From one of those worlds came the earthly embodiment of the musician, philosopher, keyboardist, composer, arranger, bandleader, visionary known to mere mortals as Le Sony’Ra or more commonly Sun Ra. In recent years Sun Ra has come to be recognized as a pioneer of Afro-futurism, the cultural movement which fuses ancient traditions of Egyptian and African empires to futuristic technology and space travel – in the immortal words of The Art Ensemble of Chicago: From the Ancient to the Future!
In his early terran alter-ego of Herman “Sonny” Blount, he first appeared on the planet in 1917 as a musical prodigy. Quite famously by the mid-40s he was an arranger and rehearsal leader for the legendary Fletcher Henderson Orchestra whose earlier bands featured young performers Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins. By the mid-fifties, he’d become Sun Ra recording with an early version of the Arkestra, starting the El Saturn record label to document their activities and incorporating costumes and elaborate stage performances that included early electronic keyboards – he was a trailblazer in many different ways. By the mid-60s, the Arkestra, living as a commune, had migrated to New York City and was in the middle of the October revolution of free jazz. A young saxophonist from Little Rock Arkansas, Farrell Sanders, briefly joined the Arkestra and in keeping with Ra’s lineage from Ancient Egypt to Outer Space was promptly renamed Pharoah Sanders – there’s a 1964 recording on ESP that documents some of Sanders’ time with the Arkestra.
I managed to intersect Sun Ra’s orbit half a dozen times, first in the mid-’70s at the St. Lawrence Hall in Toronto where some of the dancers performed a South African gumboot dance and the band sold their silkscreened records in the lobby, and then one of the now-legendary shows at the Horseshoe Tavern on Queen Street in Toronto (the 3-night stand fully documented in a 10-cd box set on the Transparency label!).
The most memorable for me was his amazing performance at the Ann Arbor Jazz & Blues Festival in 1978. The Arkestra was to come on last at the Hill Auditorium after a sequence of performers that included Kenny Burrell and Dexter Gordon – the earlier performances had run late and it was after one a.m before Sun Ra was ready to go on. As I found out much later from someone associated with the festival, when Sun Ra arrived he discovered that there was a stage elevator from an area under the stage and also stored down there was some metallic sculpture largely made of concentric rings that looked like some kind of otherworldly musical instrument.
In the auditorium the lights went down and the musicians started playing off stage and gradually made their way on accompanied by a troupe of singers and dancers with Ra nowhere to be seen. They started singing “the sky is a sea of darkness” which gradually gave way to the (Mary Ford!) song “the world is waiting for the sunrise”. Suddenly the middle of the stage opened and to everyone’s astonishment, Sun Ra rose mid-Arkestra in golden garb stroking the rings of what appeared to be a celestial harp! What followed was an amazing 3 hour set that ranged from St. Louis Blues to Sophisticated Lady to Lights on a Satellite – unforgettable!
I next heard Sun Ra and the Arkestra in Chicago at one of Joe Segal’s showcases at the Blackstone Hotel in the spring of 1982 in what proved to be a unique program. Thelonious Monk had passed away a couple of months earlier and in tribute the Arkestra performed what was essentially an all-Monk program. When I told this to the journalist and Sun Ra-scholar John Corbett years later, he was astonished since, other than the occasional Round Midnight, there are few instances of the Arkestra performing Monk’s music. (Opening the show was the duo of Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron also performing an all-Monk program so I was really in musical heaven!)
My next encounter was in 1988, Sun Ra had been invited to participate in Hal Wilner’s multi-genre tribute to the music of Walt Disney the year before and their contribution of Pink Elephants on Parade spurred both a more-public awareness of the Arkestra and Sun Ra’s interest in music associated with Walt Disney! The late Coastal Jazz Artistic Director Ken Pickering wanted to scope out the current incarnation of the band for possible inclusion in the festival so the two of us drove to Seattle to check them out at Earshot. Fantastic show and at the break we ran into Seattle-based (and early Arkestra member) trombonist Julian Priester (see photo below) beaming from ear to ear who said that he had gotten the call from Ra that morning and rejoined the band for their visit. Besides the usual interplanetary favourites, their set was loaded with Disney classics from Zippity Doo Dah to Whistle While You Work and Ken was sufficiently impressed to start work on bringing them to the festival.
That work culminated in the now-legendary appearance of Sun Ra and the Arkestra at the Commodore Ballroom in June of 1990 presented by Coastal Jazz as part of that year’s Vancouver International Jazz Festival. The band with singers and dancers was in full force and swung the joint from Ellington to Astro Black to Snow White with Angels and Demons at Play along the way in a show that is one of the all-time festival highlights!
Appropriately enough, all of those performances included the man now leading the Arkestra and maintaining Sun Ra’s intergalactic legacy – alto-saxophonist Marshall Allen who just turned 97 last month. He’s a Second World War veteran who learned to play the saxophone on the GI Bill and hooked up with Sun Ra in mid-50s Chicago after being intrigued by an early Arkestra recording on the Transition label. He’s been a member of the Arkestra for over sixty years and has led the band since Sun Ra’s departure from this Earthly plane in 1993. In fact, his father donated the house in Philadelphia where Sun Ra and the group moved communally in the late 60s and they’ve been based there ever since! The Arkestra has maintained Sun Ra’s legacy since his departure and is more than a ghost band as, by some reports, his spirit infuses the band with the same sense of swing and creative anarchy that they’ve had since the earliest days.
Last year the Arkestra released its first studio recording in over twenty years and it takes a sweep across the compositional legacy of Ra. The recording kicks off with an invocation and vocal from Tara Middleton who continues in the role once held by long-time Arkestra singer and dancer June Tyson with the observation that Satellites are Spinning and that Lights on a Satellite indicate the possibility of interstellar traffic jams:
The title track is firmly in the Ra tradition bridging both the swing era to the avant-garde and the ancient to the future!
This short post can only give glimpses and highlights of a prolific leader and band who recorded hundreds of compositions and produced thousands of hours of recordings on multiple labels including their own homemade and hand-pressed Saturn records over a period of almost 70 years.