FATE IN A PLEASANT MOOD (Impulse AS 9270)
Sun Ra and his Myth-Science Arkestra: Sun Ra / piano, John Gilmore / tenor saxophone, Marshall Allen / alto saxophone and flute, Ronnie Boykins / bass, Lucius Randolph / trumpet, George Hudson / trumpet; Edward Skinner / percussion; Nate Pryor / trombone. Recorded: 1959, Saturn Studios, Chicago.
Fate In A Pleasant Mood is an early Sun Ra recording that contains in seminal form any number of elements of Ra’s later work. But though those elements are here, one would not have guessed from this recording the gigantic and audacious steps forward Sun Ra would shortly take.
Certain pieces, however – for example, “Space Mates” – when drawn to their logical conclusions, lead directly toward the freer sense of form, structure and rhythm Ra later made the cornerstone of his most important music. Note the textural scope of “Space Mates,” its unpredictable format, and the way in which sound is both isolated and explored for its own sake and yet is completely logical compositionally.
Other pieces like “Distant Stars” express a more overtly rhythmic and boppish aspect of Ra’s music that he was also to retain and to combine with the freer forms. In 1971, attending a performance of the Arkestra in New York, I even heard them do a swinging version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” that faded into strains of “Next Stop, Jupiter!”
A more striking connection with Ra’s later work is evident in the voicings and harmonic ideas presented. Throughout, there is the just-below-the-surface mysteriousness and slightly bizarre flavor that has marked nearly all of Sun Ra’s music and which perhaps holds one of the greatest attractions for his many admirers.
Sun Ra and Arkestra, of course, have far transcended the music on this record. But you might still hear them play one or two of these tunes, and the music is instructive in gaining insight into the mind of one of the most creative musical mentors of our time.
Henry Kuntz, 1974
Sun Ra biography:
Sun Ra (Born Herman Poole Blount; legal name Le Sony’r Ra ; born May 22, 1914 in Birmingham, Alabama, died May 30, 1993 in Birmingham, Alabama) was an innovative jazz composer, band-leader, piano and synthesizer player, poet and philosopher who came to be known as much for his “cosmic philosophy” as for his musical compositions and performances.
He abandoned his birth name and took on the name and persona of Sun Ra (Ra being the ancient Egyptian god of the Sun). Claiming that he was of the “Angel Race” and not from Earth, but from Saturn, Ra developed a complicated persona of “cosmic” philosophies and lyrical poetry that made him a pioneer of Afro-futurism as he preached “awareness” and peace above all. Some regarded him as a crank because of these traits, but most recognized his immense musical talents.
He led The Arkestra, an ensemble with an ever-changing lineup and name (it was also called “The Solar Myth Arkestra,” the “Blue Universe Arkestra,” “The Jet Set Omniverse Arkestra,” and many other permutations; Ra asserted that the ever-changing name of his ensemble reflected the ever-changing nature of his music.) A prolific recording artist and frequent live performer, Sun Ra’s music ranged from keyboard solos to big bands of 30-odd musicians; his music touched on virtually the entire history of jazz, from ragtime to swing music, from bebop to free jazz; he was also a pioneer of electronic music and free improvisation, and was one of the first musicians to use electronic keyboards. He eschewed racism, and insisted his musicians avoid drug abuse, but he rarely spoke directly about politics or any controversial subjects.
For decades, very little was known about Sun Ra’s early life; much of it was obscured by Sun Ra himself: he routinely give evasive, contradictory or seemingly nonsensical answers to personal questions, and he even went so far as to deny his birth name. Even his birthday was unknown, with years ranging from 1910 to 1918 being claimed for his birth. Only a few years before his death, the date of Sun Ra’s birth remained a mystery: Jim Macnie’s notes for Blue Delight (1989) could only state that Ra was believed to be about 75 years old.
However, Ra’s biographer John F. Szwed was able to uncover a wealth of information about Ra’s early life, including confirming a May 22, 1914 birthday, making Ra a Gemini.Named after the popular vaudeville stage magician Black Herman who’d deeply impressed his mother, Blount would speculate, only half in jest, that he was distantly related to Elijah Poole, later famous as Elijah Muhammed, leader of the Nation of Islam. Blount was nicknamed “Sonny” from his childhood, and had an older sister and half-brother, and was doted upon by his mother and grandmother.
