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Utopia Is Not Out Of Reach: A Guide To Sun Ra Arkestra
Daniel Baker , August 5th, 2011 04:18

As Sun Ra Arkestra bring Saturn to Victoria Park for Field Day, Daniel Baker profiles their decades of cosmic free jazz Afrofuturism

Some time in 1936 or 1937 (or 1948 or 1952, depending on who you ask) the strangest thing happened to college student Herman Blount. His not inconsiderable physical frame was rendered transparent, his sense precepts became omniscient. It was as if he was in the grips of an honest to god, real life astral projection. A searing white light engulfed him, mainlining itself into his very being. He became so dissociated from his own psyche that his sense of spatial awareness became ruptured, his newly malleable form propelled towards the heavens by some elemental leg up. When he came to, he found himself perched on a large stage. Powdery wisps of a gaseous vapour sprung up out of nowhere at irregular intervals. One of the whirring machinic inhabitants of this inhospitable landscape adjusted the sliver of gleaming matter that adorned the top half of it's body and began to transmit messages to Herman in an undetectable, abstract phraseology. Implausibly, Herman got the message. He was going to quit college. There would be a lot of trouble in American colleges soon. Indeed, the world itself was soon to descend into a state of perpetual chaos. It would be a seismic flux that would change the human race irrevocably, and not necessarily for the better. He was going to make music. People were going to listen.

So deliberately immersive and profoundly syncretic were the combined spiritual and musical philosophies of Sun Ra, it seems mean spirited to attempt counter them with any long discredited forms of logic or knee jerk pooh poohing. A key node in the matrix of what would become free jazz, he also existed utterly apart from it. Opposed to what he saw as its reductive notions of the African American avant-garde, he was often accused of being a charlatan. If only he'd take off those silly clothes, quit messing about with the Moogs, stop changing the name of his permanently expanding Arkestra for a minute. Undoubtedly influenced by hokum but manifesting it as a new form of liberation trash, he maintained that his music relied on the numerous patterns located in the natural world and the stars above to attain it's complicated spirituality. This was afrofuturism as manifested by the messenger of the angel race, a blend of constituent parts, forming a grand vision that could rationalize the past and validate an alternative vision of the future.

It was a philosophy that would be applicable for everyday life, one that would inspire his groups to invert the banalities of everyday existence. He even went so far as to claim that any names he had been known under before his transportation to Saturn were erroneous identities. Whether the epiphany that led to his dedication genuinely occurred or not is a moot point. It was clearly the anchorage required to enable the one time Herman Blount to disseminate what Kodwo Eshun famously coined his “sonic fiction” to the wider world. Strangely, this headlong surge into fantasy was the catalyst for an insecure, quiet boy to finally attain a sense of belonging in an often cruel world.

Facts, in as much as they exist at all in relation to Sun Ra, are usually arrived at by way of consensus. A gifted obscurantist, the man whom childhood friends referred to almost exclusively as Sonny would pepper interviews with contradictory asides and reformat certain elements of his life story numerous times. It is suggested in John Szwed's acclaimed biography Space Is The Place: The Lives and Times Of Sun Ra that this contrariety was partly fostered as a coping mechanism to deal with an abundance of childhood alienation. Indeed, very little was known about the circumstances surrounding Ra's adolescence until Szwed was able to finally confirm he was born on May 22nd 1914 in Birmingham, Alabama. Suitably, it is thought that he was named after the stage magician Black Herman, a vaudeville staple whose occasionally blasphemous act (complete with levitations and post burial resurrection) wowed Harlem during the Jim Crow era. Black Herman even foreshadowed the activities of his namesake – himself possessed of a not dissimilar penchant for straddling the divine and the sinful – when he penned a semi fictional autobiography. It supposedly doubled up as a instructional manual for his strung out synthesis of African hoodoo magic and snake oil illusionism.

