A friend of mine saw his first Sun Ra concert as a child. His father, a classically trained bassist, had learned a hard fact or two about the career opportunities of an African-American musician in U.S. symphony orchestras in the ’70s and had moved the family to Mexico, where he one day took the whole brood to an outdoor show featuring the master bandleader and composer. At one point, the mighty Ra left the stage and made a circuit of the audience. Catching a glimpse of my friend and his relatives, the only blacks in attendance besides the stars, Sun Ra approached and embraced them joyfully.
A more perfect expression of Sun Ra’s reasons for being could hardly exist. Not only a towering figure in the pursuit of new frontiers in jazz musician- and showmanship, he gained a large following due to his insistence that he had come not from Alabama but from Saturn, in order to deliver a message from the gods. It was a fine conceit, and one Ra wasn’t above exploiting for its humorousness. But he was also dead serious, as Yale professor John F. Szwed explains in Space is the Place, his deeply entertaining and valuable new biography of Sun Ra.
In the self-created mythology of the former Herman “Sonny” Blount, Szwed finds among other things an epic metaphor for Ra’s feelings of alienation from the South and America, and a call to education, expression, and responsibility on the part of black Americans. Despite his image as an oddball, he was rigorous in his thinking, once saying of the protest element in his work, “People thought I was talking about black people, but I was talking about all people.” Szwed commands a wide range of religious and social history in his examination of Ra’s philosophy, citing sources as diverse as the Bible, George G.M. James’ Stolen Legacy, and Invisible Man as keys to the Sun Ra kingdom.
Sonny Blount grew up with jazz, taking sustenance from the early big bands and teaching himself to read music and play piano. He was already a working musician in his early teens, gigging at functions held by black social clubs in Birmingham and vicinity. His artistry grew quickly—”Sun Ra would go into chords that nowadays are pretty common, but back then were in another world,” said Sammy Lowe, a colleague from the ’40s—and soon he was affiliated with the likes of Coleman Hawkins and Fletcher Henderson. During World War II, he was jailed after declaring himself a conscientious objector and refusing to enter a work camp. His detachment from the larger society was fed by this experience, but upon his release the music continued.
By the mid-’50s, Ra had his Arkestra in full swing, drawing on swing and bop and filling stages with brightly costumed players. (Later, he leapt into electronics with alacrity, employing some of the earliest synthesizers.) With the help of agent Alton Abraham, he founded a label he called Saturn Research and began building a following both inside and outside jazz circles—but doing it the (almost definitive) hard way. Legendarily (and knowingly?) erratic in its release patterns, Saturn issued a body of work that went largely unheard until a large-scale reissue program was undertaken by Evidence in the ’90s. Some of the most uproarious Sun Ra history revolves (as it were) around Saturn’s pressing methods, which often involved minuscule numbers of a particular disc being manufactured. Several different albums might appear in the same jacket over time, or various editions of the same title might contain one side of one LP and one of another. Szwed paints hilariously deadpan pictures of Saturn’s haphazard industriousness, including a sketch of saxophonist Danny Thompson dealing 7-inch singles to a shop:
“When he entered Third Street Jazz & Blues with handfuls of 45s, some of which looked warped, handmade, maybe not even recorded on, he launched into a pitch that assured the sales staff that no other store would be getting these records, that they were a unique product, collectors’ items, that they would immediately sell out…then, more ominously, that they were dangerous. After such a spiel, who could say to him only, ‘We’ll take a couple’? When asked what the returns policy was for defective records, Thompson would answer, ‘The Creator works in mysterious ways.’”
Sun Ra was in part a pure show-bizzer, composing pieces like “I’m Gonna Unmask the Batman” in addition to “Interplanetary Music” and “The Order of the Pharaonic Jesters.” (Many of his albums, such as Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy and Sound Sun Pleasure, are worth buying for their titles alone.) He loved standards, which remained part of the Arkestra’s book until his death in 1993; toward the end, after the group contributed a version of “Pink Elephants on Parade” to the Stay Awake tribute disc, entire sets were likely to be given over to music from Walt Disney films.
Space Is the Place is a must for anyone who would better understand this true master, of whom one associate said, “You could get lost in there, like a hall of mirrors.” And what a hall, what a hall. CP