Sun Ra, “one of the strangest artists that America has ever produced” was once on the cover of Rolling Stone, shared bills with the MC5, performed on Saturday Night Live, influenced everyone from Kenneth Anger to Pink Floyd and dreamed of the day that he could travel into space and save our planet from its madness
There are some musicians and composers for whom categories like jazz, rock & roll, punk or classical are meaningless. It’s not that they “defy” categorization so much as they would not know HOW to categorize themselves other than to just state their names. Captain Beefheart, Moondog, Laurie Anderson spring to mind. Topping them all, however, may be Herman Poole Sonny Blount (1914-1993), better known to the world as Sun Ra.
His own biographer, John Szwed, has called him “one of the strangest artists that America has ever produced” while at the same time conceding that Sun Ra and his contingent of musicians, dancers and singers known as the Arkestra—with whom he played for more than 40 years—were “the most continually advanced and experimental group in the history of jazz and popular music.”
Sun Ra went beyond psychedelia or experimental music or free jazz. This is evident from the opening sequence of a seriously strange sci-fi/blaxploitation film Space is the Place (1974). Ra seemed to, at least thematically, live up to the mantra of Star Trek: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” See for yourself:
Members of his Arkestra dressed in Egyptian robes, what they called “Mongolian caps” (not for the country Mongolia, but for the planet Mongo, of Flash Gordon fame) and other spacey regalia. They played strange-looking instruments, some self-invented (with names like sun harp, space organ, cosmic side drum) and performed compositions about the end of the world and space travel. At some performances, members of the Arkestra crawled through the aisles of the audience and shouted indecipherable incantations.
For long periods of time, the Arkestra lived communally in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia and rehearsed nearly nonstop, every day all day, which was a way Sun Ra could keep the band together and its members out of trouble. It was a sort of Afro-American version of a hippie commune, a psychedelic close encounter, but of a drugless kind (Sun Ra personally eschewed drugs, alcohol and sex). Somehow, his dozens of players, singers and dancers squeezed onto the stages of NYC clubs like Slugs Saloon and Café Bizarre (where the Velvet Underground also regularly played). They also became affiliated with the Black Arts Theatre, an important and influential Lower East Side organization founded by Amiri Baraka, who said, of Sun Ra: “[His] consistent statement, musically and spoken, is that this is a primitive world. Its practices, beliefs, religions, are uneducated, unenlightened, savage, destructive, already in the past…”
Eventually, Sun Ra’s visionary extravagances were enough to attract the attention of Rolling Stone, which placed him the cover of an April 1969 issue. But the link to pop/rock culture had already begun three years earlier, when members of Sun Ra’s Arkestra recorded an instrumental album with Al Kooper and the Blues Project called Batman and Robin, under the name “The Sensational Guitars of Dan & Dale”.
“Robin’s Theme” from The Sensational Guitars of Dan & Dale album:
Actually, Sonny Blount’s connection to pop music began at the very dawn of rock & roll, with two Wynonie Harris singles on which he played piano.
Check out Blount’s chops on “Dig This Boogie” (1946):
Through John Sinclair, an ardent supporter of Sun Ra, the Arkestra would also appeared on bills with the MC5. Guitarist Wayne Kramer later said, of the Arkestra, “They started where we ended.” Don Letts’ intelligent and touching portrait of Sun Ra, Brother From Another Planet (2005), aired on BBC, and features commentary from Kramer, Sinclair, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, tenor sax wizard Archie Shepp, members of the Arkestra and John Szwed:
Two decades later, Sun Ra and the Arkestra would appear on Saturday Night Live, the Today show, All Things Considered, and television programs all over the planet. In the late 1970s, he and his Arkestra began playing regular gigs at the Squat Theater in downtown NYC (23rd Street and 8th Avenue). Some of the punk audience, and punk bands, were regular attendees of these extraordinary shows and later claimed Sun Ra as an influence on them, if not with his music, then with his visual presentation and D.I.Y. ethic—he had been releasing albums on his own label, El Saturn Records, since the mid-1950s. Often the covers of the albums were hand-drawn and Arkestra members sold them by hand to the audiences. In all, he released 200 albums on his label; in 1979 alone, he released nine separate albums. It was called El Saturn Records in tribute to the planet Saturn, which Sun Ra claimed as his birthplace.