Seemingly adored by his mother and similarly doted upon by an ever-present grandmother, Herman Blount was able to read music and play the piano from a prodigiously early age. By the time he was a teenager he had become spellbound by big bands, rushing home after attending performances (often surreptitiously) by touring groups to try his hand at transcription. More often than not, he nailed it. It is often said that it was influenced as much by the long forgotten journeymen of the circuit, as opposed to the more established acts with certain reputations to keep. Birmingham was a favourite haunt of some of the more outré (not to mention chemically inclined) wild men and tough female performers of the day. A sense that the outer limits were where the good stuff lay stayed with Blount for the rest of his life. An instinctively analytic and shy child, by the time Herman entered high school he had few close friends, preferring to spend his time engrossed in books. These were often provided by the African American masonic temple, located not far from his family home. The fact that the majority of his education occurred under the auspices of an ancient secret society, one frowned upon by certain Christian denominations in Alabama, provides a possible insight into the genesis of his spiritualism. Although raised in an environment of unquestioning faith, his family were devoted to no particular sect, perhaps further alienating him from his class members and the institutions that governed much of their lives. This sense of separation was further aggravated by a vicious hernia of the testicles that would be a constant source of pain throughout Herman's life. The evangelical zeitgeist of the day dictated that such genital afflictions were to be viewed as God's divine retribution, a physical manifestation of the shame felt by the creator for the sinner.

By the mid 1930s Blount was already working full time as a musician. He assumed the leadership of a local group he had formerly toured with under the command of a local teacher. The Sonny Blount Orchestra was perhaps the first prototype for the Sun Ra Arkestra, at least in terms of economic success: the group was disbanded after several unprofitable touring episodes. Blount soon found work amid the reefer fugged clubs of Birmingham, offering himself up as a pianist for numerous big bands. Easing tentatively out of his shell in the often-eccentric interiors of the cities black clubs, the sheer precociousness of his talent made him a young man in demand on the frequently raucous big band scene. The inherent theatricality of that particular milieu must have made an impression on the previously introverted pianist. His lifelong preference for the incendiary potential of the large band set up, in stark contrast to many of his later free jazz contemporaries, was always a calling card. The sense of belonging fostered by big bands, together with the ability for individuals to gain personal catharsis in a group environment, seems to have been a facet of live performance that continually intrigued Blount. The sense of unity incubated in the big band environment was crucial at a time when African Americans faced unimaginable levels of opprobrium meted out towards their cultural efforts. The alienating effects of capital are seldom more pronounced than amongst communities of a despised minority. In later life Ra would evolve from a relatively conventional proponent of civil rights into a calculated denial of racial associations altogether. Yet the esteem with which the black community venerated its finest musicians was seen as a counterbalance to the vile distortions of their vibrant culture spewed out by the establishment. Big bands were even able to synthetically transcend racial barriers by performing for (usually painfully upper class) white audiences. Their patronising enthusiasm for the exotic otherness of swing was rarely ever rewarded in a social sense. White party organizers rarely countenanced mixing with the men and women whom they had just applauded to the rafters after the show had finished.

Sometimes dropping out of the suffocating orthodoxies of the academy can light the touch paper of a visionary mind. In 1936 Blount had been offered a place at the local vocational university. His studies in music education and composition were secured at the behest of a big band contact. A year later he had already dropped out, his epochal trip to Saturn having convinced him that associations of any sort with conventional institutions were effectively ruinous for the soul. From here on in, the myth arc of Sun Ra, channel of the angel spirit, intergalactic seer and futurist medium begun in earnest. It was to be a constantly evolving, simmering broth of mysticism, cosmic symbolism and spiritual synthesis that would lead to some of the most singular and formally divisive discographies of all time. Few artists have since attempted to render all attempts at classification and analysis as irrelevant as Sun Ra. Yet one of the most striking features of his lifelong dedication is how each distinct evolution in the dynamics of his sound can be associated with the cities in which he resided. Having perhaps outgrown the ever-decreasing band of elite musicians in Birmingham who could match his newfound zeal for experimentation, he left for Chicago in 1943. After having displayed no small amount of courage in rejecting the draft on account of conscientious objection, a moral stand for which he was imprisoned, he soon found work in Illinois as a sideman. Making his first appearance on record by 1946, on the singles 'Dig This Boogie' and 'My Baby's Barrelhouse', he accompanied the heart-scratching bottom-of-the-glass blues of Wynonie Harris. The latter track even contains a tentative yet flourishing piano solo. After a stint with the now comfortably over the hill Fletcher Henderson in which Ra's attempted injection of bebop modes was perennially shouted down by the jobbing yes men who surrounded his new bandleader, his sense of isolation manifested itself in a period of artistic uncertainty.

