In honor of Sun Ra’s Birthday, I am reposting a Hospitality on Parade column which originally appeared in Beatroute Magazine’s March 2012 issue.
Photo and text by Daniel Presnell
Long before Gaga and Minaj got gassed on space cakes and tripped out on Klaus Nomi vidz, there was a unique sect of afrofuturist visionaries. In the late 1960s, Parliament Funkadelic, one the greatest bands to have ever whiffed the aether, docked the mothership on Earth long enough to shoot a laser beam of mind-melting psychedelic goodness that would funkify freaks, triggering the birth of Hip Hop. But even before Clinton and his intergalactic funk brigade donned gowns, face paint, and space concepts, there was the original “brother from another planet”: Herman Poole Blount, aka Le Sony’r Ra, aka Sun Ra.
As a bucktoothed hillbilly youngster devoted to Sonic Youth, I distinctly remember Kurt Loder reporting Sun Ra’s death on MTV News in May of 1993. Loder interviewed Thurston Moore and screened footage of Sun Ra and his Arkestra playing live in Central Park. While I didn’t have a context for Jazz, let alone Free Jazz, or the “other music” Sun Ra and his troupe of cosmic gowned radicals were blowing out, his image, and the idea of his music stuck with me.
It would be a couple more years until I laid finger to Sun Ra’s 1972 album Space Is The Place released on the idiosyncratic Blue Thumb label. Capturing the Arkestra in its somewhat classical period, it features Ra vamping on the Farfisa Professional electric space organ in his Ellington on Acid style, and interstellar contributions from stalwarts including Marshall Allen (soprano sax), John Gilmore (tenor sax), and the extraterrestrial vocalist June Tyson. Space is the Place perfectly distills the Arkestra’s immense range, from tightly knit big band arrangements, to free-form caterwaul and what is probably their most recognizable hymn, Rocket #9, a tune subsequently covered by NRBQ, Yo La Tengo, and countless others.
By the time I found Sun Ra, I thought I was ready for whatever mystery, mischief, and music he could cook up. But, I was floored by the Arkestra’s ability to shift from a big band jazz tune to tribal drumming with bleating saxophones followed by chanting and then thirty minutes of indeterminate tone poems and synthesizer noise. And, just when I thought all might be defeated, Tyson returned to the mic, and the band leapt right back into a beautiful ode to the cosmos. Gripped by that fever, I found myself reading every book, buying every record I could find on Ebay, and even journeying to Sun Ra’s grave in “The Magic City” of Birmingham, Alabama.
As intense as my worship had been many years ago, I had rather neglected Sun Ra of late. The fact that most of my records are in storage 3,000 miles away is partly to blame, but also time, and how a listener collects, distills, and advances: the ear matures.
Just the other day I came across a 1971 video of the Arkestra performing for the French television show Jazz Session. The Arkestra looks to be about twenty members deep, all armed with some kind of percussion instrument. The male and female dancers are adorned in stupefying masked regalia that mashes space-age psychedelics with Egyptian, African and Asian iconography. Sun Ra presides in his glorious robe and signature King Tut coiffure, and, after a quick little riff on the organ, with the horns and band deep in the pocket, they head for the planet Venus. Dancers writhe, bounce, and shimmy; drums proliferate, mutate, and intensify; and when the spirit moves, members release cat calls, whoops, and wails; their eyes turned toward some inner beyond, beaming.
Somewhere around the 20-minute mark, there were tears in my eyes. It was all just so beautiful, intense, singular, magical. I was back in the beyond, traveling the spaceways, in love all over again.
Dedicated in loving memory to Mike Kelly & Tom Ardolino.