Wednesday 24 February 2010

Obsessions With... Sun Ra

The Strange Celestial Road to Wigan Pier

The following article appeared in City Life 155, July 1990. The interview took place, as described, in Liverpool, June 1990. I remember I was crouched at the feet of Sun Ra, just like any young acolyte. As Sun Ra explained the mysteries of the universe and the secret of life, I was thinking, "I don't believe what I'm hearing! I hope the tape machine is picking this up." In the event, my tape machine wasn't picking it up. Not a word. I'm indebted to the woman from the BBC for giving me a tape she made of the interview. However, she stopped recording after a quarter of an hour, so the mysteries of the universe and the secret of life remain hidden.

Sun Ra was expressing his doubts about the Messianic role thrust upon him. "If I were just supposed to talk to one nation and one community, that would be alright, but it's about nations, it's about worlds, it's about governments, it's about religions. Everything would have to change and that's a big job. If you're going to change five billion people, it's quite a job. But that's what I have to do."

I was kneeling at his feet, like any awe-struck disciple, and Sun Ra was gently intoning the secrets of creation and life. We were backstage at the Bluecoat in Liverpool on the first date of a British tour which includes a stop-over at the Wigan Jazz Festival. Anxious promoters flapped and made signs for us to leave (we were a photographer from City Life, a woman from the BBC and a man with an armful of freshly signed Sun Ra LPs). We stayed put. It would have been rude to interrupt Sun in full flow as he described his cosmic mission on Earth.

"There are forces other than God and Satan in control of this planet, and they have been in control for a long time. I had to search and find out who they are. I was just talking about God and Satan, I wasn't talking out the Third Thing, but I felt there was something else that wasn't in books and never revealed itself, so I had to search and look. I felt intuitively that there was something else that this planet knows nothing about and I kept searching and looking and probing. Then I went to Turkey, Istanbul, about a month ago. After I'd played a concert there, the Third Thing sent me some literature and acknowledged they've been in control of this planet a long time. These messages is a book called The Book of Information."

I looked full in Sun Ra's face for a sign that this was a put-on. The orange goatee suggested some sartorial whimsy, but the expression above it was resolutely deadpan. "They got in there the cure for cancer; they got the cause of death. They describe it very vividly. Then they got other things about health and about people, how they have to raise their cosmic consciousness."

When Sun Ra talks like this, it's wise to maintain a respectful expression. Nervous titters earn stern looks from members of the Arkestra, some of whom had changed into their Egyptian stage costumes, and who were sitting around listening intently. Sun Ra is a prophet and a mystic; you scoff at your peril.

"It's parallel to what I've been saying all along without knowing what I was saying. It fits. I hit upon the truth. And because I hit upon it. they sent me the literature as if saying, 'You were right about the Third Thing. We are the Third Thing. We sent the Bible. We sent the Koran. We sent Jesus. We sent Mohammed. We sent Moses. We sent all of that in order to test the people out as far as their intelligence and purity is concerned. We sent contradictions in those sacred books and we got some in this one too, because we want to test people. Because they got to use their intuition and pick the truth that is good for their survival."

The woman from the BBC made an attempt to get the conversation onto a more prosaic level. "You started off in Chicago in the thirties and were part of the big band scene there. Where do you see your jazz roots coming from? Big band jazz? Swing?"

In thirties Chicago, Sun Ra, then known as plain Herman Blount, worked as an arranger with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. He began leading his own bands a dead later and, from the outset, would dress his musicians in Ancient Egyptian costumes and often have them double on exotic, percussive African instruments. They wee known as the Arkestra, or sometimes the Myth Science Arkestra, or the Astro Infinity Arkestra, or even the Astro SOlar Infinity Arkestra.

Sun Ra's interest in things cosmological pre-dated the hippies by several decades. The Arkestra lived as a community under a regime of no drink, no drugs and no loose women. Their leader would call them at all hours to rehearse. When, perhaps at three in morning, some of them would remonstrate, Sun Ra would tell them that all humanity is in restricted limitation, that the Creator had everyone in jail for a life sentence, but they were in the Sun Ra jail, the best jail in the world.

This intense experience inspired dedication from the musicians. Saxophonists Marshall Allen and John Gilmore have each been in the Arkestra for upwards of thirty years. Gilmore is acknowledged as being a pivotal influence on John Coltrane's musical development. I identified as the thin, middle-aged, nay elderly, man on the other side of the room. He threw me a gentle smile as we departed and played like an angel (I mean demon) throughout the concert. Meanwhile, Sun Ra was not to be deflected from the process of self-revelation a by straight-forward, matter-of-fact questioning.

