The essence of music is to stir souls
The souls of the grain, the souls of living men
Or those of the dead and the ancestors
Dogon (Mali, Africa)
When Sun Ra and his Arkestra finally arrived on the New York jazz scene, that was then the Mecca for permanently establishing one’s reputation and place in jazz history, he was trailed by the tag of being “a weird far-out” character; which somehow grossly overshadowed his painstakingly built-up body of work that, he had earlier assembled for nearly a decade in the black-ghetto suburbs of Chicago, using an appreciable number of musicians of varying age and competence.
Note his deliberate spelling connotations. The Ark, in which the whole human and animal race survived, according to biblical theology, replacing the conventional ‘Orch’ in Orchestra with, of course the name of the Egyptian Sun god Ra-prominent and significant. Another oddity is the combination of Sun and Ra; literally meaning Sun Sun god, or ‘Double Sun’.
Yet, Sun Ra, unlike Elijah Mohammed of the Black Muslim Movement (Nation of Islam), and the prominent Christian leaders Martin Luther King or Reverend Franklin, was not preaching or advocating religion as the answer and way forward for black Americans.
Sun Ra, characteristically, did not do much to dispel the label of being more of an unusual character, than a very well-trained virtuoso piano and keyboard player, who also had fresh and innovative ideas on the future direction of jazz or black classical music as he preferred to view it.
Chicago, just after the Second World War, was a vibrant think-tank for formulating post-W.E.B. Dubois and Marcus Garvey ideas and strategies for the place and role of the Black man in America and, escalating the fight for racial justice and equality. Sun Ra was also “out there” in Chicago with Elijah Mohammed, his ‘contemporary’ in terms of researching for new and untapped black wisdom of the past, and forging out of it a newer understanding and relevance for the present and future.
It could be said that Sun Ra chose Ancient Egypt as his source and lifeline, while Elijah Mohammed chose the Muslim Mecca (Saudi Arabia). Ra took his research findings into music with his Arkestra as vehicle, follower ship and army for the mind-battle. Mohammed took his into the Black Muslims and Nation of Islam that later spawned Malcolm X and Mohammed Ali.
Sun Ra was however as much an ideologue; prominent in studios, gatherings and virtually street-corners, spouting Egyptology, Hieroglyphics, and his own Cosmic Equations and, of course, his new Space Music-Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy-which he sincerely believed would “save” the black man and the world.
Along with his musical ability, he was a man of extreme mental dexterity, cerebral, but with his feet, somewhat ironically, firmly planted in his roots as a Southern-born Black (not Negro) American.
He introduced himself then, as a Myth-Scientist. To have understood Sun Ra then, and now, and to have an appreciation of his philosophy and music, one has to unravel and then operate in the borderline between myth and reality. As one of his early Cosmic Equations postulates:
Imagination is a magic carpet
Upon which we may soar to different lands and climes.
If we came from nowhere here
Why can’t we go somewhere there?
Chicago, then, was also a busy melting-pot of the various, though inter-linked genres of Black American contemporary music. The migratory pattern of established and promising bands, musicians and singers-jazz, blues and gospel artists-coming to “Sweet Home Chicago” to make it in the music and recording industry, propelled thousands of Black American to Chicago and created its unique location as the birth-place of revolutionary Black American music.
Rock music star Bo Diddley, the fathers and sons of modern electric blues; Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Willie Dixon, Earl Hooker, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, the new pop-soul of Curtis Mayfield, the soul-jazz gospel music of the Staple Singers, were some of the energizers of the Chicago music scene in the mid-fifties and early sixties. Among them were the bands and stars of traditional jazz, swing jazz, modern be-bop and Sun Ra and his budding Arkestra.
It was in this fertile environment of intellectual inquisitiveness, political philosophising and activity, and a panorama of surviving and changing genres of Black American music that Sun Ra fashioned and consolidated his essentially new genre of Black American contemporary music.
It was in Chicago that Sun Ra fused his Cosmic Equations philosophy with his musical direction, making both inseparable and interdependent. He saw himself, back then in Chicago, as someone; a missionary of sort, whose compelling duty was to recreate musical myths and indicate musical futures. He also wanted to establish a cultural confidence for Black Americans which, paradoxically, made Sun Ra the victim of white American cultural racism.
Whilst his initial and primary audience, black people in Chicago, were curious, lukewarm and, definitely undismissive of the freshness and energy of his music, the white American establishment could not accept Sun Ra, a Black American musician who had not, at least, been trained in their best music conservatories, as a pioneer of futuristic ‘space’ music and even, the idea of, high culture.
