His birth certificate said Birmingham, Ala., but the man who called himself Sun Ra declared that he was from the planet Saturn. Miles Davis set the late 1950s standard for jazz couture with his Italian tailored suits, but Ra wore Africanized capes, tunics and cartoonish headgear. After the big band era ended, he retained a respected core of musicians in his orchestra for decades — an achievement only duplicated by Duke Ellington.
Though he operated on the fringes of the jazz world, Sun Ra (named for the Egyptian solar god) played his iconoclastic “space” music, and waited for his audience to catch up. With cacophonous collective improvisations and dissonant chords, the music always had solid underpinnings. One hundred years ago, pianist Herman ‘Sonny’ Blount began his odyssey, and the world has never been quite the same.
Pasadena’s Allendale Branch Library observes the Sun Ra centenary Saturday with films and a freewheeling talk by a Ra expert. “I was fortunate to have seen Sun Ra’s Arkestra five different times,” said library assistant Terry Cannon. “His band played the entire spectrum of African American music: from Fletcher Henderson’s big band swing to the most cutting-edge avant garde. And he had this unique visual aspect to performance — colorful, sparkling robes and psychedelic light shows — that was unique to jazz.”
While commercial success beyond subsistence living eluded Ra for most of his life, he was an irresistible subject for independent filmmakers. Cannon will screen three Ra-themed movies: “Cry of Jazz” (1959), “The Magic Sun” (1968) and “Space is the Place” (1974).
The late composer Ed Bland (1926-2013) produced “Cry of Jazz,” the first feature film on Ra. In 1993 he spoke on the occasion of a Los Angeles screening of the movie. He remembered the informal philosophical talks Ra gave in Chicago’s Washington Park — mixing ancient Egyptian references, pseudo Africana, and outer space fantasies. “His space talk,” recalled Bland, “didn’t interest me in the least. But his music did; I could tell that he was a well-grounded musician with knowledge of historical techniques. I’m a composer and I know when a musician knows what he’s doing.”
Bland was producing rock ‘n’ roll sessions, on which he used Ra and his musicians. “After a while,” said Bland, “he said he was tired of playing earth music and wanted to play space music.” Bland ultimately decided that Sun Ra wasn’t right for his rock dates but that he should be committed to film. “The movie caused quite an uproar: Willard Van Dyke of the Museum of Modern Art said it predicted the riots of the ’60s because it was the first time blacks challenged white authority in symbolic terms.”
Dr. Adilifu Nana, 45, is Associate Professor of African American Studies at Loyola Marymount University, and a self-described “science fiction film geek.” “Sun Ra was at the forefront of what I call Astro Blackness,” he said. “He flipped the American race narrative of slavery and apartheid to black space travel when the country was just beginning its space program. His cosmic persona challenged black folks and the status quo. He made ‘out there’ a compliment.”
The Arkestra (Ra’s play on “orchestra”) name continually changed, from the Solar Myth to the Astro Infinity to the Intergalactic Research to the Omniverse to the Altered Destiny 21st Century Arkestra. Even his most dedicated followers trailed far behind Ra, who never met an electronic keyboard he didn’t like.
Sun Ra didn’t acknowledge his birth or believe in death. “He’s everywhere now,” Nama said emphatically. “You hear it in the music of Jenelle Monae; his image appears in one of her videos. And the electronic soundscape that Ra pioneered made possible Moby and Kraftwerk, to name just a couple.”
“He’s here now,” Nama added. “Sun Ra became that which he prophesized: this person who is everywhere at once but nowhere in particular."
What: “The Sun Ra Centennial: A Different Order of Being”
Where: Allendale Branch Library, 1130 Marengo Ave., Pasadena
When: Saturday, April 5, 2 p.m
More info: (626) 744-7260
Editor's Note: Terry Cannon screened three Ra-themed movies at Allendale Library: "The Magic Sun" (1968), "Space is the Place" (1974), and "Sun Ra: A Joyful Noiuse." Ed Bland's "Cry of Jazz" (1959)--not part of the Allendale presentation--was the first film to feature Sun Ra's music.
KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.