Sun Ra would have turned 96, in earth years, last Saturday. Marshall Allen, who has led the Sun Ra Arkestra for some 15 years (and played in its ranks for more than 50), turns 86 today. According to recent custom, Allen and the band will perform a birthday gig, in their hometown of Philadelphia, under the aegis of the Ars Nova Workshop. In honor of all of this, here is a piece I wrote for a Style magazine in Philly last year, which provided me with a pretext for interviewing both George Clinton and Maurice White for the first time.
There are worlds, and there are worlds. For the visionary composer, keyboardist, philosopher, bandleader and intergalactic traveler known as Sun Ra, the planet was a way station, and music was both a vessel and a channel. Throughout his earthly career, which roughly spanned the second half of the last century, he engaged an impossibly broad-spectrum sweep of musical ideas: big band swing and bebop along with future-sound electronics and ancient African rhythms, funk and free jazz, psychedelic grooves and Bizarro doo-wop, and much, much else besides. “It was a universal music,” attests George Clinton, the Parliament-Funkadelic mastermind with an intergalactic angle of his own. “There’s no box you can put it in, except that it makes you feel good.”
So is it any wonder that in the 16 years since Sun Ra’s departure, his influence has rippled across so many borders of culture and genre? When soul-punk dynamo Janelle Monáe declares herself “an alien from outer space,” or hip-hop trickster Lil Wayne rants about being a Martian, they’re riding a wavelength best exemplified, if not generated, by the potent precedent of Sun Ra. And those are just the more flagrant manifestations of a process that reaches meaningfully into the worlds of rock, techno and electronica, along with avant-garde jazz and new music. “He never got as much recognition, even posthumously, as he should have,” says Jeff Parker, the guitarist for Tortoise, the acclaimed Chicago post-rock band. “But the influence, man, it’s everywhere.”
Especially, it would seem, in Philadelphia, where Sun Ra and his Arkestra planted roots more than 40 years ago, after a brief but heady stretch in New York City. “He is one of the most important artists to hit Philly,” asserts DJ and sound collagist King Britt, whose multimedia project Saturn Never Sleeps has had recent performances in New York and Philly both. The Arkestra still operates out of the same row house, at 5626 Morton Street, where its members once lived under Sun Ra’s stern supervision. Alto saxophonist Marshall Allen – a core member of the Arkestra for more than 50 years, now 86 and as sonically rambunctious as ever – has tirelessly led the group since 1995.
“He preached discipline and sincerity,” Allen reflects from the row house, where he keeps resident watch over a shambling archive of sheet music, costumes and assorted other Arkestra flotsam. “He was playing his style and he was trying to get us to play it that way. You had to know about religions, history, mythology, he wanted you to do all those things. And then he would talk about space and that was another head-buster.”
Sun Ra was born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama on May 22, 1914. Years later, he would insist otherwise: that his journey began elsewhere, on Saturn or some other cosmic plane. “For almost fifty years he evaded questions, forgot details, left false trails, and talked in allegories and parables,” writes John Szwed in the conscientious and sympathetic biography Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (Pantheon/Da Capo).
Without undermining the prerogative of an artist to wipe clean his past, Szwed unearths, so to speak, crucial information about that history. “Herman,” for instance, was his mother’s nod to Black Herman (right), the most successful African-American stage magician of the era. So from the outset of his earthly experience, Sun Ra was conceptually allied to a conjuror, his very name invoking the smoke and spark of illusion.
Growing up, he was bright and intense: a voracious reader, a quick study, a natural autodidact sharpened by occasional instruction. He came up in church, and recognized religious doctrine as a fathomless area of study. But Sonny, as he was called, also suffered from a deep alienation. In adolescence he developed a testicular hernia that caused both physical agony and a sense of shame. He felt different, a breed apart, which may have been the principal reason he lasted only one year at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University, where he had enrolled as a music education major.