At ten years old, Ra joined the Knights of Pythias, and remained a member until he graduated from high school. His family was deeply religious, but was not formally associated with any Christian church or sect.
Even as a child Blount was a skilled pianist. By 11 or 12 years old he was writing original songs, and was able to sight read sheet music. Birmingham was an important stop for touring musicians, and Blount saw famous musicians like Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, along with less-famous performers who were often just as talented as their better-known peers, with Ra once stating “the world let down a lot of good musicians.” In his teen years, Blount demonstrated prodigious musical talents: many times, according to acquaintances, he would see big band performances, and, from memory, produce full transcriptions of the bands’ songs.
Blount had few or no close friends in high school, but was remembered as kind-natured and quiet, an honour roll student and a voracious reader. The Black Masonic Lodge was one of the few places in Birmingham where African-Americans had essentially unlimited access to books, and the Lodge’s many books on Freemasonry and other esoteric concepts made a big impression on Blount.
By his mid-teens, Ra was performing semi-professionally as a solo pianist, or as a member of various ad hoc jazz and R&B groups. He attended Birmingham’s Industrial High School, where he studied under famed music teacher John T. “Fess” Parker, a demanding disciplinarian who was widely respected and whose classes produced many professional musicians. Also by his teens, Ra suffered from cryptorchidism, a chronic testicular hernia that left him with a nearly constant discomfort that sometimes flared into severe pain. The condition also left him with a sense of shame and increased his sense of isolation.
Blount rejected the invitation to be his high school class valedictorian, writes Szwed, because the young pianist “wanted nothing to do with leadership.”
Some people saw Sun Ra’s speech and mannerisms as effeminate, and there was speculation that he was homosexual. Others, however, discounted such ideas, noting that Sun Ra seemed to have no interest in any sort of romantic or sexual relationships. In a rare insight into his personal life, Blount wrote in a 1943 letter, “I have never been able to think of sex as a part of my life though I have tried to but I just wasn’t interested”; (see Asexuality). When asked directly why he had never married, Sun Ra paraphrased the Gospel of St. Matthew, stating, “They neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like angels that shine forth like the sun.”
In 1934, Blount was offered his first full-time musical job when Industrial High School English teacher Ethel Harper organized a band and decided to pursue a career as a singer. Blount joined a musicians’ union, and Harper’s group toured through the U.S. south-east and Midwest. Harper left the group mid-tour to move to New York (she later was a member of the modestly successful singing group the Ginger Snaps), and Blount took over leadership of the group, renaming it the Sonny Blount Orchestra. They continued touring for several months before dissolving the unprofitable group.
Though the first edition of the Sonny Blount Orchestra was not financially successful, they earned positive notice from fans and other musicians, and Blount afterwards found steady employment in Birmingham.
The clubs of Birmingham often featured exotic trappings such as vivid lighting and murals with tropical or oasis scenes that were believed to have influenced Sun Ra’s later stage shows. The big bands also imparted a sense of pride and togetherness to black musicians: musicians were highly regarded in the black community, and were expected to be disciplined and presentable, and in the segregated south, black musicians arguably had the most acceptance in white society, often performing for white high society audiences (though they were typically forbidden from associating with the audiences).
In 1936, Parker’s intercession led to Blount being awarded a scholarship at Alabama A&M. He was a music education major, studying composition, orchestration, and music theory, but after a year, he dropped out.
Finances and his increasing sense of isolation are believed to have been a factor in Blount’s leaving college, but perhaps more importantly, he claimed a visionary experience as a college student, a strange event that was to have a major long-term influence on the young pianist. In 1936 or 1937, in the midst of deep religious concentration, Blount claimed that a bright light appeared around him, and, as he later reported,
….my whole body changed into something else. I could see through myself. And I went up … I wasn’t in human form … I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn … they teleported me and I was down on [a] stage with them. They wanted to talk with me. They had one little antenna on each ear. A little antenna over each eye. They talked to me. They told me to stop [attending college] because there was going to be great trouble in schools … the world was going into complete chaos … I would speak [through music], and the world would listen. That’s what they told me.”
