboard solo. Reading lists included the works of Madame Blavatsky and Henry Dumas, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Alexander Hislop’s The Two Babylons, The Book of Oahspe and assorted volumes concerning Egyptian hieroglyphs, African American folklore, and other topics.
In 1972, San Francisco public TV station KQED producer John Coney, producer Jim Newman, and screen writer Joshua Smith worked with Sun Ra to produce an 85-minute feature film, entitled Space Is the Place, with Sun Ra’s Arkestra and an ensemble of actors assembled by the production team. It was filmed in Oakland and San Francisco. On May 20, 1978, Sun Ra and the Arkestra appeared on the TV show, Saturday Night Live.
In the mid-1970s, the Arkestra sometimes played free Saturday afternoon concerts in a Germantown park near their home. At their mid-1970s shows in Philadelphia nightclubs, someone would stand at the back of the room, selling stacks of unmarked LPs in plain white sleeves, pressed from recordings of the band’s live performances (including one Halloween show where the salesman was dressed as a golden alien, and the LPs included an arrangement of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”).
In New York City in the fall of 1979, Sun Ra and the Arkestra played at the “house band” at the Squat Theatre on 23rd Street, which was notorious as the performance venue of the avant-garde Hungarian theater troupe. Janos, their manager, transformed the theater into a nightclub while most of the troupe was away that season performing in Europe. Debbie Harry, “The Velvet Underground”‘s John Cale and Nico (from Andy Warhol’s Factory days), John Lurie and ‘The Lounge Lizards,’ and other pop and avant-garde musicians were regulars.
Sun Ra was disciplined and drank only club soda at the gigs, but did not impose his strict code on his musicians. They deeply respected his genius, discipline and authority. Soft spoken and charismatic, Sun Ra turned Squat Theater into a universe of big band “space” jazz backed by a floor show of sexy Jupiterettes. He directed while playing three synthesizers at the same time. In those days, “Space Is The Place” was the space at Squat.
The Arkestra continued their touring and recording through the 1980s and into the 1990s. Sun Ra became a fixture in Philadelphia, appearing semi-regularly on WXPN radio, giving lectures to community groups, or haunting the city’s libraries.
He had a stroke in 1990, but kept composing, performing, and leading the Arkestra. Late in his career, Sun Ra opened a few concerts for the New York–based rock group Sonic Youth. When too ill to perform and tour, Sun Ra appointed Gilmore to lead the Arkestra. (Gilmore was frail from emphysema; after his death, Allen took over leadership of the Arkestra.)
Sun Ra returned to Birmingham to see his sister, whom he had rarely seen in nearly 40 years. He contracted pneumonia and died in Birmingham on May 30, 1993. He was buried at the Elmwood Cemetery. According to the hospital, he had also been affected by circulatory system problems and numerous strokes shortly before his death. The small footstone read “Herman Sonny Blount aka Le Sony’r Ra”
Produced, engineered, edited, and hosted by Joyce Jones. Listen for our On the Bandstand segment with NYC metro area appearances of Suga’ guests at the end of the first hour with Associate Producer Hank Williams.
Information and tour dates for the Arkestra directed by Marshall Allen are on their website.
Watch the opening scene of the Space is the Place feature film starring Sun Ra.
Watch the 1 bour BBC documentary Brother from Another Planet on Sun Ra.
Watch Robert Mugge’s A Joyful Noise documentary on Sun Ra and the Arkestra. Features extensive performance footage.
Watch Phil Niblock’s experimental 1960s short film The Magic Sun with an Arkestra performance.