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My memories of the late Sun Ra are framed by the margins of the stage. I was able to interview the legendary bandleader and a few of his key players, but personal interests frequently overwhelmed journalistic ones. With my tape recorder turned off more often than not, I was proud to be a tolerated intruder in the backstage barracks of the Sun Ra Arkestra, where the band’s members would hastily don their space armor—garish swaths of bright fabric, crowns crudely crafted from
foil stars and wire—before taking the stage like so many satellites orbiting a clearly defined center. The ensemble’s younger members would frantically page through unbound volumes of tattered sheet music as if they really knew what Ra was going to do. The older members would chide the younger ones, softening reeds in the corners of their mouths, while they themselves searched nervously through their pockets for that lucky No. 6 mouthpiece. Ra would remain placid amidst the commotion, delivering sermons or twirling his cane in silent meditation.
After a series of debilitating strokes in 1991, Ra’s cane, and then his wheelchair, became staple accouterments of this already ungainly, really big band. The leader, in turn, became the charge of his disciples, who doted on him as if he were their aging father: Vocalist June Tyson made sure the maestro got the kind of ice cream that he liked (chocolate); brass player Jothan Callins proudly brushed Ra’s hair.
As Ra’s infirmity consumed him, the band’s music suffered. The great discipline that he had once demanded from a crowded stage of musicians and dancers he now needed to aim his failing hands at the piano keys before him. I witnessed a show at the Knitting Factory’s old Houston Street location, where, as Ra struggled through his piano parts, the soundman compensated by easing him out of the mix. All night, various Arkestra members discreetly gestured for Sun Ra’s volume to be brought to the fore. Each time, the engineer would acquiesce before again fading the painful strikings. And then trumpeter Michael Ray, glowering, dropped four words from the stage, without a microphone, that landed with the force of bombs: “Bring the piano up!” Ra’s volume came up, and it stayed up.
Most of the men in the group shared three or four decades with Sun Ra. Reed players John Gilmore and Marshall Allen were the two most senior members. Each had ridden Ra’s vapor trail from his days as a Chicago pianist and arranger in the ’40s and ’50s. They were with Sun Ra in the ’60s, as he mesmerized Manhattan’s Lower East Side with a glittery gumbo of
improvised music and interplanetary Afrocentrisms. And they were with him during the important final third of his journey.
In 1968, a row house in Philadelphia’s Germantown section became a shared residence for Ra, Gilmore, Allen, and a shifting handful of core band members. It was also the command center for a record label called Saturn and a cosmic conspiracy that nearly conquered the world. In January 1993, Ra’s deteriorating health forced him into a nursing home in Birmingham, Ala., where he died five months later. As senior disciple, Gilmore inherited the leader’s baton. But Gilmore, a brilliant tenor player whose work had grown alongside the work of Coltrane, Rollins, and Stitt, lacked Sun Ra’s dominating charisma. Under Gilmore’s leadership, the Arkestra was often dry-docked.
When Gilmore lost his own battle with emphysema in 1995, Allen assumed the helm, returning the Arkestra to Sun Ra’s ascetic formula of long rehearsals and tireless self-deprivation, which, of course, thinned the ranks to a committed few. He found new music in the vast storehouse of compositions and arrangements that Ra left behind. Allen has always earned props for his alto saxophone work, but in front of the group, these gifts gained new exposure. Under Allen’s direction, the Sun Ra Arkestra has returned as jazz’s most entertaining large ensemble in this quadrant of the galaxy.
Tenor saxophonist David S. Ware speaks bluntly about the breadth of Ra’s leadership: “He was a great human being, you know what I’m saying?” Ware reflects. “He was great because he had the spirituality, you see.” Without a doubt, Ware has “the spirituality” himself—what issues from his horn becomes a sermon of sorts. Ware is a big man, and he has anchored the devastating tone of his playing deep within his body. Over the course of 10 albums in as many years, the critically acclaimed David S. Ware Quartet has authored a new sound on the frontiers of free jazz—Ware calls it “energy music.” The sax man’s burly tone soars over a rhythmic-harmonic hybrid woven by pianist Matthew Shipp, bass player William Parker, and Guillermo E. Brown, the latest in a series of talented drummers. Adding to this quartet’s uniqueness is the rhythmic centrality of bass and piano. The drummer’s contribution is less a temporal framework than an inducement to the music’s volatility, an extra quart of gas to toss on the blaze. Shipp and Parker, each a leader in his own right, have developed a level of communication that allows for spontaneous composition that is nuanced and precise. Brown’s deft placements and briskly explosive attack accelerate the pulsing stream of harmony. Against this energetic backdrop, Ware stands and delivers, painting a prophetic profile as he sways to the fire in his music. CP
The Sun Ra Arkestra and the David S. Ware Quartet perform Saturday, May 6, as part of the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival at the State Theatre in Falls Church.