Ra claimed that this experience occurred in 1936 or ’37, but according to Swzed, even Blount’s closest associates cannot date the story any earlier than 1952 (and Blount also claimed that it occurred when he was living in Chicago, a town he did not live in until the late-1940s). With no substantial variations, Blount discussed the vision to the end of his life. The trip to Saturn allegedly happened a full decade before flying saucers entered public consciousness, about fifteen years before the contactees and their stories of benevolent Space Brothers were publicized, and almost twenty years before sinister UFO abductions were a public concept. Szwed writes that in later years, Blount’s experience would classify as a “classic UFO-abduction story” Additionally, Szwed argues,
even if this story is revisionist autobiography … Sonny was pulling together several strains of his life. He was both prophesying his future and explaining his past with a single act of personal mythology.
Even putting Blount’s strange vision aside, after leaving college, he became known as perhaps the most singularly devoted musician in Birmingham. He rarely slept, citing Thomas Edison, Leonardo Da Vinci and Napoleon as fellow highly productive cat-nappers. He transformed the first floor of his family’s home into a conservatory-cum-workshop, where he wrote songs, transcribed recordings, rehearsed with the many musicians who were nearly constantly drifting in and out, and discussed Biblical and esoteric concepts with whoever was interested; Szwed describes the Blount home as “a kind of pool hall for the metaphysically minded.”
Blount became a regular at Birmingham’s Forbes Piano Company, a white-owned company which — astoundingly for a business in the Deep South — simply ignored the strict Jim Crow laws of the racially segregated era. Blount visited the Forbes building almost daily to play music, swap ideas with staff and customers, or copy sheet music into his notebooks. He formed a new band, and, like his old teacher Parker, insisted on rigorous daily rehearsals. The new Sonny Blount Orchestra earned a reputation as an impressive, disciplined band that could play “sweet” and “hot” music with equal skill.
In October, 1942, Blount received a selective service notification that he had been drafted into the U.S. Military. He quickly declared himself a conscientious objector, citing religious objections to war and killing, his financial support of his great-aunt Ida, and his chronic hernia. His case was rejected by the local draft board, and in his appeal to the national draft board, Blount wrote that the lack of Black men on the draft appeal board “smacks of Hitlerism.” His family was deeply embarrassed by Sonny’s refusal to join the military, and he was effectively ostracized by many of his relatives.
Blount was eventually approved for alternate service at Civilian Public Service camp in Pennsylvania. However, Blount didn’t appear at the camp as scheduled on December 8, 1942, and shortly thereafter, he was arrested in Alabama.
In court, Blount declared that even alternate service was unacceptable to him, and he debated the judge on points of law and Biblical interpretation. Though sympathetic to Blount, the judge also declared that he was clearly in violation of the law, and was risking forcible induction into the U.S. Military. Blount declared that if he were inducted, he would use his military weapons and training to kill the first high-ranking military officer he could. The judge sentenced Blount to jail (pending draft board and CPS rulings), and then declared “I’ve never seen a nigger like you before;” Blount replied, “No, and you never will again.” Szwed describes Blount’s boldness as “brave and audacious” in a culture where black men were routinely lynched.
In January, 1943, a desperate Blount wrote the U.S. Marshall’s from the Walker County, Alabama jail in Jasper. He said he was facing a nervous breakdown due to the stress of imprisonment, that he was suicidal, and that he was in constant fear of sexual assault.
His conscientious objector status was eventually reaffirmed in February, 1943, and Blount was escorted to Pennsylvania where he conducted forestry work in the days and was allowed to play piano at night. Psychiatrists there described him as “a psychopathic personality [and] sexually perverted” but also as “a well-educated colored intellectual.” In March, 1943, Blount was classified as 4-F due to his hernia. He returned to Birmingham embittered and angered by his experiences. He formed a new band and quickly was playing professionally.
After his beloved great-aunt Ida died in 1945, Blount felt no reason to stay in Birmingham. He dissolved the band, and moved to Chicago, part of the wave of southern African Americans who moved north during and after World War II.
In Chicago, Blount quickly found work, notably with blues singer Wynonie Harris, with whom he made his recording debut on two 1946 singles: “Dig This Boogie/Lightning Struck the Poorhouse” and “My Baby’s Barrelhouse”/”Drinking By Myself;” “Dig This Boogie” was also Blount’s first recorded piano solo. He performed with the locally successful Lil Green band, and for months played bump-and-grind music for Calumet City strip clubs.