Years later he would recall this moment as the time of his metaphysical abduction, when he was engulfed by a beam of light, transported to Saturn and endowed with a sense of purpose. Szwed, examining many versions of this self-revelation, notes its similarity to a conversion tale: not just Roswell, but also Road to Damascus. And then of course there’s an even simpler explanation. “After all,” as the artist Glenn Ligon muses in an untitled 2008 work, “better to be from Saturn than to be from pre-civil-rights-era Birmingham.”
He became Sun Ra – legally, Le Sony’r Ra – during a momentous stretch in Chicago, from the mid-1940s to the early ‘60s. He was a fairly well-regarded musician by this time, having worked with the illustrious Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, and having led a more exporatory group he called the Space Trio. As Sun Ra, he deepened his cosmic focus and began assembling musicians for marathon rehearsals, using some of the same tactics then employed by Elijah Muhammad for the Nation of Islam. “See, up in Washington Park in the ‘50s,” recalls Allen, “everybody had a platform: the Muslims, the Christians and so on. You might see a little crowd, gatherings of people around each podium. Sun Ra had his. So he was talking about the space age, going to the moon and space and stuff, and past philosophies, like the Muslims and the Christians were doing.”
The music made by Sun Ra and his Arkestra in Chicago during the 1950s – much of it released on El Saturn, his own micro-independent label – was often consonant and accessible, grounded in tight ensemble interplay and standard swing rhythm. But Sun Ra’s precepts made an impact locally, especially on musicians who entered his orbit. One of these was trumpeter Phil Cohran, who became a charter member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and a founder of the Afro-Arts Theater. It was Cohran who spread the message of Sun Ra to younger musicians like Maurice White, a drummer and vocalist later to become the driving force behind Earth, Wind & Fire.
“I was really knocked out,” says White of his first exposure to Sun Ra’s music. “The originality and the way he utilized musicians was so startling, and the whole thing that went along with it: all the esoteric stuff, relative to the planets.” The combination of Egyptology and cosmic utopia would be a trademark of Earth, Wind & Fire, as would a series of elaborate stage shows, complete with giant pyramids and space suits. White credits the band’s mysticism to his interest in astrology, rather than the direct influence of Sun Ra. But he recognizes the connection: “What Sun Ra represented was reaching out to the universe for guidance. All of us presenting something new to the world, we were in tune with that spirit, reaching for new heights.”
George Clinton, another fellow traveler, once quipped that Sun Ra “was definitely out to lunch—the same place I eat at.” Speaking recently from the road, in an amiable croak, he enlists a different metaphor: “I think we were broadcasting over that same channel, the same frequency. Jimi Hendrix picked up on it too, in a kind of way, though he didn’t expand all the way on it. Pharoah Sanders picked up on it. A lot of people would tune into that. Some people got there accidentally. To me the Beatles were, like, waaaay out there from the cosmos, and they were able to treat it commercially, to make it fit what they were doing.” As for the sense of glittery spectacle that P-Funk and Sun Ra so clearly share, “I think it supersedes either one of us knowing what we’re doing,” he says with a chuckle. “Sometimes it gets real dark, or weird as hell, or goes to a supernatural place.”
It was through the outrageous haze of George Clinton’s example that hip-hop adopted what might be called a Sun Ra aesthetic. Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” lay the groundwork for a strain of far-out urban mysticism that persists in OutKast (“Out of this world / Are you alien?”) and Lil Wayne (“You know I’m out this world, I just bought a space shuttle”). When Kanye West included a song called “Spaceship” on his debut, The College Dropout, he made outer space an aspirational setting, a next-generation Promised Land. By the time he got to his third album, Graduation, he was flaunting his success with the same set of metaphors: his Glow in the Dark Tour featured a stage designed to look like a lunar landscape. “Screens big and small showed scenes of whirling galaxies and cataclysmic weather,” wrote Ann Powers in her Los Angeles Times review. “Announcing himself as an astronaut on a mission to bring creativity back to Earth, West used songs like ‘Through the Wire,’ ‘Can't Tell Me Nothing’ and ‘Stronger’ to narrate his journey from spaceship crash to alien encounter to self-realization and escape.”
