Given the rather daunting size of the Sun Ra catalog (over 100 known recordings, with plenty of semi-bootleg releases still turning up 20 years after his death) as well as its extreme stylistic breadth, there’s no set answer or even a remotely definitive list to give to someone when they ask “Where do you start?” when it comes to diving into the life’s work of the enigmatic Sun Ra.
In my own case, it was literally some Sun Ra CDs that I found, and that worked just fine for me, but finally veteran music journalist Kris Needs has provided a methodical and archival approach to Sun Ra’s oeuvre with the new 3CD box set, Sun Ra: A Space Odyssey.
Dating back to Sun Ra’s earliest days as a working musician and arranger in Chicago and his initial flight as a bandleader, for the most part, what’s on display here is slightly adventuresome big band music. The futuristic outer space mutant bop cacophony of the Arkestra was still to come, although there are hints of it aplenty in these early recordings.
Sun Ra: A Space Odyssey is the kind of detailed box set that could have only been put together by an expert’s expert, with a profound love for Sun Ra’s music. I can’t stop listening to it. Kris Needs has done music fans a great favor by compiling A Space Odyssey, I can only hope that he and Fantastic Voyage Records have future Sun Ra sets like this one in store for us. 10/10.
Below, Edward O. Bland’s 1959 quasi-documentary short, Cry of Jazz. Scenes of the Arkestra were filmed between 1956 and 1958, before the band and its leader began wearing the distinctive Egyptian and science fiction-styled headdresses and costumes they would later become well-known for:
“I never wanted to be a part of planet Earth, but I am compelled to be here, so anything I do for this planet is because the Master-Creator of the Universe is making me do it. I am of another dimension. I am on this planet because people need me”—Sun Ra
Dazzling short documentary film from French television of Sun Ra and His Arkestra, with the great June Tyson, circa 1969. Killer takes on “Enlightenment” (from his 1958 masterpiece Jazz in Silhouette and “Outer Spaceways Incorporated.”
Audio of Kraftwerk performing 2 tracks from their album Autobahn, “Kometenmelodie Eins” and “Kometenmelodie Zwei”, as recorded in Paris, 1976.
“Kometenmelodie” (“Comet Melody”) was inspired by the Comet Kohoutek (which proved to be a rather “spectacular dud” as far as comets go), and the track became Kraftwerk’s first single, released in December 1973.
Comet Kohoutek also inspired Sun Ra to perform a special concert for the comet in December 1973, while singer Burl Ives hoped to increase his bank account with the release of his single “The Tail of the Comet Kohoutek” in 1974. But it was Children of God founder David Berg, who received the most column inches when he pronounced Comet Kohoutek as a sign that a Doomsday event would destroy America in January 1974.
Composer/arranger Edward O. Bland’s 1958 quasi-documentary short, Cry of Jazz was one of the first films to examine Black culture. Made during the Eisenhower era when that concept hardly had a meaning to the general public, it was also perhaps the first time that assumptions of white cultural supremacy were challenged by an African-American director in cinema history.
Today the little-known film is considered a lost classic and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2010:
“[N]ow recognized as an early and influential example of African-American independent film-making. Director Ed Bland, with the help of more than 60 volunteer crew members, intercuts scenes of life in Chicago’s black neighborhoods with interviews of interracial artists and intellectuals. “Cry of Jazz” argues that black life in America shares a structural identity with jazz music. With performance clips by the jazz composer, bandleader and pianist Sun Ra and his Arkestra, the film demonstrates the unifying tension between rehearsed and improvised jazz. “Cry of Jazz” is a historic and fascinating film that comments on racism and the appropriation of jazz by those who fail to understand its artistic and cultural origins.”
Scenes of the Arkestra were filmed at 5 or 6 club gigs between 1956 and 1958. This was before the band and its leader began wearing the distinctive Egyptian and science fiction-styled headdresses and costumes they would later become known for.
The Arkestra performances that provide the soundtrack for The Cry of Jazz underline and accent Bland’s relentlessly didactic story line and offer vivid visual contrast to the extended narrative scenes which depict a group of collegiate jazz enthusiasts heatedly engaged in a profound intellectual discussion centered on the politics of music and race and the definition, meaning and future of jazz.
Bland’s passionate, well-ordered polemic extremely advanced for the late 50s presents a systematic economic analysis of the social forces which produced and shaped the music called jazz, carefully relates them to the shape and form of the music then prevalent, and boldly forecasts what he calls the death of jazz that will be administered by a new experimental movement led by creative artists and composers (here typified by Sun Ra) who are dedicated to freeing the music from its historical strictures, reflecting the social conditions of the present, and projecting and interpreting the world of the future.