Blount earned a lengthy engagement at Club DeLise, where he met band-leader and composer Fletcher Henderson. Blount had long admired Henderson, but Henderson’s fortunes were fading (his band comprised of middling musicians rather than the stars of earlier years) due in large part to his instability. Henderson hired Blount as pianist and arranger. Ra’s arrangements initially showed a degree of bebop influence, but the band members largely resisted the new music, despite Henderson’s encouragement.
In 1948, Blount performed briefly in a trio with saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and violinist Stuff Smith, both pre-eminent swing-era musicians. There are no known recordings of this trio, but a home-recording of a Blount-Smith duet from 1948 or 1949 appears on Sound Sun Pleasure, and one of Sun Ra’s final recordings was a rare side-man appearance on violinist Billy Bang’s Tribute To Stuff Smith.
In addition to professional advancement, Chicago also changed Blount’s personal outlook. The city was a Center of African American political activism and fringe movements, with Black Muslims, Black Hebrews and others proselytizing, debating, and printing leaflets or books. Blount absorbed it all, and was fascinated with the city’s many ancient Egyptian-styled buildings and monuments. He read books like George G.M. James’s Stolen Legacy (which argued that classical Greek philosophy actually had its roots in ancient Egypt), which convinced Blount that the accomplishments and history of Africans had been systematically suppressed and denied by European cultures.
By 1952, Blount was leading the “Space Trio” with drummer Tommy “Bugs” Hunter and saxophonist Pat Patrick, two of the most accomplished musicians he’d known. They performed regularly, and Ra was writing ever-more advanced songs.
On October 20, 1952 Blount legally changed his name to “Le Sony’r Ra”, “in order to free himself from his past life” Swzed writes. Ra claimed to have always been uncomfortable with his birth name of Blount, seeing it as a slave name of a family that he was not really a member of. One observer has argued that this change was similar to the way “Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali … [dropped] their slave names in the process of attaining a new self-awareness and self-esteem.”
Patrick left the group to move to Florida with his new wife; not long after, Patrick’s friend John Gilmore (tenor sax) joined the group, and Marshall Allen (alto sax) soon joined the fold. Patrick was in and out of the group until the end of his life, but Allen and Gilmore — who would both earn critical praise for their talents — were the two most devoted members of the Arkestra. Saxophonist James Spaulding and trombonist Julian Priester also recorded with Ra in Chicago, and both went on to notable careers of their own.
In Chicago, Blount met Alton Abraham, a precociously intelligent teenager and something of a kindred spirit who became the Arkestra’s biggest booster, and one’s of Sun Ra’s closest friends. The men both felt like outsiders, and shared an interest in fringe esoterica, Abraham’s strengths balanced Ra’s shortcomings: though he was a disciplined band-leader, Ra was somewhat introverted and lacked business sense (a trait that would haunt his entire career); Abraham was outgoing, well-connected and practical. Though still a teenager, Abraham eventually became Ra’s de facto business manager: he booked performances, suggested musicians for the Arkestra, and introduced several popular songs into the group’s repertoire. Ra, Abraham and others formed a sort of book club to trade ideas and discuss the offbeat topics that so intrigued them. This group printed a number of pamphlets and broadsides explaining their conclusions and ideas; some of these were collected by critic John Corbett and Anthony Elms as The Wisdom of Sun Ra: Sun Ra’s Polemical Broadsheets and Streetcorner Leaflets (2006).
Ra and Abraham also formed an independent record label in the mid-50s; it was generally known as Saturn Records, though (as with the Arkestra) there were several variants of the name. Initially focused on 45 rpm singles by Sun Ra and artists related to him, Saturn Records did issue two full-length albums during the 1950s: Super-Sonic Jazz (1956) and Jazz In Silhouette (1958). Producer Tom Wilson was actually the first to release a Sun Ra album, through his independent label Transition Records in 1956, entitled Sun Song (Delmark Records, a Chicago-based label, reissued the album following Transition’s demise).
It was during the late 1950s that Sun Ra and his band began wearing the outlandish, Egyptian-styled or science fiction-themed costumes and headdresses for which they would become known. These costumes had multiple purposes: they evidenced Sun Ra’s abiding fascination with ancient Egypt and the space age; they provided a sort of distinctive, memorable uniform for the Arkestra; they were a way to take on a new identity, at least while on-stage; and they provided comic relief (Sun Ra thought avant garde musicians typically took themselves far too seriously).