It’s John Szwed’s contention that Sun Ra’s fixation with interplanetary communications and space travel had unintended consequences, clearing the way for psychedelic music and multimedia presentations (light shows, black lights, strobes). Among the bands that followed his lead were early Pink Floyd (“Astonomy Domine”, “Interstellar Overdrive”), Arthur Brown (The Crazy World of), Grateful Dead (“Dark Star”), Hawkwind (“Space Ritual”), Jefferson Starship, Gong, Soft Machine and Kenneth Anger’s Orkustra, which was openly modeled on Sun Ra and led by Bobby Beausoleil, who was later linked to the Manson Family.
So, who was this man Sun Ra and how did he get this way? We tracked down John Szwed, the former director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University, to attempt to find some answers.
PKM: I read your Sun Ra biography [Space Is The Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra] in 1997, when it was first published, and reviewed it for the Advocate newspapers. I regret not having talked to you then, since I loved the book, but I guess I figured Sun Ra was too beyond the comfort zone of readers to do more than a review of the book. This is a longwinded way of saying I’m glad I finally get a chance to talk with you.
John Szwed: I was teaching at Yale at the time, so I probably saw your review in the New Haven Advocate. That biography was well-reviewed and translated into five languages and yet it never made back its advance. Every musician, just about, I’ve talked to has said they’ve read it. Maybe they are passing around the same copies! That biography will be republished later this year in an updated edition by Duke University Press. Random House gave the rights back to me, which I thought was something that publishers never did. But apparently publishing is such a mega-industry now, with just a few players, that if you are of a certain sales level, they’re just as happy to cut ties. This, of course, is the opposite of the music industry, which hogs stuff and sits on it for years without releasing it. In my book about Miles Davis [So What: The Life of Miles Davis], I learned that Kind of Blue didn’t sell at the time of its release partly because the record company didn’t put any steam behind it. And now it’s generally regarded as the best-selling jazz album ever released, at one point selling millions of copies a year around the world.
PKM: Your Sun Ra biography came out in 1997 and he died in 1993. I was wondering if you got the chance to meet and talk with him? And, if so, was there a difference between the man on stage with the star-shaped glasses, multi-colored headdresses and robes and the man in his everyday incarnation?
John Szwed: Yes, I met Sun Ra, but it was after his stroke. He was still playing, but only with one hand. My guess is that he was embarrassed by his speech, so he was writing out responses, at least what he could. He was totally there but not the old Sun Ra. There are stories of him talking endlessly to people for hours. In fact, he would sometimes hold up a gig by an hour or hour and a half if he got into a conversation backstage that interested him.
PKM: Did he have a sense of humor, could he laugh as himself? There seems to be sense of humor in the “Outer Space Employment Agency” segment from the film Space is the Place (1974).
I guess this question goes to the heart of the bigger question: Was he completely serious with all of his talk about Saturn, space travel, transcending earthly incarnations, etc.?
John Szwed: Yes, he was very funny. Even his serious side had an in-joke quality. You had to be alert to it, though. He did a lot of wordplay. He just couldn’t resist playing with language. You get a sense of this in the film Space Is the Place.
That film started as a documentary and then became something else as writers were added. It’s not a real Sun Ra film. Or, rather, he didn’t have control of it. In the original version, he had white people on board the spaceship leaving earth for a new planet but then he was told the NAACP, or maybe some more militant group, would give him a lot of grief for having white people. So the white people were removed. He and his band were once thrown out of a house in Oakland owned by the Black Panthers because he’d said critical things about the Panthers.
PKM: Was he serious with this stuff about Saturn?
