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.
On Sunday, November 18, “Suga’ In My Bowl” will celebrate Jazz legend Pharoah Sanders’ run at Birdland this week by offering the program that originally aired on April 20, 2010. Join Joyce Jones and Hank Williams as they spend time with this marvel in the music.
Pharoah Sanders possesses one of the most distinctive tenor saxophone sounds in jazz. Harmonically rich and heavy with overtones, Sanders’ sound can be as raw and abrasive as it is possible for a saxophonist to produce. Yet, Sanders is highly regarded to the point of reverence by a great many jazz fans. Although he made his name with expressionistic, nearly anarchic free jazz in John Coltrane’s late ensembles of the mid-’60s, Sanders’ later music is guided by more graceful concerns.
The hallmarks of Sanders’ playing at that time were naked aggression and unrestrained passion. In the years after Coltrane’s death, however, Sanders explored other, somewhat gentler and perhaps more cerebral avenues — without, it should be added, sacrificing any of the intensity that defined his work as an apprentice to Coltrane.
Pharoah Sanders (his given name, Ferrell Sanders) was born into a musical family. Sanders’ first instrument was the clarinet, but he switched to tenor sax as a high school student, under the influence of his band director, Jimmy Cannon. Cannon also exposed Sanders to jazz for the first time. Sanders’ early favorites included Harold Land, James Moody, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane. As a teenager, he played blues gigs for ten and 15 dollars a night around Little Rock, backing such blues greats as Bobby “Blue” Bland and Junior Parker. After high school, Sanders moved to Oakland, CA, where he lived with relatives. He attended Oakland Junior College, studying art and music. Known in the San Francisco Bay Area as “Little Rock,” Sanders soon began playing bebop, rhythm & blues, and free jazz with many of the region’s finest musicians, including fellow saxophonists Dewey Redman and Sonny Simmons, as well as pianist Ed Kelly and drummer Smiley Winters. In 1961, Sanders moved to New York, where he struggled. Unable to make a living with his music, Sanders took to pawning his horn, working non-musical jobs, and sometimes sleeping on the subway. During this period he played with a number of free jazz luminaries, including Sun Ra, Don Cherry, and Billy Higgins. Sanders formed his first group in 1963, with pianist John Hicks (with whom he would continue to play off-and-on into the ’90s), bassist Wilbur Ware, and drummer Higgins. The group played an engagement at New York’s Village Gate. A member of the audience was John Coltrane, who apparently liked what he heard. In late 1964, Coltrane asked Sanders to sit in with his band. By the next year, Sanders was playing regularly with the Coltrane group, although he was never made an official member of the band. Coltrane’s ensembles with Sanders were some of the most controversial in the history of jazz. Their music, as represented by the group’s recordings — Om, Live at the Village Vanguard Again, and Live in Seattle among them — represents a near total desertion of traditional jazz concepts, like swing and functional harmony, in favor of a teeming, irregularly structured, organic mixture of sound for sound’s sake. Strength was a necessity in that band, and as Coltrane realized, Sanders had it in abundance.
Sanders made his first record as a leader in 1964 for the ESP label. After John Coltrane’s death in 1967, Sanders worked briefly with his widow, Alice Coltrane. From the late ’60s, he worked primarily as a leader of his own ensembles. From 1966-1971, Sanders released several albums on Impulse, including Tauhid (1966), Karma (1969), Black Unity (1971), and Thembi (1971). In the mid-’70s, Sanders recorded his most commercial effort, Love Will Find a Way (Arista, 1977); it turned out to be a brief detour. From the late ’70s until 1987, he recorded for the small independent label Theresa. From 1987, Sanders recorded for the Evidence and Timeless labels. The former bought Theresa records in 1991 and subsequently re-released Sanders’ output for that company. In 1995, Sanders made his first major-label album in many years, Message From Home (produced by Bill Laswell for Verve). The two followed that one up in 1999 with Save Our Children. In 2000, Sanders released Spirits — a multi-ethnic live suite with Hamid Drake and Adam Rudolph. In the decades after his first recordings with Coltrane, Sanders developed into a more well-rounded artist, capable of playing convincingly in a variety of contexts, from free to mainstream. Some of his best work is his most accessible. As a mature artist, Sanders discovered a hard-edged lyricism that has served him well.
Bio from Chris Kelsey, All Music Guide.
Show hosted and produced by Joyce Jones and Hank Williams. Engineered by Joyce Jones.