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Arts & Culture

Some Sort of Alchemy

May 29, 2013 | by

Sun Ra

His names were many: christened Herman Blount, he reinvented himself as Sonny Blount, H. Sonne Blount, Le Sony’r Ra, and, finally, what he called his “vibrational name,” Sun Ra. Ra’s band, too, was rich in appellation—one could compile a dizzyingly poetic list of its nearly fifty names, including the Myth Science Arkestra, the Intergalactic Research Arkestra, the Cosmo Drama Arkestra, the Transmolecular Arkestra, and the Love Adventure Arkestra. As many names, Ra might have said, as there are stars in the sky. This jazz visionary was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and not on Saturn, as he often claimed; in Chicago, in the late forties, a young Sonny Blount played piano with Fletcher Henderson, sharpening his formidable skills as a composer and arranger with the big-band legend. The combo Ra formed soon after was part cult, part family. He called his musicians “tone scientists”; they humbly described themselves as “nobodies with the master.” He taught them to play a kinetic, improvisational swing (bachelor-pad wailing for the pharaohs) that drew on his own spiritual bouillabaisse of Egyptology, Kabbalah, numerology, the Nation of Islam, Neoplatonism, Swedenborg, and Edgar Allan Poe. During performances, Ra wore a metallic cape and crown, while his band and dancers, in similar Afro-Space garb, threaded through the audience conjuring tribal magic and orbital ecstasy.

In 1972, Ra signed a multi-album deal with ABC/Impulse! Records and recorded what would become his most popular disc, Space Is the Place. The new, sleek volume Sun Ra + Ayé Aton: Space, Interiors and Exteriors, 1972 offers a trove of photographs once thought to be lost that show the musician in full regalia on location in Oakland, California, for the production of a film that was to accompany the album. Also included are photos of murals done by Ayé Aton, a Chicago artist who shared Ra’s cosmological inclinations. (Born Robert Underwood, Aton, too, fancied the self-made moniker.) Images of the space-themed murals he painted in people’s homes and on building exteriors all around Chicago’s South Side (three of which Ra used to illustrate his second book of poetry, in 1972, Extensions Out: The Immeasurable Equation, Vol. II) testify to the kindredness of these two Afrofuturists. The Kodak-quality snapshots enhance Aton’s bold splashes of color, lending them the high-octane sheen typical of photos from that era. Even without that effect, the colors would still shimmer with pictorial energy: galactic and solar shapes morph into biological forms and back again, and these explosive exchanges are dotted by assorted gods’ eyes, pyramids, spaceships, and rams’ heads. The murals feel charged by narrative propulsion—stars are imploding, worlds are being birthed—as some new mythology emerges from the chaos.

Aye Aton

Every band leader—Basie, Ellington, Goodman—is an authority figure to his players; few, though, consider themselves religious prophets. Thus the photographs of Sun Ra offer a stately counterpoint to Aton’s images. Bedecked for the film shoot in Egyptian costumes borrowed from a local Masonic temple, the composer adopts a regal pose as he wears with great aplomb a pharaoh’s headpiece that’s capped by a three-foot, sheaf-adorned globe. His shiny robes are a riot of shapes and electrified colors. Even his shoes—fire-engine red with yellow and blue bands—give a shout out. The overall effect is pure Ra: black magic, black hokum, and black power all combining in his utterly confident demeanor. What else would you expect from the double-dubbed (sun, sun god) monarch from Saturn?

Run Ra

A few years after these photos were taken, I saw Ra play at the University of Pennsylvania. He and his band were living in a communal house in North Philly and they were favorites of the jazz aficionados who had commandeered the college radio station and staged frequent Arkestra performances. No doubt, Ra was particularly drawn to the campus because of the university museum, which boasts one of the largest Egyptology collections in the United States. One show stood out among the several I saw there: the band played on the lawn between three dormitory towers while the music was broadcast on WXPN, the school station. Dorm residents were encouraged to tune in and place their speakers in the windows with the hope of creating three twenty-plus-story speakers. With the deliberative grace of a pope on a balcony overlooking Saint Peter’s Square, Ra took his spot front and center on the stage, acknowledging the cheers with slows nods and upraised hands. His low rumble of a voice echoed crazily around the quad—enough kids had followed through on the request—and seemed to originate from the sky rather than from the short, rather stoutish man in front of us. Just how he put it I can’t recall now, but after intoning something about dreams, or maybe it was beams, he enunciated more clearly his intention—with the aid of the giant “speakers”—to raise the museum’s mummies from the dead. We howled with joy—Arkestra performances always sparked wildly utopian sentiments. And while the strong smell of hash that hung over the crowd surely betokened a general suspension of disbelief, no one, I’m sure, expected to see mummies afoot. But there was no mistaking that Sun Ra did, or at least believed it might happen. As he turned to his “space organ,” his inward intensity gave no hint of irony. They would rise, he let us know, if he hit the keys just right.

The Mysterious Mister Ra’s astral projection—from the Jim Crow South to Saturday Night Live, where his Arkestra gigged for its largest audience ever, in 1978  (afterward, NBC was deluged with protest calls about his “weirdness”), is very much a story of otherworldly transformation. And as such, it’s no stretch to believe that, on some far planet, he still plunks out space chords, making, as he did on Earth, music of the luminous spheres.

Albert Mobilio’s most recent book of poems is Touch Wood. A volume of short fiction, Games and Stunts, will be published in the fall.

 

2 COMMENTS

2 Comments

  1. Phil Auslander | June 6, 2013 at 12:11 pm

    I don’t know when you were at Penn. I was an undergrad there from 74-78. I don’t remember the particular concert you describe but I think I remember seeing Ra and the Arkestra at the jazz club in the basement of a church at one end of the campus. It’s also possible, though, that I ventured off campus to see them.

    Those were great times for jazz in Philadelphia and at Penn!

  2. Hilton Als | June 10, 2013 at 2:23 am

    This is a great essay about a very great artist who, finding no home in this world, made his own universe. Mr. Mobilio shows that, and more: how that universe became essential to other artists who didn’t even know they, like the rest of us, were merely squirrels trying to get a nut on a planet the amazing Ra wouldn’t let get bogged down. So many of us walk more creatively and freely because of him. Bravo to author and star

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