How lmpossible is the impossible, Yet the impossible is a thought And every thought is real -Sun Ra
It was a perfect Pete Hamill day out of "The Sun Also Rises." There was wind adjective and the trees verbed. At the last minute Steve Kent and I got some coin together and dashed over to the Happy Medium on Rush Street, Chicago. Saw Sun Ra on the corner out in front the Club.
"Hey...Sun Ra." I said.
"How are you?"
"Yeah, I felt your vibrations."
"That's because I put them out here." I said.
Sun Ra smiled indulgently and said a word or two more, turned and went back into the Club where he started another dynamite set. On the last jam the band marched from the stage through the lobby and into Rush Street, playing for those who couldn't make it off the corner. Outasight.
Recently Sun Ra's vibrations (such beautiful vibrations) have been getting more and more attention. He has been "discovered" by record companies with monster PR accounts and ganster distribution. New releases such as "Space Is the Place" and "Atlantis" will fall into the ears of people thinking that Sun Ra is a new glitter group. But that is Okeh.
"Atlantis" is a topological adventure. A map of the future of consciousness.
According to Ignatius Donnelly's "Atlantis: The Antediluvian World." Atlantis sank beneath the sea on a day of fire and rain. Hellful day. And according to Sun Ra, Atlantis was a beautiful country (better than this one) born living and demised before its time. But the knowledge only comes to us later. That's to be expected. Physicist Immanuel Velikovsky and Rene Guenon, the French Egyptologist and mystical philosopher, have both pointed out that continents have shifted before, and will again . . . that mountains will literally move. An important fact about Atlantis indicates that Sun Ra. in his way, is a mover of mountains. The record was made years ago ( 1960) by Saturn Records, a small independent film in Chicago owned by Sun Ra and Alton Abraham. Now the corporate giant, Impulse, (ABC Dunhill) has seen fit to re-release it (about time) and it is right on time in that corny time scale.
So no, Sun Ra is not a new rock band. Sun Ra is a Gemini of mysterious origin. He played with Fletcher Henderson's orchestra in Chicago at the Club de Lisa now known as Budland (across the street from Ellis' Black Bookstore down on Cottage Grove). He formed his own group in the early 50's and successfully insisted on controlling his own music in an era when record company abuse of black musicians was even more ghastly than it is now. Those early compositions such as "Medicine for a Nightmare." "Sunology," "Possession," and "Fall Off the Log," sounded like tripped out Basie. Lovely music with strange and deep meanings. You know . . . nobody hears them nobody sees or seize them . . . but they'll come back. That kind of music. Strange beautiful music.
Sun Ra's Astro Infinity Arkestra (and its various other incarnations) includes such master musicians as Pat Patrick, once musical director for Mongo Santamaria and Curtis Mayfield's Impressions, and Marshall Allen, who invented a saxophone style that was utilized by John Coltrane and many other artists - both instrumentalists and singers. The band also includes the exciting young reed player Danny Davis, Ebah. who plays trumpet and several stranger. home-made "Ach du Liberation" horns, drummer Clifford Jarvis, and the incredibly talented John Gilmore. Gilmore is a unique voice on the tenor saxophone and the drums, and a heavy person to talk to if you're inclined to philosophical dialogues. Gilmore and Clifford Jordan recorded a classic album for Blue Note back in the early 60's, entitled "Blowing in from Chicago'." It's a collector's item. The Arkestra is a tight band.
When he appears or records, Sun Ra communicates the total energy of himself and the members of the Arkestra. In almost two decades of creating beautiful, mind-awakening music. Sun Ra has touched some listeners very deeply. "Sun Ra's Arkestra." wrote John Sinclair in "Music and Politics" (1971), "is the most complete (and completely beautiful) example of self-determination in music in all its modern history - the music is a WHOLE THING with the musicians' lives, with Sun Ra's genius, with the revolutionary thrust for overall liberation and freedom on the planet and throughout the universe." And Joe Goncalves, editor of the "Journal of Black Poetry," described Sun Ra's music in an article for "Cricket" as "world-construction" and "universe-revision." "But all these names are small," he added, "because it gets beyond barb-wire frontiers, ghettoes, bloated categories, things like that. It's outer space... What we never had for so long, space, outer space. Or much space at all. Squeezed so tight. From the slaveship to the shack to the tenement. No space to really move. No space to really function. Sun Ra & Co. heralded Space to Come, Freedom, to move, to live again as ourselves."
The reality of the mythology is that Sun Ra has found the solution to the Archimedean problem. Give me a place to stand, said Archimedes, and I will move the world. Sun Ra and his band "from outer space" have set out to define an "alter destiny" for the inhabitants of this planet by means of a re-vision of the roots from which we spring. Their lever is joy. The Arkerstra's music is joyous because each note speaks the name of the Creator. Joy-shouts. far beyond the token glossolaly of the "refined" Christians' hallelujah. Listen to church music on Sunday at the top of your AM dial and you'll hear Sun Ra music played on sincere voices of women beautiful despite years of frustration. America in these times is dreadful, but beyond her long-expected and deserved maladies, there is an entirely different reality for Black people. Sun Ra's music, like the sincere songs of the church ladies, captivates that reality, making it want to stay real for a minute. Three minutes. An LP. Or a better tomorrow.
"The Magie City" is lush, like movie music, but it has a startling fire blazing within. "The Abstract I" and "The Abstract Eye" are studies of contrasts that few have ever seen, heard of or heard.