"Well I haven't really presented myself to this planet yet. I got all kinds of music that they've never heard. we've been rehearsing maybe about 45 years. I've never played anything we rehearsed. Not ever. So then I got all kinds of music that's perfectly suitable for the year 2000, and forever really, infinity. But it's not on records. It hasn't been played out there because is would convince people that definite, I'm real, and I wouldn't try and do that because who wants to be a leader on this planet? Leaders are an endangered species. I would say that only anybody worse than a fool would want to be a leader in any capacity."

The woman from the BBC gamely persevered. "Do you think that Chicago is the home of jazz?"

"No, no. Alabama is. Not New Orleans. Not Chicago. Alabama! Lionel Hampton came from there. Nat King Cole came from there. Big Mama Thornton came from there. The focus of jazz is Birmingham, Alabama."

Ah ah! Sun Ra has momentarily let his guard slip. Although he claims to come from Saturn, most authorities give his birth-place as Birmingham, Alabama. They can't agree on the exact date, but five years on wither side of 1914 seems to be the consensus.

"When I leave Europe this time, I'm going straight to Birmingham, Alabama, and I'm playing for schoolchildren. They bus them in from all the grades to hear this band, and that hasn't been done by any other state. So they realise I'm doing something of value to the children. In Alabama, the teenagers and sub-teenagers from, uh, seven years old to twelve, they used to just a basic type of music. I mean a type that has nothing to say, that is mostly not even worth a handful of dust. They'll never know unless they're exposed to something better." He shakes his head ruefully. "They'll never know."

Sun Ra and his Arkestra provide an avant-garde experience you can bring the kids to. For this tour, he even offers a wild version of Pink Elephants on Parade. Members of the Arkestra dance and everybody sings ditties about sunrise on the Nile and space travel. "Outer space is the place," the musicians chant as they parade up and down. A cry of "Rocket No. 9 take off for planet Jupiter" bypasses the grown-up self and speaks directly to the child within.

The sound is exultant and happy. The austerity of the free-form Heliocentric Worlds has largely been abandoned. It seems as if Sun Ra's career has come full-circle. The Arkestra play a string of big band numbers that wouldn't be out of place in the Fletcher Henderson book, performed as near orthodox as Sun Ra is capable of getting. This new accessibility will certainly be an aid to his mission to reach five billion people. There's no doubt that Sun Ra provides the best show in town.

If child-like qualities of joy and innocence are apparent in the music, Sun Ra in conversation sometimes seems as hurt and puzzled as a true innocent. "As a child I knew I was from somewhere else, and I was very happy about where I came from. There were no wars and everybody was beautiful and I thought everybody else on the planet was like that. I found out they weren't. I was very shocked. That made me feel bad. Then I realised they weren't supposed to be condemned. But I was disappointed really. Nobody had told me they were bad people."

When the young Herman Blount was coming up in Birmingham, Alabama, in the twenties, the state was still segregated and Jim Crow laws were rigorously enforced. It's possible that the mysticism Sun Ra cultivates is one sensitive man's response to an unjust and backward society. His homilies about brotherly love, however wayward, are sincerely urgent imprecations.

"It's all about feeling. It's not about how much you know. What you know is what you've been brainwashed to accept. It's about how unlimited you are to reach out toward the impossible. You have to let the real you speak now. You can't survive by what you learned at school, and you can't survive by religion. This is the end of an age and it's something else happening. You've got to deal with infinity and man and woman hasn't been trained to deal with infinity. There are some things that are eternal. There is something called immortality and they can be part of that. They weren't created to die.

"They're just dying because the desire has been implanted in their minds that they have to die. But it's not real. It's futility and frustration. It's negativity at its worst, and they need now to learn something else. They need to be part of something else that's greater than they are. Then they will have the reality of at last having a real view of themselves. That's what I'm talking about.

"But then it has to be demonstrated. Musicians have to demonstrate it. Artists have to demonstrate that I am me, and I'm being me, and I'm doing what I'm supposed to do. And then other people will also say, 'Oh yes, I can be what I'm supposed to be too. Even though I may not be an artist, I'm just as important in the Universe as an artist. If I just make myself beautiful then I can be a credit to the Creator. God being righteous, I just can be beautiful and sincere'. And if they sincere, that's all that's needed. It's hard to find a sincere person."

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