Travels in hyperjazz
Sun Ra's universe
by Dave Marsh
For four decades, Sun Ra was either one of the most advanced musicians on the
planet or a fraud. Amiri Baraka refers to Ra's "actually scientific
philosophical musings on the Universe," but when I used to see Ra and his
Arkestra playing with rock bands in Detroit, he always seemed to be a master of
science fiction and theatrical hokum. I don't mean that as anything but praise.
No avant-gardists in history were as much fun as Sun Ra's vast group, a platoon
of vividly costumed dancers, singers, and musicians. When they snaked through
the audience, you became part of them. Sun Ra violated all canons of artistic
propriety, or rather, he ignored them as being beneath him -- which they are to
anyone trying to do something worthwhile.
Sun Ra lived in obscurity but was always surrounded by immensely talented
musicians, most of whom played only with him, though the saxophonists Pat
Patrick, John Gilmore, and Marshall Allen and singer June Tyson were talented
enough to be stars anywhere in jazz. Ra himself was a master organist and
pianist as well as a great composer. Indeed, he sounds like nothing so much as
a master disciple of Duke Ellington for much of Greatest Hits: Easy
Listening for Intergalactic Travel, an 18-track sampler produced by
Evidence Records from the 71 albums Ra made for Saturn Records. "Medicine for a
Nightmare," his version of Monk's " 'Round Midnight," and even "When
Angels Speak of Love" are almost conventionally beautiful. Even "The Perfect
Man" is not so far outside that you couldn't take it for straight-up P-Funk.
But then you get to "Rocket Number Nine Take Off for the Planet Venus" and "We
Travel the Spaceways," and you begin to see what Baraka meant. Or what Ra did
when he claimed to be from outside this solar system.
Although you can prove that Ra's body appeared as Herman "Sonny" Blount in
Alabama in 1915, that doesn't explain a damned thing about how he was able to
make such abstract and aggressive noises cohere so powerfully. If you need an
explanation, John Szwed's biography, Space Is the Place (Pantheon),
offers an excellent one. But I prefer to listen and marvel. Evidence has
released close to 50 of Ra's Saturn albums on CD, and there are more scattered
across the catalogues of labels like Delmark, A&M, DIW, and Ra disciple
John Sinclair's Alive/Total Energy, way more than you could get when Ra was
The other day I ran across a recording of Baraka's A Black Mass (Son Boy
Records, Box 50152, Washington, DC 20091), with Ra and his Arkestra, a 1965
play based on the Brother Jacoub mythology of the Nation of Islam. Baraka makes
it a story about the tension between the idea that "time is an animal thing"
and the idea that "time is a human thing." Skronking away in the background, Ra
and his band pull all the threads together -- or, rather, show how they all
fall apart. "It is a fool's game to invent what does not need to be invented,"
proclaim Baraka's unmad scientists, trying to talk Jacoub out of creating the
white devil. "Let us be fools then, for creation is its own end," Jacoub
declares. If I listen to the rest of my life, I'll be able to figure out which
side Ra was on.
Dave Marsh is a syndicated columnist.