Upon ending a brief association with Coleman Hawkins, Blount became caught up in the dizzying ferment of Chicago's vibrant afro-radical underground. He took in sermons and ingested pamphlets from Black Muslim groups and other liberation theorists. Simultaneously, he became transfixed by the cities curious architectural quirks that often recalled ancient Egyptian religious monuments. That the achievements of such an intensely studied and widely discussed culture as that of the Pharaohs and their subjects was eternally couched in an almost Orientalist detachment bothered Herman. Their cultural north Africaness was routinely circumnavigated by most scholars in favour of an emphasis on the more inoffensive aspects of their myths and legends. This convinced the young Blount, who would later dabble in academia himself, that those in power deliberately suppressed the richness and innovation of African cultural history.

By the end of1952 Herman Blount was no more, legally altering his name to a combination of his childhood nickname and the moniker bestowed upon the Egyptian god of the sun. Similarly, he reconstituted his professional life, his new found confidence in his own individualism ramped up by the addition of Marshall Allen and John Gilmore, the alto and tenor sax lieutenants who would serve him so faithfully in the often unpredictable years that lay ahead. Allen in particular, with his strangely instant yet often bipolar harnessing of tone and instinctive knack for hauling revelatory screeds from the most innocuous of starting points, is perhaps the archetypal Ra convert. Since his friend and mentors passing, Allen continues to nobly preach Ra's message through his ongoing leadership of the Arkestra. Another key acquaintance during this period was a brash, fiercely intelligent teenager by the name of Anton Abraham, with whom Ra would found his independent label Saturn records and publish text and image based hybrids. They outlined their at once ancient and futuristic visions by way of pamphlets and collages distributed on street corners. By the time Ra adopted what would become his trademark melange of sci-fi sparkle and ceremonial Egyptian attire in the latter part of the decade, Abraham had become his de facto manager. This was arguably the single most decisive artistic decision that Ra ever made in terms of how he would come to be viewed by even the most dedicated experimentalists in the jazz scene of the day. Often misinterpreted as a cod new age gesture, it was apparently as much of an exercise in self-deprecation as anything else. Predictably, it was often met with the kind of reserved sternness and barely veiled pomposity that would eventually lead some of the more po faced practitioners of the New Thing squawking down blind alleys.

But what of the actual music that Sun Ra made during this period? Much of his 1950s output represents an adherence to certain tropes inherited from his time in big bands, but pebbledashes them with obtuse flecks and idiosyncratic impulses. The deceptive swing, broken up by sheets of alto voodoo and piano triangulation, that constitute 'Super Sonic Jazz' and 'Sound of Joy' (both 1956) are key early period recordings. They employ electric keyboards and double baritone horns that often yield to unconventional tympani solos, a consistent feature throughout most of the Arkestra's distinct stylistic shifts. The gentle Hammond ooze and mischievous junkyard wurlitzer of records such as The Nubians of Plantonia (1958) and Jazz In Sillhouette (1959) are illustrative of Ra's proud embracing of technological innovation. Jazz In Sillhouette is a particularly appropriate title for an album that is at once respectful of tradition and at the same time completely removed from any sense of linear jazz history. These records, while not quite emerging as fully signposted statements of intent, nonetheless established a template for what would morph into a truly ravishing improv unit. Many people are surprised by how catchy, simple, even, these pieces sound on first hearing. Blues scales and chord changes borrowed from pre-bebop exponents of heady, kinetic swing are evident, melded with pure bop solo excursions that might seem standard issue today, but would have jarred purists at the time. Nubians of Plantonia ramps up the controlled dissonance even more. Heartily percussive, it can be viewed as the moment the Arkestra configured their collective take on rhythm, incorporating the magnificent tectonic drum solos of the criminally underrated Robert Barry.

That such out-there releases were being distributed through the hand to mouth autonomy of a D.I.Y label was virtually unprecedented. Whilst the likes of Charles Mingus and Max Roach had led the way for independent jazz releases, they were widely feted and had established dedicated followings (relative to Ra at least) by the time they took the plunge. Saturn records had more in common with the great outsider composer Harry Partch's Gate 5 label than any existing collective in the jazz world. Saturn, spurred on by the bellicose, uncompromising Abraham, in many ways the ideological figurehead behind the deceptively reticent Ra, the label never so much as enquired about advertising or PR. They preferred to rely soley on mail order and turning up unannounced at bemused record shops to hawk their wares. Famously, any potential customers were asked to fill out their mail order form by numbering their desired purchases from one down to five, one being the record they actually wanted, the rest of the numbers signifying order of preference should the desired release be out of stock.

