On the 30th anniversary of the Afrofuturist's death, I explore the oddest discs in his discography
I'm sure by "death" you mean "departure" ... and wow, Marshall Allen just turned 99, not sure he intends to depart.
My friends and I went to Boston in 1979 to see Sun Ra and the Arkestra live. I was very impressed with a keyboard he played, which instead of making sounds, projected colors onto an onstage screen. He was literally playing colors.
Later that year he came to Hartford and I was able to interview him for my radio show on WWUH. I asked one question, he talked for an hour and a half.
As my career unfolded in New York, I played often with some present and former members of his band, like saxophonists Pat Patrick and Charles Davis. But the story I remember is the one Jackie McLean told me when I was his student: he said when he was 17 Sun Ra approached him and asked him to join his band. Jackie said, "I was afraid of him. I ran away!"
NRBQ was a big popularizer of Sun Ra, from the 1970s on. Their version of “Rocket No. 9” was a staple of live shows, and pianist Terry Addams got him in the way he got Monk.
It wasn’t *his* house on Morton Street in Philadelphia. The house belonged to Marsh Allen’s family. Sun Ra lived there, and said of his musicians (who lived there): “They’re in Ra’s jail.”
I saw the Arkestra live once, in 1967, at The Village Theater. After 2 sets, Sun Ra led the band, still playing, up the aisle and into the street. The audience followed, and we marched around lower Manhattan for a bit listening to them play outdoors.
Zappa was a lot like Sun Ra. Starting playing a bicycle. Then the talky Freak Out. Then exquisite Apostrophe and Watermelon and Hot Rats. Etc.
I'm not sure that 45s were too small for Sun Ra. One of the most powerful motivators for artists is to introduce constraint, the challenge being to produce something amazing within those constraints. There's also something of the element of delayed gratification with a 45, the time to take it out of the sleeve, place it on the turntable and then carefully place the needle, a process that has to be repeated to hear the other size. It turns the songs on each side into precious petit fours. Listening to Spaceship Lullaby makes me think that The Residents were big, big fans.
He was in Birmingham for most of his first 30 years, and trained at Parker High School under the renowned Fess Whatley, whose proteges included Erskine Hawkins. So, he had influences prior to Saturn. https://encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/john-t-fess-whatley/ I remember being in Birmingham at the time of his funeral there in 1993.
I saw the Ra band, led by Marshall (I believe) in Manchester (North of England not bythesea) about 5 years ago.
Not sure how to describe them, so I'll just say
Up, Groove, Happy. Loved 'em.
I saw Sun Ra and his Akrestra in Mannheim D and NY NY.
Talk about knowing your audience. In Germany full on Afro Future 6 ft tall drums, dancers, singers, a full band... they took us beyond this galaxy and back to the Duke..
In NYC matching suits and bowler hats. Hit the heavy bop and outrageous R&B like a totally different ensemble.
He sang when you go on your journey “I’ll be there ... I’ll be there ... “
Maybe you have heard this Hermeto Pascoal track: https://youtu.be/5M4rF_H6cBo
My Quinteto is opening for his Group tonight in Seattle...
Apparently there is a thriving market for rare Sun Ra recordings and memorabilia, and such artifacts do not come cheap.
Also, Sun Ra liked to do Disney music from time to time.
When I was in high school in the early 70's I fell in love with jazz. I subscribed to Downbeat. I read about artists and went to the library (30 mins away in the 'big city' of Bellingham, WA) and checked out records (LPs) to listen to them. I checked out a Sun Ra and played it at home. It didn't land on me. It didn't make much sense, and the performances seemed sort of undisciplined to me. I don't remember what album it was.
In contrast, I quite like several of the tracks above. "Chicago" "A Foggy Day" and "Disco 2021" all make sense (at least now they do). That's interesting.
I also checked out and listened to Ornette Coleman. That also did not land on me. And then I checked out and listened to "Bitches Brew" which hoo boy, did that land. It made me a lifetime Miles fan. Of course, it didn't hurt that I played trumpet.
This post is a helpful entré for the uninitiated Sun Ra listener. I see lots of parallels between him and George Clinton, as well as Zappa and Don Van Vliet (mostly for the free jazz and weirdness).
Brilliant! Thank you for your contribution to help developing understanding of this artist. I’ve struggled and lost over the years to develop a taste for Sun Ra. Your article has completely turned me 180 degrees in appreciation of his works, no matter how quirky, or bizarre. I now have another “house” in my personal encyclopedia of musical appreciation. I’m all in.
Didn't know about the singles, but in late '73, going through my hosts albums, came across him. His World has a master plan, peace and happiness for every man, blew me away. Had never heard anything quite like it. From harmony to straight out cacophony and back to harmony, seamlessly done. Have heard others try it, and no one so far to my knowledge has achieved it.