Alto saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Marshall Allen joined the Sun Ra ensemble – some might say what he joined was more like a mystical-political secret society – in Chicago in the early 1950s. He remained with Ra until the latter’s departure from Earth in 1993, and he continues to lead the Arkestra today, at age 90. In celebration of the centennial of Sun Ra’s arrival day in 1914 (Sonny didn’t like to refer to it as his birth), Allen has compiled a marvelous double-album sampling of Sun Ra recordings spanning more than a quarter century, though revealing only the tip of the iceberg of Ra’s enormous discography. Allen’s collection for Strut Records, In the Orbit of Ra, is one of the featured albums on Now’s the Time this month of November 2014.
I’ve played Sun Ra on the program before, but it wasn’t until this month that I realized just how completely the Ra Gestalt has pervaded the eclectic musical world I feature on the radio program every week. Ra influenced (or resonated with) contemporaneous jazz musicians from John Coltrane to Herbie Hancock. His Afrofuturism is echoed in the work of rap artists like Digable Planets and the Wu-Tang Clan, and in left-field R&B by Parliament-Funkadelic, Erykah Badu and more. He’s explicitly acknowledged as a forbear by Flying Lotus, whose new album You’re Dead is also featured this month. Listen and make the connections with me. This is going to make for great late-night radio.
In preparation for this month’s programs, I read John Szwed‘s revelatory Ra biography, Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (1998), and the Ra sections of Graham Lock‘s Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton (2000). Both are highly recommended.
Statistically speaking, you fall into one of two camps. Some of you know more about Sun Ra than I do – way more – and will find my observations on his mysterious and magnificent work to be ill-informed and jejune. The rest are likely to be weirded out by the whole Ra phenomenon. But somewhere in between, there is a sliver of open-hearted music lovers who will discover this unusual musical oeuvre through this little text. (Indeed, I am increasingly persuaded that the whole Now’s the Time venture is aimed at that sliver, wherever it may be.)
What have I learned about Sun Ra? Here are, pell mell, four characteristics of the Ra musical universe. Along with lots of music from the new Ra compilation, we’ll listen to expressions of these four axes by plenty of other artists in the broadcasts this month.
1. Egypt/Africa. Lock’s book argues that Ra sought to create a new mythic past for African-Americans, rejecting their identification with the Biblical Exodus story, and rooted instead in an identification with the grandeur of ancient Egypt. These themes are often musically expressed in a kind of pan-African obsession with rhythm (little of it explicitly linked to contemporary Egyptian music).
2. The Big Bands. Another element of Ra’s creation of a new mythic past, one that affirms African-American beauty, is his love of the music of the big bands, particularly Fletcher Henderson (for whom Ra worked in Chicago for about a year in the mid-40s, long past Henderson’s prime) and Duke Ellington, and also including a host of lesser-known groups from the 1930s (like the Cotton Pickers). In his later years, the Arkestra included generous doses of classic big-band swing material in their concerts. Ra saw in these groups a demonstration of the profound things African-American men could achieve if they acted collectively and with discipline, an inspiration for the communal ethos of his Arkestra. He also claimed that the beauty of this music acts as a shield protecting Earth from potentially malevolent forces. This I believe.
3. Space. Alongside the construction of new mythic pasts, Ra charted a new mythic future, based on the promise of space travel and technology. There are strong elements of kitschy 1950s-era science fiction in his work, matched with a genuine hope in the transcendent possibilities of intergalactic space. Szwed and Lock make connections between Ra’s space optimism and older traditions of Baptist oratory.
4. Free Jazz. What a difficult phrase, “free jazz.” The first problem here is that Ra repeatedly spoke out against freedom: “There is no freedom in the universe. If you were to be free you could just play no matter what and it doesn’t come back to you. But you see, it always does come back to you.” He preferred to encourage discipline as a guiding aesthetic principle. Nevertheless the Arkestra was an innovative contributor to what is often called, as a convenient shorthand, free jazz: collective improvisation that moves away from conventional practices of harmony and rhythm. Ra’s notion of freedom – and indeed the idea of freedom encoded in free jazz – must be distinguished from right-wing, libertarian notions of freedom. (On this, read Scott Saul‘s Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties, 2001).
There’s so much more. Electronics, for example, and unusual instrumental sounds. Theater, costumes, whimsy. His poetry! Let’s see just how much we can listen to!