In light of all this, it seems especially odd that critics of the time could be so dismissive of the Arkestra's efforts. In Free Jazz, his 1974 study of the mechanics of post modal jazz, Ekkehard Jost reminded readers of an anonymous German critics withering assessment of Ra: “With the current lack of new ideas in jazz, charlatans have a chance too”. The perfect counter argument to the accusation comes in the form of Saturn’s decidedly unpretentious approach to sleeve design. They have the same relation to other, infinitely more popular and lavishly funded releases of the time as the cut and paste empowerment of American hardcore punk aesthetics had to the Reagan wet dream of M.O.R and new wave. A million miles away from the cliched, smokey, basement chic of most bebop labels, Saturn's versionings of readymade imagery offered an alternative vision. Combining Buck Rodgers pulp sci fi with lashings of Egyptology and gonzo references to the occult, the proto punk overtones remain striking.

By the middle of 1961, Sun Ra, with the core of the Arkestra in tow, relocated to New York City. Initially the cramped, inhibiting conditions of the communal spaces they inhabited caused a degree of friction between band members. It was only overcome by channelling their frustration into a drastic overhauling of their sound that would combine the revolutionary atonality of free jazz with Ra's own rapidly evolving theory of cosmic equations.

While his own belief in the pre-ordained organization of the universe would cause Sun Ra to disdain the label in later life, there is little doubting the influence that the free jazz revolution had on the Arkestra's development. The seismic shift in priorities kickstarted by a handful of fearless players, frustrated by the asphyxiating dogma of solidified chord progressions and inexpressive tempos, was best summed up by that most inspirational and mercurial of the new breed, Albert Ayler, when he opined: “I've lived more than I can express in bop terms”. While the popular misconception is of a like minded group of musicians who made a conscious decision to discard jazz tradition in favour of the avant garde, the prime sonic gesture of Ayler, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and, of course, late period John Coltrane, was to reconnect jazz with it's improvised roots. They were recalling a primal time infused by the spirit of the religious nursery rhyme and arriving at something resembling the genres pre New Orleans hegemony.

Having managed to wangle a weekly guest spot at Slugs Saloon, the venue that would eventually become known as the free jazz hang out, the Arkestra began to intensify it's usurping of tradition. Performing in front of a mix of fellow musicians (Theolonius Monk notoriously shouted down a group of hecklers during one particularly far out Ra solo) and beats, their music became increasingly textural, relying far more heavily on ambiguous ambience than had previously been the case. Although recorded one year before the group secured their gig at Slugs, 1965's Atlantis is the finest document of their comparatively brief New York sojourn. The 21-minute title track features a dense, at times almost droning organ improvisation which comes at the listener unaccompanied. While not entirely absent, any form of rhythm the piece might possess is entirely internal, the immense foaming churn of Ra's playing pointing towards the celestial majesty that was to come.

By the final few years of the decade the Arkestra had relocated once again, this time upping sticks to Philadelphia. It coincided with the most intense evolution of their sound yet, signalling the onset of what is commonly referred to as their intergalactic phase. Settling in the Germantown district of the city, Ra's Morton Street abode would remain the operational hub of the Arkestra until his death in 1990. It was during his time in Philadelphia that Ra began to intensify the group's workload, setting out on the first of many tours in 1968, crisscrossing the west coast and often exposing trust fund hippy bores as markedly more conservative than they liked to think they were. From their new home the gospel would be spread over a period of two more decades, the group regularly making appearances at international jazz festivals and, in 1971, even managing to fulfil one of Ra's long held prophecies: that the group would one day perform in the shadow of the Egyptian pyramids. Soon after, public television producer John Coney approached the Arkestra proposing that he might produce a feature length film. It eventually surfaced as Space Is The Place. The film may have been inspired by the course Ra intermittently ran at Berkeley, grandly entitled “The Black Man and The Cosmos”.

Co written by Ra himself, Space Is The Place is a suitably bizarro slice of time travel absurdism that nevertheless manages to invoke the pan Africanist teachings of Marcus Garvey. It arrives at a brave, polemical dissection of race. The ambiguity of the films narrative is as pronounced as the contradictions inherent in Ra's make do and mend cosmology. Having been missing since the end of a previous tour, the leader of the Arkestra, playing himself, finds himself marooned on an unfamiliar planet and decides to repopulate it with black Americans, using music as a “transportation device”. On the course of his travails Ra sets up an employment agency and tussles with an intergalactic hookers pimp. In a precursor to Chris Rock's signature “Niggas vs Black People” sketch, one character, who has displayed hostility to Ra's ideas, has the blackness – that is, the most negative aspects of what Ra considered to be his peoples pandering to stereotypes - “taken out of him”. He emerges from the experience as a more rounded and personable individual who transcends racial boundaries.

