Sun Ra: Orbiting the Sun


Sun Ra (1914–1993)

(Photo: DownBeat Archives/Impulse!)

Shards of sound scatter across the concert hall. Blips and bleeps, squiggles and snarls spew out from stage right, where a short, portly figure dressed in iridescent robes turns knobs and throws switches, orchestrating a sonic collision of satellites and asteroids. Suddenly, he turns from his Moog synthesizer and begins spinning around bodily, wiping the backs of his hands across a Fender Rhodes piano.

These are some early moments of electric jazz, courtesy of the Columbus of space music, Sun Ra.

Sun Ra!

The name resonates out of the tombs of ancient Egypt. But somewhere, Sun God took a turn into the taverns of Chicago and the nightlife of jazz. It’s been just about 40 years since Sun Ra formed the Arkestra in Chicago after leaving the big band of Fletcher Henderson. He began cloaking strange new sounds in a mythology from the rings of Saturn, leading his own big band in a vortex of swing, electronics, bebop, the avant-garde, r&b and a maze of cosmic metaphysics. In that time, he’s maintained a stable of musicians who have toured relentlessly and released more than 200 albums on labels as small as El Saturn and as large as A&M. Musicians passing through his group have singed the fringe of the avant-garde, including John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Sunny Murray and Julian Priester.

You’d think that this DownBeat Hall of Famer and winner of the Big Band category in the ’92 Critics Poll would be treasured as an institution of jazz, held up alongside Bird and Basie, Duke and Miles. With literally thousands of compositions, it seems like Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra would be dedicating programs to him. But despite appearances on Saturday Night Live and on the cover of Rolling Stone, accolades from the mainstream have eluded Sun Ra. “In America, a lot of people don’t know about me because most musicians try to be famous or make lots of money or get booking agents and all that,” he says with little self-effacement. “But I wouldn’t fit into some places because a lot of people in America are out of it, you know?”

That may be, but there’s been no dearth of Sun Ra albums or performances throughout the United States and Europe, where his band headlines festivals and sells out concert halls with the consistency, if not the audience size, of the Grateful Dead.

But these are not the best of times for Sun Ra and his Arkestra. The celestial being from Saturn has become a victim of some earth-bound infirmities. Sun Ra is approximately 80 years old (his birth date was always speculative) and suffered a stroke in 1990—and two more since. The most recent occurred this past October, days before we were scheduled for our interview. Once a robust, rotund figure who danced across the stage, waving his robed arms to direct his Arkestra, he’s now carried to his keyboard in a wheelchair, his face wooden, his hand movement minimal. Yet, he still plays, and some Arkestra members claim he sounds better than ever.

And Sun Ra isn’t the only one with problems as this ancient clan closes in on 40 years together. Over the years, members such as trumpeter Hobart Dotson, bassist Ronnie Boykins, wind player Eloe Omoe, and, most recently, saxophonist Pat Patrick, have left the planet, to use the Ra vernacular. Longtime vocalist June Tyson died Nov. 24 after battling breast cancer. Influential tenor titan John Gilmore suffers tooth maladies and hasn’t fully recovered from pneumonia.

The Arkestra has never had an easy time of it. For the past 20 years or so they’ve lived hand to mouth, occupying a run-down row house in Philadelphia—not the most elegant way to travel the spaceways.

But Sun Ra has been stretching the boundaries of jazz the way Einstein bent the laws of physics. Building on a foundation of swing from his days with the Henderson orchestra in the early 1950s, Ra used Henderson, Count Basie and Duke Ellington as launching pads for his often-electronic new music. Ra, whose self-aggrandizing personality makes him frugal with compliments, is effusive when he speaks of Henderson.

“When I arrived on the planet, I always liked music that was together, and that was the most together music I ever heard,” he says. “He was the one behind Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters, schooling them, playing for them. He was just an innovator, a creator you might say, someone who was interested in the precision and discipline of being able to put things together and coordinate it with taste, with mastership and all that.”