Of course it isn’t the biggest conceptual leap from the slave ship to the mothership, as Sun Ra was acutely aware. “African-Americans are, in a very real sense, the descendants of alien abductees,” writes Mark Dery in “Black to the Future,” the 1994 essay through which the term “Afrofuturism” entered mainstream circulation. Tracing a continuum encompassing everything from Ralph Ellison’s “proto-cyberpunk protagonist” in Invisible Man through graffiti art and Detroit techno (“a quintessential example of Afrofuturism”), Dery defines a phenomenon that unequivocally holds Sun Ra at its core. He also quotes a memorable assertion by Greg Tate, the cultural critic who now leads Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber, a dynamic large ensemble that wears its inspiration on its sleeve: “Black people live the estrangement that science-fiction writers imagine.”
Sun Ra made his biggest sonic strides in New York, during a seven-year stretch that coincided with the tumultuous heyday of free jazz. He had a pronounced impact on John Coltrane, the saxophonist held in highest esteem by proponents of the New Thing. It was hardly an accident that Coltrane, in his latter years, recorded songs with titles like “Sun Ship,” “Sun Star” and “Stellar Regions.” One of his final albums was Interstellar Space, an immortal duet record with Philadelphia-born drummer Rashied Ali, consisting of movements named after planets. (The longest piece is “Saturn.”) Other musicians have reported that Coltrane would hand out mimeographs of “Solaristic Precepts,” a philosophical leaflet by Sun Ra, with a slant both Biblical and numerological.
Jazz, naturally, is the area in which Sun Ra’s genius resonated best. “If you think about where he was in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s,” says Craig Taborn, a keyboardist active in both jazz and electronic music, “his music was pointing toward everything that it was going to do, in very specific and predictive ways. Like, everything: open improvisation, free rhythm, electronics, groove playing that’s not just rock-based but Africa-Diasporic. Really there was an eight-year period where he did a species of everything that had been done or was going to happen in a 40-year orb.” Last year ESP-Disk released a good case in point: Sun Ra Featuring Pharoah Sanders & Black Harold, a recording of a 1964 concert that should rank among the landmark live albums of the jazz avant-garde. Another case in point: the modern output of alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, who draws equally on ancient African precedent and progressive multiple-meter invention.
Jeff Parker, the guitarist in Tortoise, also works often in a jazz context, as a solo artist and a sideman. “I used to play a lot with a drummer in Chicago named Avreeayl Ra,” he recalls, referring to a longtime member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. “I remember him telling me this thing that Sun Ra told him, which was, ‘If you deal with what you know, your possibilities are finite. But if you deal with what you don’t know, the possibilities are infinite.’ So yeah, you know, always striving for the unknown. And there’s a Tortoise tune called ‘Unknown.’”
Contemplating the Sun Ra legacy, Parker takes special note of “the concept of music as just sound, and tone science. I mean, just to think about music like that opens up so many doors. And when we started the band Isotope 217, it was originally just Isotopes, as a direct Sun Ra reference from that movie Space is the Place, where he talks about isotope trans-molecularization. That’s why we named the band that: just this idea of futuristic music, collective improvisation and group movement. You know, everybody in Tortoise is a Sun Ra fan, from way back. We all saw him a number of times before he died, and the Arkestra after that. So he’s been a big influence on Tortoise’s music.”
Given the Afrocentric thrust of Sun Ra’s creative energy, it’s striking how many white indie-rock bands have seized on his sonic philosophies. Without the precedent of Space is the Place, it’s impossible to imagine the Flaming Lips making Christmas on Mars, a similarly low-budget science-fiction film odyssey involving enigmatic human-alien interactions. Thom Yorke of Radiohead has plugged the superb 1956 album Angels and Demons at Play; Sonic Youth actually shared a July 4 bill with the Arkestra in Central Park in the early 1990s, not long before Sun Ra’s death. James Murphy, creative engine behind the disco-punk band LCD Soundsystem, name-checks Sun Ra in his sardonic hipster manifesto “Losing My Edge,” alongside Joy Division and the Association.
