In the realm of jazz, there has never been anyone else quite like Sun Ra. He was born Herman Blount in 1917 and his first substantial musical gig was working as an arranger and pianist for the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in the late 40s. Somewhere in his early life Blount began to draw ideas together from science fiction, history, archeology, philosophy and other disciplines, and combining that with advanced musical concepts he worked on, he emerged as Sun Ra, visitor from the planet Saturn and leader of a big band he called the Arkestra whose music was a dazzling collage of Harlem nightclub swing, show tunes, blues, free jazz screaming and avant-garde concepts, including one of the first uses of synthesizers and electronic keyboards.. The band dressed in homemade costumes with capes and headdresses, danced on stage and played hair-raising, energy-filled music that sounded as futuristic as a spaceship soaring among the planets. His song titles alone sounded they had come from old science fiction pulp magazine: "The Satellites Are Spinning", "The Second Stop Is Jupiter", "We Travel The Spaceways", "Where Is Tomorrow?" "Strange Celestial Road", and "Angels And Demons At Play" being some of the more colorful ones. Ra left this world in 1993 but the Arkestra has carried on without him. At first it was led by the group's legendary tenor player, John Gilmore, but when he passed, the reigns were handed to alto player Marshall Allen who still leads the band to this day.
This year marks Ra's centennial and for the occasion, a group of DC jazz promoters and enthusiasts got together and turned Halloween weekend into a Sun Ra festival with concerts and lectures by various folks keynoted by the Arkestra itself performing at the Lincoln Theater on Halloween night. This was not your average concert. I came out of the subway across the street from the theater an hour before things started and was lucky enough to catch the Arkestra parading down the street to the Lincoln chanting and playing and giving the usual U Street partygoers something different from the usual Halloween revels.
Inside the auditorium, on the movie screen in back of the stage (The Lincoln was once a movie theatre.) Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise, a 1980 documentary on Ra, was playing as the audience filed in. The show itself began with a large group of black women in colorful Afro-futurist regalia slowly marching down the theater aisles holding up a big picture of the great man while one of them slowly intoned "Raaaa!". The music started with an improvised duet by local saxophonist Brian Settles and drummer Jeremy Carlstedt. Then Dr. Tom Porter read Amiri Baraka's introduction to a book of Ra's poetry accompanied by keyboard legend Bernie Worrell on synthesizer. Then, since it was Halloween and a number of folks dressed for the occasion, a brief costume contest was held.
Finally the Arkestra came out resplendent in their usual brightly colored garb and tore into a fiery set of romping big band music full of the dancing fire that had always sparked the band's most thrilling moments. They were enhanced by the presence of three female dancers who came out occasionally, shimmying, shuffling, break dancing, and gliding to the ferocious grooves. The dancers, like everyone else on stage, were dressed in spectacular party gear with veils and capes but there was one curvy lady with gold-braided hair and a gold top and pants whose moves seemed to defy both the laws of gravity and the human anatomy.
This version of the Arkestra is a combination of older and younger faces but it is no mere ghost band. They still play this music, including some of Ra's most familiar tunes, like "Rocket Number Nine", "Saturn" and "Space Is The Place" with amazing energy and heat. I don't know the names of most of the current members but as always, there is Marshall Allen. Allen joined Ra back in 1957 and is now 90 years old. It would be a gross understatement to say he plays well for a man his age. He is playing extraordinarily for a man half his age, bellowing cascades of freakish notes out of his horn like fireworks. His solo on "Cocktails For Two", alternating the screaming with smooth, old-school melody, was amazing. He also played an EWI wind synthesizer, an electronic instrument that can sound horribly cheesy but which Marshall turned into a portable theremin, using it to create booming and swooping effects which fit right into the band's cosmic cacophony.
Bernie Worrell added his funkified keyboard squelching to a couple of numbers and "Space Is The Place" served as the backdrop for a fashion show displaying the works of a local clothing designer who had actually made capes for Ra in the past. The show ended with the band playing the grand, swooping waltz, "Love In Outer Space" as they left the stage and marched through the aisles before going backstage.
Sun Ra's universe is a bit eccentric for some tastes but he has come to be generally recognized now as a visionary musician and philosopher who created a towering body of work that merged the past and future of jazz. His influence has been passed down to many and the musicians who are currently in the Arkestra carry on his cosmic message impressively.
For those of you not familiar with any of this music, here are some video samples:
First, part of an interview with Ra that shows bits of his philosophy. This was done in Helsinki, Finland in 1971 and is interspersed with clips of the band in performance:
Then the Arkestra makes a very rare appearance on American television in 1989 on the show "Night Music". Marshall Allen takes the first sax solo and the second is by John Gilmore, an influence on John Coltrane:
Finally a bit of the current-day Arkestra led by Allen. They are doing "Angels At Demons At Play" at a 2012 festival in Poschiavo, Switzerland.