But Sun Ra was already a disciple of bop by the time Henderson died in 1952, and that’s what his first group, the Herman “Sonny” Blount Trio, started playing. But by the mid-’50s, a bop band was nothing new, and Sun Ra discovered a hook that set him apart. With his producer, Alton Abraham, he was folding the Bible, Egyptian mythology, black spiritualism, and science fiction into a unique and convoluted cosmology. He took on the name Sun Ra, and, with costumes lifted from a Chicago Opera performance of Madame Butterfly, he began the Arkestra. He ended his life as Herman Sonny Blount, proclaiming himself a citizen of the universe, born on Saturn, and preaching of the space age.

“He was playing a lot of standard tunes with the trio,” recalls saxophonist John Gilmore. “We weren’t playing a whole lot of his arrangements, mostly standards. About six months later, we were playing this number, ‘Saturn,’ and I heard it. For the first time I heard it, and I knew that I wasn’t just up there playing. I thought, ‘God, this cat is somethin’ else.’ I could hear those intervals.”

It’s not easy for everyone to get aboard the Ra spacecruiser. Overly serious jazz fans are put off by the carnival atmosphere of a Ra performance. More traditional audiences think Ra is making nothing but noise, a “keening dissonance,” according to The New York Times in 1961. But a quick listen to any of the Evidence reissues—Holiday For Soul Dance, Supersonic Jazz and We Travel The Spaceways—reveals the roots and traditions of Sun Ra’s sound, as well as the beginnings of what would be called free-jazz. (Other titles are available on Delmark, hat ART, Black Saint, ESP and Rounder.)

Arkestra performances are free-flowing affairs that might start with saxophonist Marshall Allen playing an African kora, segue into Fletcher Henderson’s “Big John Special,” slide into Ra crooning “East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon,” and careen into a free-for-all of horns blowing at the precipice of infinity.

Sun Ra has the biggest book I’ve seen in my life,” exclaims saxophonist Noel Scott, who has been with the Arkestra since 1979. “Marshall [Allen] has four suitcases full of music. Ra has three arrangements of almost any standard that you name, be it ‘Old Black Magic’ or ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.’ He has four arrangements of ‘But Not For Me.’”

Ra doesn’t call out the tunes in concert. He just starts playing, and eventually a lead emerges as the band scrambles through sheaves of paper, pulling sheet music off the floor, trying to find the right tune. “He doesn’t sit in the dressing room and run off the tunes we’re going to play,” says saxophonist Allen, who’s been with the band since 1958. “When he gets to the audience, that’s when he decides. The way he calls them is to just play the intro, and off we go. Sometimes you don’t have time to find your music, so you better know your part well enough.”

“Sometimes it sounds like the intro to ‘But Not For Me,’ then he goes into ‘Yesterdays,’” laughs Scott. “Sometimes he changes his mind. It’s a competition between the reed and brass sections to see who would catch a tune first.”

He adds, “And heaven forbid you make a mistake and pick the wrong song.”

“The music is like a journey,” says Ra, speaking slowly from his hospital bed, “and they have to have a map.”

But Sun Ra says that map is only a guide. “It’s like a journey, but you’re on the road, and you have to do what you have to do for the changes of scenery, changes of feelings,” he says. “You have to be ready for those potholes in the road.”

That might account for the Arkestra’s penchant for free improvisation. Even in recent years, when Ra’s sets have been dominated by standards from Fletcher Henderson, Jelly Roll Morton and George Gershwin, the band always takes an opportunity to blast off.

Allen is at his best in these sections, hammering his alto keys like pistons with lines scrawling across the consciousness in a blur of sound. “The way Sun Ra does it, you’re creating at the same time,” says Allen. “If everybody’s in tune, everybody’s clicking, you’re on the vibration.”

“Sometimes, none of it’s written ’cause everybody’s coming from intuition,” adds Gilmore.

“It’s all discipline, working and discipline,” says Ra, who once said that everything they do on stage is completely planned. “Music is a language, a conversation, and they have to keep talking the same language and dialect.”