John Szwed: To use a phrase popular with jazz musicians back then, he was as serious as cancer. Much of what he was talking about was metaphorical, of course. He was in constant psychological pain from asking himself why the world was filled with hatred and war. It was space talk, but it was Bible talk too. He was Southern, from Alabama, and that was part of his heritage. I mean, at his funeral, the Baptist preacher found a passage in the Bible about going out into space.
On the other hand, you had to watch yourself. Just when you thought he’s messing with you, he nails you with some pointed truth. One time, they were talking about immigration and he made a reference to how his ancestors didn’t come into the country through Ellis Island. They came in through the Department of Commerce. That was his way of talking about the painful subject of slavery. One thing that’s not often brought up in biographies of these musicians is the amount of pain and illness they had in their lives and that they were dealing with on a daily basis. Sun Ra was dealing with physical pain for years. Miles Davis was the same way, in constant pain from bad hips, bad hip surgeries and anemia. Some people have dismissed Sun Ra as crazy, too, but he never wavered from his vision.
PKM: My feeling is that nobody who did what Sun Ra did for as long as he did could be deemed crazy.
John Szwed: Right. I was once talking to a psychiatrist friend of mine, describing the sorts of things that Sun Ra did and said. He told me that Sun Ra sounded to him like a classic schizophrenic. Then I told him about how long Sun Ra had been playing music, the hundreds of compositions and albums and concerts, and he said, “No, he’s not schizophrenic. A schizophrenic could not have done that.” Sun Ra makes you reexamine words like “crazy” and “mental illness.” I mean, if craziness is this thin that having the success he had can undercut it, then what does crazy really mean?
PKM: What did other jazz giants of his time think of him? Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Duke Ellington? Did Miles Davis ever talk about Sun Ra? He seemed kind of dismissive about Coltrane’s move toward mysticism and Eastern religion and philosophy, so I imagine he might have rolled his eyes at Sun Ra.
John Szwed: Sun Ra was not well known among the big names. He did meet Duke Ellington, but the other players would not have known about him. I do know that Miles was fully aware of Sun Ra. When I wrote my book on Miles, I heard from his valet who described a night when Miles was playing a big gig and someone came in the dressing room to tell him that “a strange looking cat who says his name is Sun Ra wants to see you.” Miles said, “What’s he wearing?” You know, just to verify that it wasn’t a prank. And the guy says, “A long gold lame robe and a headdress…” and Miles said, “Yeah, that’s him. Send him back here!”
But Sun Ra seemed to have threatened some black people. One side said he was conning white people, the other side said what he did was stupid. It’s funny, the British, European and Asian musical scenes were far more up with it. They really took to Sun Ra in a big way. I run into people all the time who tell me hearing a Sun Ra record at a particular time saved or changed their lives, people you would not expect to say something like that. It’s a common experience. Louis Armstrong once said that Guy Lombardo was his favorite bandleader and people just cringed at that. Alan Lomax, who became famous for his field recordings, always said Fats Waller was his favorite musician. There’s no predicting this kind of thing.
PKM: Sun Ra appeared on Rolling Stone’s cover in 1969 and then two decades later on the stage of Saturday Night Live. These are two conduits/arbiters of pop and youth culture, two separate generations, too. What impact, if any, did he have on rock & roll and/or the counterculture? Clearly, he had an influence on George Clinton/Funkadelic and Earth Wind and Fire, who borrowed the idea of a vast overriding cosmology and elaborate stage settings to convey it. The mothership and what have you.
A segment of his Saturday Night Live appearance:
John Szwed: He also got on MTV and his obituary was broadcast on MTV, the head writer there was a big fan. Hal Wilmer, also a fan, got him on Saturday Night Live. Others had a similar affinity with outer space as him, like Ernie K-Doe [New Orleans R&B singer who billed himself as “The Emperor of the Universe”]. His influence is everywhere. Yo La Tengo, Sonic Youth, NRBQ, even Paul McCartney was ribbed by John Lennon for liking Sun Ra. Flying Lotus, Solange Knowles. Trey Anastasio of Phish has talked about Sun Ra, and Lady Gaga has sampled him. A whole slew of Afro-futurist people too. In Repo Man [1984 Harry Dean Stanton film] the mechanic who flies off into space at the end of the movie, made some references to Sun Ra.