Sun Ra, however, was well prepared for the musical direction and role he chose. A child prodigy, he had grown up in Birmingham, Alabama (The Magic City), in a household where he took private classical music lessons, was exposed to an abundance of recordings of old and current gospel, jazz and blues music, and, given supportive encouragement. In high school, he became, as a freshman, a member of his music teacher’s part-time professional band, which he soon took over as leader. He then went on to college to study to become a music teacher. This choice of discipline, as a major, was to stand him in very good stead as a band leader and a moulder of young talented black musicians. In addition, he made sure he acquired an encyclopaedic knowledge of the origins and styles of the three main genres of Black American music, Blues, Gospel and Jazz, as well as the practical experience of playing as a sideman in numerous combos, bands and orchestras that performed all these genres of music.
It was no surprise then that on arrival in Chicago, he was able to perform and survive as a sideman and session man for quite a few of the multiplicity of bands for nearly a decade. He was never aloof or snobbish on the Chicago music scene of his time, which enabled him to easily recruit a wide range of local musicians for his rehearsals, sessions and creation of his early bands. Within the musical scene, he was respected for his musical knowledge and playing ability. Here was a musician who could write arrangements for the respected Fletcher Henderson band play with the cream of blues, swing and bebop bands in Chicago and, yet, be distinctively different!
His fellow musicians conceded to him his right to play his Sun Ra’s ‘stuff’, and, he in turn, relished the challenge of turning these seemingly hard-core conservative, yet contemporary, Chicago musicians around to his viewpoint of music and its ultimate purpose.
Sun Ra, thus, set about achieving his musical mission and pointedly identified his need to procure musicians and instruments to achieve his ultimate goal. Interestingly, he also saw himself as a moulder and protector of the Black American musician as a professional specie to be kept away from social and cultural racism, drugs, alcohol-abuse, the harem of black and white women music-groupies and the exploitative music industry.
His typical sermon to young Black American musicians on the hazards, traps and pitfalls that beset them went something like, “the white man and his music agents, have always wanted to control and kill black music in America, because they are afraid of its power. That is why they always break up bands, choose whom they are going to make stars and leaders, tie them up with management and recording contracts and tell them what to play. Then they encourage them to take drugs, entice them with women and alcohol just to kill their spirit and talent. Nobody will do that to me!”
In many ways, this view was a true reflection of what Sun Ra had closely observed and fleetingly experienced in his formative years as a young and quite self-assured, above-average professional musician in the Deep South America. Topped by his imprisonment as a conscientious objector during the Second World War, Sonny Blount or Sun Ra, as he chose to call himself as from his Chicago days, did not much admire the face white America had shown him and many others of his generation.
Naturally, his sympathy was with Black American society and his loyalty was to them. He felt they needed the music he had to offer most, and also the privilege to see other black musicians like him work together, in unison and harmony to express the idea of “a better tomorrow.” Sun Ra was an incorrigible optimist in matters of the direction and survival of Black American music and its optimum value to the whole world.
Sun Ra, as a very keen student of the progress and acceptance of Black music; the ‘commercial’ genre of jazz in particular, foresaw the future of jazz within the larger context of American contemporary classical music. Paradoxically, although Sun Ra was during his long musical career physically and professionally removed from interacting with the white American classical music establishment, he nonetheless shared their view and ultimate dream to evolve a New World tradition and variety of Classical Music to rival, and even surpass, the recognised western classical music of Old Europe.
In terms of contemporary relevance, Sun Ra in essence, was always a futuristic musician who sought to position his musical philosophy and orchestral ability within the realm of the creative Avant Garde that would outline and give shape to the new-age American Classical Music; presented and eventually offered to the entire world as a model for the new Universal Classical Music. Musically therefore, Sun Ra was as American as he was a Black African-American musician!
To Sun Ra, jazz as Black orchestral music, was a rather sacred, creative and classical art form and, the most important contribution of the ‘African’ community in the national drive to establish America as the world’s undisputed leader in contemporary culture.
In this respect, Sun Ra has come to represent a personification of W.E.B Dubois’ prophecy in his 1903 book-The Souls of Black Folk-in which he stated that, “the greatest gift America had to offer the world, was not its scenic beauty or technology, but the music of the Negro American.” It would now seem that Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, B.B.King, Jimmy Hendrix, Michael Jackson, and many more, fit this bill.
The roll-call of musicians who participated in what was essentially Sun Ra’s music laboratory and workshop, then based in Chicago, is impressive. Some of these include Phil Upchurch, Richard Evans, Julian Priester, Jim Herndon, Dave Young, Wilbur Green, Victor Sproles, Von Freeman, Johnny Thompson, Charles Davies, James Scales, Art Hoyle, Alvin Fielder, Robert Barry, Luscious Randolph, Pat Patrick, John Gilmore, Ronnie Boykins, Marshall Allen, Vernon Davis and Phil Cochran.