Yo La Tengo has gone farther than most bands in terms of Sun Ra genuflection. “I’m staring across the room at the dozens of Sun Ra CDs and albums I have,” muses Ira Kaplan (above), that band’s cofounder. “You can never listen to them enough to know what they’re thinking. There’s an amazingly seductive quality, and that covers so much ground with them. Between the costumes and being from outer space and the willingness to risk looking foolish, it’s starting to look like they never will be taken as seriously as they should be. But the message is so much stronger because of the way he presents it.”
The band has shared a stage with the present-day Arkestra on numerous occasions; I can vividly recall one particularly raucous evening at Warsaw, a Polish rec hall in Brooklyn. And in 2003, Yo La Tengo released an EP called Nuclear War, named after a hitherto-obscure Sun Ra album from the 1980s. The Nuclear War EP actually consists of four versions of that album’s title track, which hinges on this grimly funny refrain: “It’s a motherfucker, don’t you know / If they push that button, your ass got to go.” (One of the Yo La Tengo versions features a children’s choir, sounding exuberant in their sanctioned vulgarity.) “As much jazz as I listen to,” Kaplan says, “I’m still a rock and pop guy, and they have a lot of songs in that bag. The singing songs are really pretty tuneful; hit singles are still just waiting to be grabbed by the next Robert Plant-Allison Krauss session.”
Among the more galvanizing recent events in the Sun Ra discography was the 1996 release of The Singles (Evidence), a compendium of tracks originally issued on 45. The music often skirts the weirder side of pop: “doo-wop with super-strange harmonies, crazy surf music with really angular horn arrangements,” as Parker puts it. Taborn cites another track, not on The Singles but rather from the 1969 release Atlantis, as prescient of a strain of popular Jamaican music. “That Saturn version of ‘Yucatan’ has a kind of African beat, but it sounds like this Nayabengi dub thing,” he marvels. “It’s exactly what Sly and Robbie would play. He always did groove things, but that really is dub.”
What’s remarkable, given the depth of Sun Ra’s impact among musicians, is the fact that no one has mounted an imitative evocation. “A Sun Ra clone just doesn’t exist,” Taborn says. “People sort of sift out what they’re prepared to deal with and what they find useful or applicable to them. He posited so many different things, and they were all adopted or appropriated in different ways. It’s never wholesale: people would take certain aspects of what he was doing, and combine it with other things that were more pressing for them.”
Perhaps that’s the inevitable fate of an artist with a vision this galactic. On Ka’a Davis, a guitarist whose connection with the Squat Theater in New York made him a satellite member of the Arkestra in the ‘80s, puts it this way: “Sun Ra’s scope was so broad, it was just like the sun: no one could escape his influence. Also his message of space has a deep resonance with all persons because it doesn’t matter where you live on the planet, you can lie on your back on a summer night and look into the sky. That becomes a touchstone for all humanity.”
Last summer at the 14th annual Vision Festival in New York, Marshall Allen led the Arkestra through a deliriously potent set, revisiting songs like “We Travel the Spaceways” with all appropriate panache. There were boisterous horn solos and rumbling piano filigrees, acrobatic physical demonstrations and woozy ensemble peregrinations. Even without Sun Ra, the band sounded truly otherworldly, and its presentation somehow felt both rugged and precision-honed. Talk to Allen for a few minutes and you begin to realize why the continuum has never faltered.
“Sun Ra said this was music for the 21st century,” he says. “That was back in the ‘50s and stuff. We’ve had time to develop the music and get a new audience, and it’s much easier for the young people to understand it.”
He issues a quick, snort-like laugh. “We have a song that goes, ‘The space age is here to stay, and there’s no place you can run away.’ And now that really does make sense.”