Miller the philosopher/mechanic explains the universe to Emelio Estevez:
PKM: His D.I.Y. ethic was a big influence, too, as was his work ethic.
John Szwed: It was an unheard of amount of work, nearly obsessive workload. It reminds me of Cecil Taylor who was once told he’d never amount to anything as a musician, but he worked doggedly to get better, and worked odd jobs in mail rooms and elsewhere to support himself while he developed his skills and eventually was awarded the Kyoto Prize, which had one of the largest grants ever given to a jazz musician. His example, like Sun Ra, is that if you believe in this stuff, you never stopped working toward it.
PKM: Was there a rotating cast of players in his Arkestra over the years or was he able to maintain a stable core lineup? It would seem to me to be the perfect place for young musicians to learn about stagecraft, discipline and improvisation and then move on to another phase of their careers?
John Szwed: The Chicago crowd, where he first formed the Arkestra, was different than others. That band he first had there was always astonishing. Some members couldn’t even play but he hired them for other reasons. One guy studied with Paul Hindemith at Yale and another was a member of the Blackstone Rangers, the most dangerous street gang in Chicago. They were at the extremes. Some were quiet and others were boisterous. He did have a core group of Arkestra members over the decades but even some of them left and came back and left again. Even John Gilmore, his best-known member. He was a taskmaster and it was a tough existence. Sun Ra would say things no one else would say, like “forget the performance.” To him, playing badly in practice was just as bad as playing badly at a show. They were one and the same thing.
PKM: Even though the Arkestra was eventually embraced by younger audiences, you describe in your biography how his band cleared rooms at colleges in the 1960s, places that would normally have seemed safe places for his sort of experimental fare.
John Szwed: The first time I saw the Arkestra at Slugs on Avenue B, they walked to the club playing, played their gig, and then walked out of the club, still playing.
I was there at Swarthmore College in the 1960s when they played. The band was scary. The band members were even scared because it was unpredictable. The room was in total darkness, which was creepy. You’d feel something brush against your legs and of course you’re thinking rats. Then the lights came up, and you could see the band members crawling on their stomachs up toward the stage. The audience itself was weird, too. One guy, in the middle of winter, arrived barefoot, wrapped in an American flag. He was the first person who scattered when the lights went out. [Laughs]. No matter how weird you thought you were in the 1960s, Sun Ra and his Arkestra were weirder.
PKM: What’s also overlooked is that much of his music, without the stage presence, distractions of people jumping around, was quite accessible, if not beautiful, such as the 1979 album God Is More than Love Can Ever Be.
I’ve been led to believe that his music is hard to find because so much of it was released on his obscure label. Are there other compositions you would recommend for those who would like to leap into Sun Ra but don’t know where to start?
John Szwed: There are more albums than you think that are accessible and available from El Saturn Records. As far as we know, he released 200 albums. There are two new collections that have been released that are worth checking out. One is called Exotica, released by Modern Harmonic, which is filled with just the sounds that Sun Ra and his Arkestra made.
Here’s a descriptive video about the 3-LP set of Exotica:
And the other is a reissue of Monorails and Satellites, which is all piano solo music.
The title track from Monorails and Satellites:
There’s an all-Gershwin album and he is featured on an all-Disney album called Stay Awake, produced by Hal Wilmer, on which he plays “Pink Elephants on Parade” from the movie Dumbo. There’s nothing else like it on the album. It’s perfectly played.
And I would also recommend Languidity [an album released in 1978 and reissued in 2000].
The Arkestra carries on the Sun Ra vision today. Check their website for tour schedule and lots of links.
John Szwed is the author of Space Is The Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra and Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth. His website is http://johnszwed.com/