Some members of this group would later become Sun Ra,s pride and joy and, to remain the jewels in his crown as a bandleader. Pat Patrick, John Gilmore, Ronnie Boykins and Charles Davies were young musicians who had just come out of the musically-prestigious DuSable High School in Chicago. Together with Marshall Allen who had been trained in the Paris (France) Conservatory of Music, they represent Sun Ra,s first group of specifically taught and nurtured musicians who were the nucleus of Sun Ra,s music and Arkestra in Chicago and, the progressions of both, in New York and, eventually, the international music scene.
Employing a strict regime of daily and long rehearsals, Sun Ra was able to impart to them the basic and rather fluid guidelines that ultimately characterised his brand of music. These, were the ‘ Space Chord’; achieved extempore by the wind instruments simultaneously playing notes of their choice, periods of multiple improvisations, experiments in tonality and sound textures to express the spectrum of sound from noise to silence and, the use of multiple and natural rhythms. Back then in Chicago, in the mid-fifties, Sun Ra was using as many as five drummers in performance and was very involved in the dynamics of music. His Cosmic Equation, “The Air is Music”, sought to emphasise sound values and their variations, likening them to the phonetic impact of words.
He sought to bridge and fuse the tonal barriers between conventional and electric/electronic instruments, juxtaposing sounds from conventional instruments to simulate electronic sounds. This was a natural precursor, and alternative, to computer and processed music, which Sun Ra foresaw as coming, primarily, as a major threat to the survival of black musicians in America.
Interestingly, though, he was obsessed about finding out and keeping abreast of the developments in musical instrument manufacture. He definitely was not averse to new instruments as he continually scoured music instrument shops in Chicago in search of new keyboard instruments. This became a habit he sustained in New York and later while on tour, in Paris, London and other European capitals.
By the late sixties, Sun Ra was well-known to the managers and shop assistants of the big musical instrument stores in the Broadway area of mid-Manhattan in New York City. They welcomed him warmly, told him about new arrivals and, let him play then uninterrupted for as long as he wished; relishing his virtuosity.
In addition to the acoustic piano, Sun Ra’s collection of keyboard instruments in Chicago included the Celeste, Clavoline, Organ and Solovox. He was one of the first musicians in Chicago to buy an electric piano, and he and Ray Charles became the first musicians to record with the electric piano. Of the instrument, he was to say that he liked it (the Wurlitzer), “because it had a tender, lyrical kind of sound because of the reeds they had on it. It had the sound of a guitar or lute to me.”
Some of Sun Ra’s most impressionable compositions and recordings are structured from the unique individual sounds of various keyboard instruments as well as combinations of sounds from different acoustic and electric/electronic keyboards: Magic City with its haunting Clavoline overtones evoking celestial eeriness, then much later in his New York days when he had added the Farfisa and Rocksicord keyboards to his collection, The Night of the Purple Moon and, My Brother the Wind in which he featured the Moog Synthesiser.
That musicians and instruments ultimately shaped and defined Sun Ra’s music was a calculated ploy from his days in Chicago. His search, from instruments, for newer and unusual sounds to blend into his music, took him to Japanese string instruments like the Koto, Kora the West African harp, the Mariachi Mexican bass guitar, gongs, cymbals, rattles and many self-constructed reed, membrane and wood instruments like the log-drums built and played by James Jacson. Marshall Allen later invented the ‘morrow’, a wind instrument
Sun Ra encouraged his musicians to play as many of these instruments as possible, “to add their own feel” from this assortment of instruments. Which eventually meant that most of the core musicians in his Arkestra , were accomplished multi-instrumentalists.
Although by now in Chicago, Sun Ra was well-known, respected and many times deferred to on the Chicago music scene; he was in many ways self-effacing. He cut records as a session man with numerous musicians and singers; blues, gospel and jazz, but refused, as he preached, to sign on with any of the major, mostly white-owned agencies and record companies.
He was, however, well aware of the documentary value of recorded music and, was also a knowledgeable stickler for how music, especially his, had to be recorded. Thus began his innovative policy of recording every rehearsal or performance session, which over the years consumed a fortune in magnetic tapes and different-model tape recorders and, also provided the large treasure-house of the various stages in the development of Sun Ra’s music and his musicians.
One man who deserves great credit for helping Sun Ra initiate his own management and recording preference is Alton Abraham, an early convert to Sun Ra’s ideas and music, who helped him form Ihnfinity Incorporated, the parent body that released Sun Ra’s wealth of recorded music on the Saturn label, from his Chicago days in the mid-fifties right up to his death in the nineties.