Ra used to rehearse the Arkestra every day in the cramped living room of his row house. His keyboards were stacked at one end while the Arkestra piled in among the frayed furniture and garish, surreal paintings of aliens and Egyptian symbology. Now, while he still hits the stage with 12 or more pieces, most of them are pickup musicians from each location. The current core band is just Ra, reed players Allen, Gilmore, James Jackson and bassist Tyrone Hill.

As an avatar of the space age, Ra needed instruments that reflected the new technology. Almost from the beginning, he played unusual electronic keyboards at a time when even the Fender Rhodes wasn’t used in jazz. “People didn’t know what was happening, they didn’t know it was electronic,” says Gilmore. The origins of these instruments are as lost in the mists of time as the Pyramids of Egypt. The Solovox was an early keyboard instrument made by Hammond that emulated the sustained sounds of strings. You can hear it intertwining with the violin of Stuff Smith on Ra’s earliest sides from 1956, released last year as part of Sound Sun Pleasure (Evidence).

The Clavioline was another techno-relic with its eerie, theremin-like sound gracing The Magic City (Impulse!). The funky, clavinet sounds of the Rok-si-chord dominated Night Of The Purple Moon (El Saturn). Ra also got some gentle, ethereal whispers from his electric celesta, heard to beautiful effect on an album called Impressions Of A Patch Of Blue (MGM), a set of duets by Ra and vibraphonist Walt Dickerson. “I still have [the celesta],” says Ra, “but it’s too fragile to take out.”

However, it’s the Moog synthesizer for which Sun Ra is still best known, launching astral epics like Space Probe (El Saturn) and “Out In Space” from It’s After the End Of The World (MPS). “I’m fascinated by the sounds,” says Ra in his soft, Southern drawl, still present from his former life in Alabama. “I can do things with synthesizers. If I wanted to get the feeling of thunder, it’s there. If I want the feeling of space, it’s there. You could do it maybe with a piano, too, but the point of it is that with a synthesizer I can not only play the melody, but I can play the rhythm, and then I can pull something down that I never heard before. That’s important to me because music’s my food, and I need to hear me some different sounds. I don’t want to eat the same food everyday, I don’t want to hear the same sounds everyday. That’s why I have a band. They get some strange sounds out of the instruments. I don’t need no electronics. I can make a band sound like an electronic band, without electricity. I can do that.”

Sometimes his band has been electronic. In the early ’80s, the horn section was as likely to step up playing Electronic Valve Instruments as reeds. Designed by Nyle Steiner, they were manufactured by the Crumar company in Italy, and subsequently by Akai. With trumpet-style valves and a wheel that allowed you to bend notes and jump through seven octaves, it was a space-age clarion call for the band. “It had a great sound,” says Allen. “You just blow in it lightly, and you can slur and trill.”

But it was difficult to manipulate. “A lot of guys had trouble playing the keys and turning the knob at the same time,” admits Allen, who still plays it occasionally.

Not even state-of-the-art technology can escape the pull of Ra’s mysticism. Most musicians might think they’re plugging in for electricity, but Sun Ra knows they’re really plugging into the spirit world. “If some of my instruments go out, the electronic instruments, that’s when I reach over into the spirit thing and play all the instruments,” Ra proclaims. “Although they use their hands, I play them. I just let them tap in on my spirit. That may be too far-out for some people at this particular point.”

No doubt it is. Ra’s keyboard pyrotechnics have been toned down in recent years. He’s gone through instruments such as the Crumar synthesizers in the early 1980s, then used several Casio models, but now he relies on a Yamaha SY22, mostly for piano and organ sounds. Electronics are almost absent from more recent albums such as Blue Delight and Purple Night (both A&M).

Despite his ill health, he still speaks confidently of the future and says he’s going on the road as soon as he leaves the hospital. “I need a change of scenery,” says Sun Ra, who is into his fourth decade of altering the musical landscape for the rest of us. DB

On Sale Now
July 2024
90th Anniversary Double Issue!
Look Inside
Print | Digital | iPad