Musically, the Arkestra's intergalactic period is marked by Ra's increasing harnessing of the minimoog synth and theatrical live performances involving dance troupes and swathes of day glo light streams. This increasingly visceral approach is oddly tempered by a number of albums that veer toward an attempt at reconciliation with more traditional strands of jazz, seeking a third way between Jelly Roll Morton and Pharoah Sanders that didn’t always result in the most arresting work. Posthumous and bootleg live releases of the period though, tell a different story. The polyrhythmic double reed attack of Allen and Danny Ray Thompson wrestle the groups dynamic into implosive terrain, blurring the line between composition and improvisation to an unprecedented degree. Live In Paris at The Gibus (1973) is a delirious example of Ra's nosedive into the possibilities of the Moog, each track twinkling with pure crystal key runs into the unknown. But it's the The Solar-Myth Approach Vols. 1 And 2 (1971), issued on seminal French label BYG, that demonstrate the groups immense versatility during the period. From the elasticised formlessness of 'Strange Worlds' to the stark folk infused brevity of 'Pyramids'. The music never fails to excite and alarm in equal measure. It's a strange infusion of the historical and paranormal, anchored by Ra's unselfish approach to band leading and a unique insight into his preferred method of summoning moments of unexpected rapture from the group using his patented hand signals and bodily gestures.

Despite suffering poor health for much of the late 80s and early 90s, Ra continued to lead the Arkestra into the tail end of the millennium, now a venerated standard bearer of the experimental canon, making some of his final appearances opening up for Sonic Youth. He died after being struck down by pneumonia in 1993. The leadership of the Arkestra passed to Allen, via his fellow long serving sax player John Gilmore, who himself died in 1995. Allen continues to lead the group to this day.

Attempting to adequately define Sun Ra's worldview is a patently thankless and nigh on impossible task, riddled as it is with deliberately inserted jest and ambiguous semi fictions. In truth, it constitutes a remarkable form of independent thought that comes remarkably close to philosophical synthesis. At its heart is the notion of the cosmic equation. In as much as he engaged with conventional intellectual orthodoxies at all, he would often depict them as deliberate obfuscations of truth in direct opposition to what he considered to be the pragmatic logic of his own stance. That Ra never chose to fully codify cosmic equation into any doctrinaire explanation, preferring to offer refracted titbits and constantly updated declarations, further fuelled speculation that he was some new age cherry picker. Yet despite their pluralistic nature, his ideas presented a unified theory of expression that cross-fertilized ancient mythology, theoretical mathematics and group process. It is uniquely his, and his alone. His absolute autonomy and the total aspect of control exercised over the means of production and distribution of his work find their modern day antecedents in a radical collective like Underground Resistance. Each and every aspect of his work, from the dissemination of surrealist proclamations through the printed word on Chicago's streets, his increasingly streamlined poetry, the moral grey area of the racial discourse provoked by his forays into cinema and his pioneering group aesthetic are the very manifestation of his equations. The heterodox commodification of man and the detached uselessness of the curious human need to compartmentalize entire cultures are circumnavigated. Space travel is the perfect metaphor for a desire to transcend the mundanity of reality. Further to all that though, the physical confines of the body are even challenged, creating a life after death mythology that has precious little to do with the didactic control apparatus of organized religion. Crucially, there was nothing dull about any of this. It's fun to dress up, fun to make believe. That Ra managed to incorporate childlike elements of fantasy into what amounted to a very serious dissection of the instant gratifications offered up by the mainstream is not to be sniffed at.

More pertinently, in the newly retromaniacal culture we now inhabit, constantly just a few revivals removed from embodying the snide pseudo-irony of the comments box culture, Sun Ra offers up the now sadly anachronistic possibility that the future can actually be imagined. New pathways can be constructed. Utopia is not out of reach. Thankfully, the sniggering that often accompanied more serious discussion of his music appears to have given way to a greater degree of reverence in recent years. Everyone from Kode 9 to noise humping bedroom kids can be found repping him these days. That the Arkestra continues to mine the unashamedly spiritual lineage of their one time leader seems appropriate. After all, death is just a minor part of their journey.

The Sun Ra Arkestra play Field Day tomorrow, August 6th. For more information and tickets here