While a big-band arranger and pianist in the Forties, Herman "Sonny" Blount developed a fascination for Egyptian mythology and science-fiction-laced mysticism. The influences became obsessions, leading him to change his name and begin insisting he had been born on Saturn.
Taking the name Sun Ra, after the Egyptian sun god Ra, Blount formed a big band-commune called the "Arkestra." Its members not only willingly played Ra's bizarre new space jazz but often came to view Ra as God--literally. This was no trendy New Age conversion--Ra's spiritual metamorphosis took place in the Fifties. To this day, Ra and his band continue to steer themselves ever further into the outer limits.
Just another nut case? Some people think his music is psychotic. But to his fans, Sun Ra is one of the jazz world's innovators.
There's no doubt Ra's influence is wide-ranging. Ra has written more than 300 compositions, many of which have been covered by artists as diverse as NRBQ and the MC5. Ra also restored elements of showmanship to jazz that the beboppers had destroyed. And he will always be remembered as one of the earliest champions of electronic instruments.
Most people know of him because of his wild wardrobe and cosmic persona. Many of Ra's personality quirks were passed on to the world of funk and soul music through Ra's spiritual kin, George Clinton. Ra is important in the history of jazz, but his far-out music remains an acquired taste.
On the fanatical side is Charles Emerson, who owns Bird's Compact Disc Exchange in Tempe, and who is one of Sun Ra's most avid fans. Emerson, who's seen Sun Ra more than 60 times, brought the Arkestra to Arizona State University's Neeb Hall for a concert in 1978 while he was director of ASU's Cultural Affairs Board.
"I once spent my last $300 flying to New York to see him because I hadn't had a fix in a year," says Emerson. "And once he sang me 'Happy Birthday' during a concert in a small bar in Oakland. He can do anything. Ra can play four hours of straightahead Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson and the next night flip into playing his interstellar music.
"Sun Ra makes real space music as opposed to what Deadheads think Jerry Garcia is doing when he's noodling on the guitar."
"Following" doesn't begin to describe the kind of loyalty Ra has inspired in his fans. Like the Deadheads, Sun Ra fans have been known to follow their hero from concert to concert. And there is nothing that true Ra fanatics value more than a bootleg tape of a concert they didn't see.
Although he's hardly into bootlegs, record producer Jerry Gordon is one of those Ra fanatics. The head of Philadelphia-based Evidence Records, Gordon has recently begun a project he hopes will shed more light on the formative years of this jazz oddity. Gordon's tiny independent label has recently blessed us with five reissues that begin to chronicle Sun Ra's evolution from big-band devotee to jazz pioneer.
Gordon may not travel from town to town to see Ra, but his interest in the trendsetting pianist runs a lot deeper than the usual support of a record exec.
"I became a lifelong Sun Ra fan in 1970 or 1971," says Gordon in a telephone call from his office. "He was playing at Gino's Empty Foxhole, which was in the basement of an empty church in Philadelphia."
But Gordon falters when fleshing out details of the moment he came to see the light. "I don't know how to tell you--really, it's hard to describe a Sun Ra concert. He's such a presence."
What Gordon can't verbalize has left many others speechless as well. Sun Ra regularly takes to the stage dressed in flowing robes, purple hair or sequined shower caps reminiscent of Esther Williams. Caped band members march down the aisles, wearing Halloween masks, coat-hanger antennae or turquoise conquistador helmets. Dancers chant esoteric lyrics beneath lighting effects. Ra's battery-run headgear flashes as he coaxes tones from his electric piano never intended by its maker. Ra and the band freely switch from musical portraits of the galaxies to twisted versions of Victrola classics or Disney movie themes. The more intense interpretations used to lead Ra to spin in circles as he slammed the keys with his elbows. Unfortunately, the pianist's spinning days are over. Two recent strokes have limited Ra's concert performances to sitting in a wheelchair comping out chords.
As always, Sun Ra keeps time with one foot in a World War II dance band and the other firmly planted on his spaceship. It's what makes him so interesting to Gordon and a host of Ra fanatics.
"Who else could keep together a band of this size for so long?" asks Gordon incredulously. "Other big bands haven't been able to stay modern enough to hold together over the years."
It's a good thing Gordon is so smitten with Ra. If his reissue series goes as planned--21 new albums over the next several years--Gordon will be committed to Sun Ra and his music for years to come. The next four Sun Ra reissues are scheduled to hit the stores in October.
Gordon became a fan in the early Seventies, but his association with this eccentric jazzman began many years before he saw his first Sun Ra concert.
"I owned a record store in Philly called Third Street Jazz and Rock. I specialized in selling Sun Ra's records, the ones he put out himself on his own El Saturn label. They're the very ones I'm reissuing now," says Gordon. "The discs were hard to get outside of Philadelphia, so people would come down from New York or mail in orders from all over the world. The band would press them, then haul them down to my store where they became scarce fast."
