By Mark Guarino
Like the best science fiction, Sun Ra was one of those rare characters in music who lived nearby reality, but not quite in it.
Parts husker, freeform experimentalist and theatrical visionary, there’s no doubt Ra was the most colorful personality in jazz.
That fact inevitably led the more conservative jazz establishment to usher him outside the mainstream. When he died in 1993 at age 79, Ra was an elder statesman for younger rock bands like Sonic Youth and Phish and was in demand to perform everywhere but not as much in the U.S. In the traditional jazz world, he was considered more of a novelty figure for his space age philosophies, wild costumes, multimedia concerts and fiercely independent spirit.
The difficulty of assessing Ra’s music outside his unusual persona has been due to the fact his voluminous catalog of 30 years worth of music has not been in print. There’s good reason. Although he recorded for a few labels sporadically, most of Sun Ra’s 100-plus albums and dozens of singles were released on his own El Saturn label with very limited press runs. Most albums were sold at shows and at a few independent record stores and when the supply ran out, that was it. Sun Ra’s big band, or “Arkestra” as he christened it, rushed to the next recording session and never looked back.
In 1990, the Philadelphia-based label Evidence made it its mission to locate, assemble and release all of Sun Ra’s recordings. It’s an ambitious task that’s still not complete. Recently, Evidence released five more titles and compilations, raising the total to 21.
The new reissues include two albums Sun Ra recorded in the ‘70s for the Impulse! label, but were never released (“The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums: Cymbals and Crystal Spears”) and a compilation Evidence calls “Greatest Hits.” For listeners who have heard of but never heard the music of Sun Ra, it’s designed to provide an accessible introduction to his entire career. True to Ra’s broad appeal to younger audiences, it is currently number two on the CMJ (college music journal) jazz chart.
“Sun Ra played in so many ways and styles, if a person puts on a Sun Ra LP that is beyond their ability to understand or appreciate it, they can get turned off to Sun Ra’s music and dismiss it,” said Evidence founder Jerry Gordon. “But when people bought a Sun Ra record they were buying what was available and not through choice.”
Sun Ra was never confined by style, his career was an amalgam of genres including r&b, doo-wop, pop and jazz. While big bands began to die out in the late ‘40s, making way for bop, Sun Ra combined the crossroads between the two, performing a cosmic type of freeform jazz in the setting of his large “Arkestra,” which at times involved up to nine players and, during their live shows, dancers, lights and film slides. It was an appropriate setting for the exotic result of Afro-beat rhythms, atonal noise, and free improvisation.
The composer, arranger and pianist was also a cultural maverick. Sun Ra reinvented himself long before Madonna, David Bowie and Marilyn Manson made it a fashion. The backdrop of his transformation, both spiritually and musically, was Chicago.
At age 31, Sun Ra (then named Herman P. “Sonny” Blount) moved here in 1946 from Birmingham, Ala., where he was raised and studied music education at Alabama A&M University. Once arriving, he joined legendary swing arranger Fletcher Henderson’s band, then started his own big band that performed regularly at the Club DeLisa on the city’s South Side. He played in and recorded for a number of bands at that time, the most humiliating job in Calumet City where he performed music for strip shows. Due to mob-enforced rules, black musicians were forced to perform behind a curtain.
That may have provided the reawakening Blount needed to turn himself into Sun Ra. The racist culture he grew up in and which was now dictating his career, festered into a homegrown philosophy which concluded he was not from earth, but from Saturn. In 1952, he changed his name legally to Le Sony’r Ra (from Ra the Egyptian sun God) and decided that from that point on, his music would be used to enlighten earthlings who suffer from ignorance, hate and greed.
This was no shtick, either. Before that point, Sun Ra had been searching for some kind of spiritual truth by reading up on ancient Egypt, the occult, black nationalism and the Bible. Obsessed with finding a solution, he ended up meeting Alton Abraham, who would later become his manager and label president. Both shared a similar yearning. That clinched it: together, they would pursue a musical life that portrayed the chaos of life and the search for spiritual nourishment.
“What I represent…affects every nation on this planet. If affects government, it affects schools, it affects churches, the whole thing has got to be turned to another way of thought. A blueprint for another kind of world. I’m all alone, you might say, talking (about) something the plant (has) never heard before!,” he said in a 1988 interview.
As the years went on, Ra spent time building his band and began a voracious recording and performing career. In June, 1960 alone, his Arkestra recorded enough material to fill five albums. He recorded songs with titles like “Message To Earthman,” “Journey To Saturn,” “Blues on Planet Mars,” “Enlightenment” which were eccentric, exciting and often humorous displays of avante garde jazz.
By the ‘60s, New York City was the epicenter of free jazz, thanks to Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and that became where the work was. So Sun Ra relocated there, eventually ending up in Philadelphia where a relative of one bandmate/alto saxophonist Marshall Allen gave the band a house to turn into its headquarters. Ra moved in with his core band of practically 30 years — Allen, baritone saxophonist Pat Patrick, and tenor saxophonist John Gilmore. Their combined interest in world beat rhythms and early electronic keyboards, all in a big band setting, made them cult heroes in Europe, where they toured frequently.
But here they remained an oddity. Although much of it had to do with the strange costumes, wild stage shows and hard-to-swallow philosophy, Gordon says a large part is due to the fact it was difficult to find the recordings.
“These albums were not readily available, so people were unable to see any evolution in his music,” Gordon said.
Before founding Evidence, he owned Third Street Jazz in Philadelphia, one of the only record stores where Ra would sell his albums outside the shows. Although Ra helped point him in the direction, Gordon had to play detective to find lost masters, forgotten albums and home recordings. Even after discovery, there were often stumbling blocks. For the reissue, “The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums,” Gordon found the original masters from 27 years ago, but they were unmixed, so he had to mix down the four separate tracks for the first time to a final stereo mix. For the long out of print and rare 1966 album, “When Angels Speak Of Love,” Gordon had to create a copy from one of the few vinyl copies left, using computer software to rub out surface noise.
For a two-disc collection of singles, Gordon put a call out on the internet to collectors worldwide to send in their rare 45s. “He never looked at a 45 as an opportunity to promote something on an LP, he saw each 45 as a piece of art,” Gordon said. From countless submissions, he received about every 45 Ra had issued. Listening to them lined up in Gordon’s reissue collection, they shape a timeline for his music, from his early days backing up doo-wop and soul groups in Chicago to his late career cosmic noise.
After a series of strokes, Ra died in 1993, unable to witness the vast organization of his career output. The depth of his work, as well as his committed passion to it, make for wonderful music that may indeed be as far-reaching as the cosmos.