At first the story proceeds with excruciating slowness: A college jazz society meeting breaks up, leaving behind a group of stragglers a pair of white women, a white man and two black men who continue the discussion among themselves and soon reach sharp disagreement on the issues of where jazz originated, what forces shaped its development and why it sounded the way it did. Then one of the black men seizes center stage and carefully unfolds his increasingly radical analysis until his listeners are left virtually stupefied and without coherent response.
Sun Ra & the Arkestra lay down a pulsating track of sound under the narration and serve to punctuate the protagonist’s long, engrossing lecture with appropriate segments of performance footage and musical counterpoint. It’s easy to picture Sun Ra enthusiasts editing together these Arkestral appearances and eliminating the talking parts altogether, but inquisitive viewers may gain immensely from exposure to Bland’s fiercely iconoclastic exposition on the state of African American creative music on the historical cusp of the modern jazz era and the free jazz, avant garde, New Black Music movement of the 1960s.
A young Herman Poole “Sonny” Blount, before he properly understood his intergalactic roots and legally changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra
I can’t think of a better way to celebrate 4/20 day than with this Afro Futuristic video of Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Cosmo Arkestra performing onstage at the Montreux Jazz Festival, July 9th, 1976. The set features a silver-clad June Tyson and some dancers.
Regarding this performance, Mrdangerbird7 (who must be named Tony Bunn owing to the clues he leaves) writes on YouTube:
“This video brings back good memories; I played bass (guitar) on this performance. I was wondering if a video would ever surface. This performance was but the 2nd performance of a 3-month tour for the band. Perhaps needless to say, it was a mind-boggling experience for me. No doubt, I would not be the musician nor the person that I am today, had I been anywhere other than there, at the point in time.
From one moment to the next, one never quite knew where things were gonna go, in Ra’s band. “Scripted” would be much too strong a term to use… What happened was more like one having to remain awake and to respond to stimuli from various directions, as they occurred. I guess you could call that improv; although it was different from anything I’d done before (or since).
Actually Sun Ra pretty much delivered as advertised; albeit, he was an incredibly eccentric individual. No doubt, his music was a direct reflection of what was going on inside of him and inside of the members of the ensemble. Life on the most raw terms…”
A trippy alchemical potion of a movie, Space Is The Place inhabits an alternative reality that could only exist in the Afrodelic cosmology of Saturnian jazz priest Sun Ra.
Directed by John Coney in 1974, the movie is a hybrid of B-grade sci-fi, Blaxploitation flix (on shrooms), the films of Kenneth Anger and surrealist head trips like El Topo and the electric western Zachariah.
In the film, as in life, Sun Ra is the quintessential outsider and space is a metaphorical Eden for this much put upon black man. The plot is threadbare, involving villainous pimps and dealers, Black Panther avenger protagonists, local nightclubs, pool halls, cat houses, and, of course, an Outer Space Employment Agency that Sun Ra sets up after coming to Earth from a faraway planet. To recruit a new colony, he espouses racial freedom through Egyptian epigrams, Stockhausen-like jazz and a spirit filled Rocket Ship. Of course, Ra is challenged by establishment agents and a supreme villain, the Overseer (Ray Johnson), who lures impressionable black men away from Ra’s brand of truth with the vices of sex and money. Ra preaches against decadence and hits a nerve when showing the pimp and his followers that they are no different than the White Man (Nixon, here) they rage against. Ra promises a land of racial harmony and social justice lies within the Milky Way’s stars, and who are we to argue?” - Alfred Eaker
The cinematic equivalent of one of Sun Ra’s free jazz improvs, Space Is The Place is all over the cosmic map so it helps to find that Zen spot where you just lock into the frequency and go with the flow. As Sun Ray instructs, get in tune with the universe.
“The people have no music that is in coordination with their spirits. Because of this, they’re out of tune with the universe. Since they don’t have money, they don’t have anything. If the planet takes hold of an alter destiny, there’s hope for all of us. But otherwise the death sentence upon this planet still stands. Everyone must die.” - Sun Ra
At the conclusion of their 1971 European tour, Sun Ra and His Arkestra visited Paris and performed for the French television show Jazz Session. The result was a stunning piece of musical theater shot in beautiful black and white and broadcast on January 8, 1972.