"It's After the End of the World," recorded live at the Donauschingen and Berlin jazz festivals, is an extended introduction to Sun Ra's philosophy. Sun Ra's philosphy is simply, "Beta music for beta people for a beta world." This is not merely a motto for a business card; it is (to those who can decipher the language of the airy kingdom) a complete philosphy and ethics. The rhetoric is expressed in the mathematical precision of Sun Ra's poems and lyrics. Reading "The Immeasurable Equation" is an experience similar to listening to the music. And the magic measure is awe-full and amazing in Sun Ra's drawings on the jackets of the Saturn recordings. Sun Ra's works are philosophical equations and he balances all of his equations. But there is a strange dimension of spirit in his system that sometimes makes the everyday world seem a not-so-subtle fantasy. This last element is African and related to the African way of living which persists in this country among the Blacks and is imitated in certain respects by segments of the White population.
And it is an important philosophy, aimed toward a better world. The musicians in the Arkestra have a sound understanding of this philosophy, though it can be somewhat elusive as Sun Ra's ideas often seem, one has a sense that their future is real . . . more real than B.F. Skinner's, Clifford Simak's, or anyone whose mind was blown by the 50's; Or Streisand and Redford's mutilation of the meaning of recent history in "The Way We Were."
The question is: What will we be? Sun Ra's poem, "The Outer Bridge," is worth quoting because it gives the rationale of his aesthetics.
In the half-between world Dwell they, the sound-scientists Mathematically precise . . . They speak of many things The tone scientists Architects of planes of discipline
The tune "Discipline 33" on "Space Is the Place" reflects the mental plane that Sun Ra operated on in 1972 and reminds one of "Discipline" on "Sun Ra in Egypt," another recent Saturn Records release.
Musically, Sun Ra has always been in the technological vanguard. The Arkestra's first recording in July 1956 included a Fender bass (an instrument that was very popular at that time in southside Chicago blues clubs such as Pepper' s Lounge but rarely used by jazz groups) and soon thereafter Sun Ra began dealing with the electric piano and clavinet. On recent recordings he has translated the old mainstream blues for the new electronic keyboards and synthesizers. He once said that his study of the piano was merely preparation for instruments yet to be invented. Finger exercises.
But the music of Sun Ra and the Arkestra are spirit exercises. "Images" on the Blue Thumb record features Sun Ra on old-fashioned acoustic piano, but is the same creative mentality behind the fingers and the arkestration. Blue space. John Gilmore's concrete solo. The same thing with "Ankh" on "Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow:" straight ahead jazz with Sun Ra piano and Pat Patrick liberating human sounds and angel feelings through a baritone sax. Sun Ra's music puts the blues into a context of purity and beauty that belies the drab social environment we ordinarily associate blues with. With Sun Ra, blues is "space music." "Blue Soul" on "The Night of the Purple Moon" is a deeply felt blues played on moog and roksichord. Modern instruments. Ancient musick. Here. in a small group format, Danny Davis shows the influence of Eric Dolphy but also reveals his own alto ego. His playing is brilliant (bright) and inventive. Loke Dolphy, he is quite capable of evoking the older jazz styles in a new mode. On flute, Danny Davis is some spirit original and fantastic.
Space Is the Place" moves through traditional Africa, sunny afternoons in America defeated after a war, bebop, 137th & Lenox, and the flames of ghetto lamplight apocalypse. The singing is 1940's true reality. the music . . . 60's avant garde nostalgia myth. All together. something else. And new a white man controlled this tune you'd hear it on hygiene commercials on IV. But is is Sun Ra's tune and, like "Lights on a Satellite" on "Art Forms." like all of Sun Ra's tunes, the title tune of "Space Is the Place" interfaces directly with our mental and spiritual circuitry. These tunes are carried forever by those who really hear them.
The harmonies are beautiful, original, "futuristic" if you dig Time that way . . . if you USE Time that way. But the music is based in the mythologies and historic experiences of African people in America. The Black preacher's traditional charisma (talking in tongues) is heard in the horns. And the fat sister's shouts, the deacon's ummhh huh huh and shaking hands. It's there. Here. on these records. Much more immediate in actual person.
At the Happy Medium on Rush Street in Chi, it had stopped being a Pete Hamill day. And got real. Between sets, Sun Ra in actual person is rapping to Phil Cohran, a fantastic trumpet player from the original Arkestra who chose to stay in Chicago with his own Artistic Heritage Ensemble. Like Sun Ra, Cohran controls his own music which is available on Zulu Records. And it is beautiful music. When Sun Ra has visited with Cohran, he turns back to the people around the bandstand. Sun Ra in actual person, is holding a session of the "Sun School," teaching the young people who are standing around the stand. Immeasurable equations.
"There is," Sun Ra is saying, "no limit to what you can do." And that is meant all ways. He does not need to say that these are the last days. The young people will relate what he says to whatever it is they really are doing. And you know what that is.
You too will realize that there is no limit to what you can do when you hear June Tyson singing the words on the record. Whatever you're doing, listen. The vibrations are of a better world, and they are out here because Sun Ra put them out here. There.
You'll hear Sun Ra's intensity, infinity, and modernity on the boogie records of the 80's and 90's - if the planet is lucky. Listen. And understand. There is no limit to what you can do when your effort is toward a better world.
This article originally appeared in the University Review.
"The Night of the Purple Moon" Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Infinity Arkestra El Saturn Research IR522
The Magic City Sun Ra and his Solar Arkestra Impulse Records LPB-711
"Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow" Sun Ra and his Solar Arkestra Saturn Records LP 9956
Atlantis Sun Ra Impulse AS-9239
It's After the End of the World Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Research Arkestra MMPS BASF 20748
Space is the Place Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Infinity Arkestra Blue Thumb BTS 41 (Quad)
The lmmeasurable Equation Sun Ra Infinity, Inc. $2.50
All Saturn records and the book, "The Immeasurable Equation, "are available by mail from Saturn Research, P.O. Box 7124, Chicago, Illinois k 60607.