Sun Ra  
Space is the place
By James Lindbloom

From Gadfly March 1999


When the final roll call of the most important American musicians of the twentieth century is read, Sun Ra's name will be on the list. Only in the last decade have Sun Ra's achievements—as composer, bandleader, pianist, arranger and electronics pioneer—begun to receive mass recognition and fair assessment. Before his death in 1993, Ra's legacy was in danger of being overshadowed by both his public persona (he claimed to be not of this world, but from Saturn, merely passing through to instruct the people of Earth) and the unavailability of his astonishingly large discography.

Born Herman Blount in 1914, Ra grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. In the late 1940s, after years of playing in regional bands, he landed a job with Fletcher Henderson in Chicago, arranging the charts of the famed swing king's big band. Herman Blount legally changed his name to Le Sony'r Ra in 1952—Sun Ra was technically his stage name—and began to put together his Arkestra, the band he would lead for the next forty years. Although hundreds of musicians would pass through the Arkestra's ranks, Ra retained a loyal core group throughout his career. Foremost among them was tenor saxophonist John Gilmore, who played Johnny Hodges to Ra's Duke Ellington. Gilmore was unquestionably one of the most original musicians jazz has ever produced; he had a beautiful, distinctive tone and the ability to play the gentlest of ballads and the most extreme upper-register freakouts with equal skill and passion. John Coltrane credited Gilmore with inspiring his famous "sheets of sound" technique, after witnessing him on the bandstand during a gig in the 1950s. If Gilmore had used his time with Sun Ra as a finishing school of sorts, he could have undoubtedly gone on to a successful career as the leader of his own group. Yet he rarely recorded outside the fold of the Arkestra, and though his critical reputation may have suffered, his presence enriched Sun Ra's music down all the paths it took.

Ra released his first record in 1956, when he was forty-two. At that age, Charlie Parker was dead; Duke Ellington had a couple of decades of recordings under his belt; and Miles Davis had already overseen a few jazz revolutions. Ra's fellow legends had the benefit of major-label contracts to bring their music to the public, as well as the assorted injustices that go with the territory. As befitted a man who recreated himself from scratch, Ra issued his music largely on his own Saturn Records. With the current advent of the lo-fi/indie-rock movement and its accompanying distribution network, it's hard to realize just how unheard of artist-owned labels were in the 1950s.

During this early period, Sun Ra produced some marvelous post-bop big band music. While clearly still within the realms of jazz as it had been defined up to that point, the work distinguished itself by Ra's careful arrangements and his individual touches—the use of electronic piano on some tracks or exotic African percussion on others. In particular, the 1958 lp Jazz in Silhouette stands out as one of the finest albums ever recorded in the genre. From the stately "Enlightenment" to "Saturn," Ra's hard-driving signature tune, the record brims with standards-to-be. Even the moldiest of figs would be hard pressed to deny its worthiness.

Toward the early 1960s, Sun Ra's music began to grow more overtly experimental in nature. While Ornette Coleman may have lit the flame of free jazz with his 1958 debut, such albums as Secrets of the Sun show Ra to be pushing improvised music to its outer limits a few years before Coltrane recorded Ascension; the frenetic overblowing that Ra's reed players engage in predate the Molotov cocktails that Albert Ayler recorded for ESP-Disk. Even in hindsight, Sun Ra's work from the 1960s sounds like no other music from the period, in part because of his interest in electronic instruments. Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy, featuring spacey, reverb-drenched drum solos, was cut while the future LSD-addled kids of San Francisco were still playing folk and bluegrass.

The 1970s found Ra gaining greater public visibility (and hence, more work). He began to look back as well as forward, and the shows from this time featured more of the classic tunes that Ra cut his teeth on in his Birmingham days. A freely improvised full-band melee might be followed by Jelly Roll Morton's "King Porter Stomp" or swinging blues in the Chicago style that he played in the 1940s. Catchy vocal numbers exhorted the audience to "sign up with Outer Spaceways Incorporated." The wide-ranging repertoire continued through the remainder of Ra's career, both live and on record.

In concert, the Arkestra presented a visual spectacle. The band was costumed in homemade, sparkly space outfits, and dancers and fire-eaters cavorted on stage and in the audience. Such antics were suspect in the jazz world; dressed in neither suits nor dashikis, the Arkestra was dismissed in some quarters as a freak show, with Sun Ra as its charlatan ringleader. His steadfast contention that he was an otherworldly being caused more than a few rolls of the eyes. Even in private, it seems, Ra rarely stepped out of character. Recently surfaced rehearsal tapes show him to be relaxed and joking with the band while teaching them new compositions, but also just as prone to launch into a sermon about "tone science" or the reality of resurrection to a band member as to any interviewer ("In Chicago, one time in a drugstore, [I met a man] who smelled cold and moldy, from having been down in the grave"). To a television interviewer who wondered if all the cosmic hoopla might distract some listeners from the music, Ra replied that "it's not meant for them anyhow."

In its days of operation, Saturn Records were sold only at gigs and a few select record stores. Now, thanks to a reissue program at Evidence Music, the catalog is becoming available once again. The label has issued sixteen CDs—several of them twofers—of some of Sun Ra's greatest music, each with meticulously restored sound, original cover art and detailed liner notes. By making Ra's output far more accessible than ever before, Evidence has paved the way for a long-overdue revision of his place in the pantheon (it's hard for an album to become an established classic when it's pressed in editions of a few hundred and changes hands on the collector's market for astronomical sums). Two more CDs are due to hit the shops soon. When Angels Speak of Love is a 1963 album that holds the distinction of being one of the rarest items in an already difficult-to-find catalog. Crystal Spears was recorded for Impulse in 1973, during Ra's short-lived association with the label, but left in the can; it is coupled with Pathways to Unknown Worlds, which Impulse did release, though it went to the cutout bins with disheartening speed.

For a glimpse of the interstellar circus that Ra led, Rhapsody Films has three videotapes available. Mystery, Mr. Ra and A Joyful Noise both offer valuable interview and performance footage of the Arkestra from the early 1980s. Space Is the Place is an odd feature film from 1973. Its uneasy grafting of Ra's cosmo-philosophy with 1970s blaxploitation movie conventions make for a camp classic ("Sun Ra Versus the Intergalactic Dolemite," perhaps?), but I'd hesitate to recommend it to newcomers; without a proper context, it threatens to keep Ra in the joke box to which he was unfortunately relegated by many critics during his lifetime.

Although we may not see Wynton Marsalis host a Sun Ra tribute night at Lincoln Center anytime soon, Ra's influence is well established. His unique body of work has something to appeal to everyone. Listen.