This is the show in its entirety. It begins with a brief introduction by the program’s creator Bernard Lion (Leo) who, along with being a hardcore jazz enthusiast and record producer, also directed videos for Serge Gainsbourg.
Whether you are a fan of Sun Ra or not, I think you’ll find this quite fulfilling.
Rarely heard live recording of a John Cage and Sun Ra performance from 1986. It was recorded at Sideshows by the Sea, the last surviving freak show along the Coney Island boardwalk. A carnival barker and a snake lady hawked the show outside and there was free pizza served, too. Can you imagine?!?! This concert took place on June 8th and pressed as a limited edition LP the following year.
Due to variety and musicality, Sun Ra heavily defeats John Cage on the performance. He opens the concert with a huge, furious, dissonant keyboard performance. The crowd cheers wildly and the spacey synthesizer sounds jump all around the range of the instrument and jump around in styles just as quickly. Elements of jazz flow in and suddenly a huge, orchestral sounding chord will overpower the recording instrument. The synth voices change frequently from a typical square lead voice to a bell sound to a synthesized voice. Sun Ra uses his range of voices perfectly, creating a heavy, metallic sound at some points which makes an even more frenzied sound to the already insane harmonic structure. He manages to jump from the most beautiful chords to the most dissonance in a matter of seconds. His first appearance goes on for 7 and a half minutes, garnering tumultuous applause from the audience. He later closes out the first half of the performance with a much more eastern tinged movement. Just when his playing couldn’t get any darker, he spends most of the second half making ambient, creepy noises. Much in the manner of the Mars Volta, he goes off without any sense of time or rhythm, creating whatever comes to mind. However, he lets the ambience slowly build into huge, crashing chords of either beauty or dissonance. Everything is going somewhere.
John Cage is just the opposite. His performance is much simpler. He merely steps up to a microphone and makes strange vocal noises. Cage’s voice sounds akin to an aging Johnny Cash. However, Cage never steps over saying more than 3 or 4 syllables at a time. He takes minute breaks before starting another few indistinguishable syllables. Of course, he relies on his “chance music” theory to get away with the minutes of silence. Sure, it’s a profound and intriguing idea, but it just gets old after a few minutes, especially when the recording buzzes in the background due to the quality. In truth, Cage is reciting excerpts from one of his poems in some strange language, known as Empty Words IV. However, who knows what he is saying? Luckily, Sun Ra saves the performance on the second half by filling in where Cage leaves silence. He fills with light, dainty keyboard lines way up high on the keys. He lets Cage have the show, not doing much of anything, but neither Cage still does less than Sun Ra. Cage proves a better composer and philosopher than a performer. Regardless, the crowd eats everything up, probably being mostly young, profound college kids themselves.
Phill Niblock, himself a notable composer in his own right, made this lovely, minimalist filmed portrait of Sun Ra and his Solar Arkestra in 1968. Shooting them on a rooftop in high contrast black and white and focusing in on fingers and mouths, this is as good an excuse as any to take 17 minutes out of your day to enter the waking dream world of Le Sony’r Ra.
Sun Ra’s Rocket Number Nine is an exuberant, joyfully child-like expression of excitement at the notion of space travel. It is one amongst many catchy anthems the man created during his time on Earth. This version from a 1968 self-released 7” single and compiled on the wonderful 1996 double CD Sun Ra: The Singles is probably my favorite. Slowed down to a New Orleans swagger, I could listen to that glorious Monk-esque riff all day long.
Hear a few more versions of Rocket Number Nine by Sun Ra after the jump…
Don Letts made a documentary about the great Sun Ra? Yup, apparently so. I know what we’ll be watching tonight! How did this one slip past me???
Born in perhaps the most segregated place on Earth – early 20th-century Alabama – Herman Poole Blount rejected his name, his origins and the conventions of the time (or any other, for that matter), re-creating himself as Sun Ra, emissary from Saturn (“planet of discipline”) and musical genius. Blending Egyptology and Space Age imagery, he projected a philosophy of radical empowerment for the entire cosmos; keeping a big band on the road for decades through independence and communal living, he became a patriarch of jazz and an avatar of freewheeling space music. Turning from the punk and reggae with which he’s most closely associated to one of the key figures in 20th-century sound, famed DJ/filmmaker Letts presents the Sun Ra story in all its glory, combining powerful footage of Ra and his legendary Arkestra, interviews with band members shot at their famous group house in Philadelphia and testimonies from sax great Archie Shepp, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and other admirers.