Gordon soon discovered that Ra was no less quirky offstage. "The band members would bring in records with no name. I would ask them what the title of a record was and they would make up a name on the spot."
Ra also had a habit of enlisting his band to work on manufacturing album jackets in between rehearsals. They would hand-color covers and autograph them, or cut out circles of brightly colored shower curtains and glue them onto the center of the record itself.
"Every time he would release a new record," says Gordon, "it would just add to the mystery of this man. But I spent most of my time explaining to customers why certain records weren't available any longer. Here was a major jazz artist and there was no place to get his records because he let them run out. It got me interested in the idea of reissuing."
The plan to systematically restore and reissue Sun Ra's prodigious output brought Gordon in touch with the Cosmic One himself--as well as one ungodly mess.
"Most recording artists store their master tapes in climatically controlled storage. But when I visited Sun Ra's house, they were all over the place, lying everywhere. There were tapes stuck in stacks of books, mixed in with piles of newspapers, stuck in envelopes. Even on the floor, where you'd step on them."
In talking with his idol, Gordon found the man not entirely the Egyptian space god.
"He's eccentric, but believe me, he does make himself understood," laughs Gordon. "Sun Ra can philosophize and Sun Ra can do business, all in the same conversation."
Unfortunately, recording quality is one area where Sun Ra has not been hell-bent for the 21st century. When it came to his El Saturn records, Ra proved to be no more interested in high-tech recording than he was in cleaning his house. For a while, Gordon feared he might not be able to share the treasures he found scattered throughout Ra's home.
"The masters were in terrible shape. None of them had been recorded on professional equipment. Lying around on the floor and in boxes, the tapes really deteriorated. My partner and I had to become experts on tape restoration, since the tapes were unusable as they were."
It was decided to ship the music of the self-appointed Egyptian deity to the middle of a different desert. (All the Sun Ra discs were remastered at SAE Mastering in Phoenix. See related story.)
Gordon's visit to Ra's house led him to narrow his focus toward reissuing the first 30 of the self-pressed El Saturn records. Those are the rarest in the eyes of avid Ra collectors bent on gathering all of Ra's 120-plus catalogue. (Some estimate the total to be more than 150.)
Gordon's selections--the first five were released in January--present Sun Ra as he was in the Fifties and Sixties. By today's standards, the music on these five releases is pretty tame stuff. It's mostly tonal, big-band jazz flecked with the occasional odd chord or offbeat rhythm. By beginning his Ra series with the pianist's more mainstream records, Gordon hopes to illuminate the path Ra followed toward his later, deep-space jazz explorations.
The first reissue, 1956's Supersonic Jazz, shows Sun Ra schizophrenically flipping from typical big-band swing to his sci-fi jazz meditations. The tune "India" presents Ra as a full-fledged Eastern mystic. The number falls into such a cobra-dance clich it could back a cartoon--Betty Boop in a pith helmet comes to mind. "Advice to Medics," from the same album, is a solo keyboard outing, played on a circa 57 electric piano. This recording is a full 11 years before groundbreaker Miles Davis was willing to try that particular instrument in his band.
From another corner of Sun Ra's living room has come 58's Jazz in Silhouette. Here Ra continues to lovingly cater to his big-band-jazz roots. The horn section blows with big-band clarity and abruptness, unlike days to come when all would wail more freely. The somber pallor of the tune "Ancient Aiethopia" provides the album's only dollop of oddness, made stranger yet when Ra chose to follow it with the Mancinilike "Hours After." At times here, Ra channels the big-band half of his style into out-and-out comedy.
The next album, Sound Sun Pleasure, shows Ra's dark mind at new depths. The garish old band standard "I Could Have Danced All Night" is puzzling, played with a blatant Holiday Inn lounge accent. His strangling of "Deep Purple" is so bleak and eerie the listener is likely to wonder if Ra's developing persona isn't, uh, a little unhealthy.
Monorails and Satellites from 1966 comes next, representing a Sun Ra who is lost in space. Unencumbered by his less-interstellar band mates, this solo exploration begins with two-fisted Martian stomps and devolves into pounding odes to a Utopia off in the dissonance. Only in "Easy Street" and bits of "Skylight" does he look back over his shoulder at the Forties ballads he once played on planet Earth.
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But from two years later comes the straightahead Arkestra outing Holiday for Soul Dance, where Ra plays solid swing and only occasionally pokes through with a demented piano chord.
Though dedicated to Ra's music, Jerry Gordon is reluctant to resign himself to the sometimes unintelligible philosophy of a man known to say, "Some call me Mister Ra, others call me Mystery, you can call me Mister Mystery."
"The things he says are just to get you going," says Gordon after some thought. "To get you thinking. Sun Ra is a master showman and musician, and everyone appreciates that."
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