Sun Ra and most of the core Arkestra (at least Allen, Gilmore, Patrick and Boykins) left Chicago in 1961, staying in Montreal for a few months before settling in New York City. They initially had trouble finding performance venues, and began living communally due to New York’s higher cost of living. This frustration fueled the drastic changes the Arkestra’s sound when Sun Ra’s music underwent a free jazz-influenced experimental period.
In March of 1966, the Arkestra scored a regular Monday-night gig at Slug’s Saloon. This proved to be a breakthrough to new audiences and recognition. Sun Ra’s popularity reached an early peak during this period, as the “beat generation” and early followers of psychedelia embraced him.
Regularly for the next year and a half (and intermittently for another half a decade afterwards), Sun Ra and company performed at Slug’s for audiences that eventually came to include music critics and notable jazz musicians. Opinions of Sun Ra’s music were divided (and hecklers were not uncommon), but high praise came from two of the architects of bebop: trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie offered encouragement, once stating, “Keep it up, Sonny, they tried to do the same shit to me.”,while pianist Thelonious Monk chided someone who said Ra was “too far out” by responding, “Yeah, but it swings.”
In the late 1960s when the New York building they were renting was put up for sale, Sun Ra and the Arkestra relocated to the Germantown section of Philadelphia, where his Morton Street house remained the Arkestra’s base of operations until Sun Ra’s death.
Apart from occasional complaints about the noise of rehearsals, they were soon regarded as good neighbours due to their friendliness, drug-free living, and rapport with youngsters. Saxophonist Danny Thompson owned and operated the Pharaoh’s Den, a convenience store in the neighbourhood. When lightning struck a tree on their street, Ra took it as a good omen, and multireedist James Jacson fashioned the Cosmic Infinity Drum from the scorched tree trunk. They still commuted via rail-road to New York for the Monday night gig at Slug’s and for other engagements.
In late 1968, Sun Ra and the Arkestra undertook their first tour of the U.S. west coast. Reactions were mixed; even hippies accustomed to long-form psychedelia like the Grateful Dead were often bewildered by the Arkestra, which included 20 to 30 musicians, dancers, singers, fire-eaters and elaborate lighting. John Burks of Rolling Stone wrote a positive review of a San Jose State College concert that led to Sun Ra being featured on the cover of the April 19, 1969 cover of the magazine, and introducing Ra’s inscrutable gaze to millions. This first west-coast tour also led to vibraphonist Damon Choice, then an art student at San Jose, joining the Arkestra.
Starting with concerts in France, Germany and the United Kingdom in 1970, the Arkestra began to find opportunities for working outside the U.S., playing to audiences who had had hitherto known his music only through the records. Ra continued playing in Europe to nearly the end of his life.
Given Ra’s unorthodox financial management, saxophonist Danny Thompson became a de facto tour and business manager during this era, specializing in what he called “no bullshit C.O.D.” ,preferring to take cash before performing or delivering records.
In early 1971, Sun Ra was artist-in-residence at UC Berkeley, in Berkeley, California, teaching a course called “The Black Man In The Cosmos.” Rather few students enrolled, but the classes were often full of curious persons from the surrounding community. One half-hour of each class was devoted to a lecture (complete with handouts and homework assignments), the other half-hour to an Arkestra performance or Ra keyboard solo. Reading lists included the works of Madame Blavatsky and Henry Dumas, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Alexander Hislop’s The Two Babylons, The Book of Oahspe and assorted volumes concerning Egyptian hieroglyphs, African American folklore and other topics.
In 1971, Sun Ra fulfilled a long-standing desire by performing with the Arkestra at ancient Egyptian pyramids. On May 20, 1978, Sun Ra and the Arkestra appeared on Saturday Night Live.The Arkestra continued their touring and recording through the 1980s and into the 1990s, and Sun Ra became a fixture in Philadelphia, appearing semi-regularly on WXPN radio, giving lectures to community groups, or haunting the city’s libraries.
Even after a stroke in 1990, Sun Ra kept composing, performing and leading the Arkestra. Late in his career, Sun Ra opened a few concerts for New York-based rock group Sonic Youth. Eventually, Sun Ra grew too ill to perform and tour, and he entrusted Gilmore with leading the Arkerstra. Gilmore himself was frail due to emphysema, and when he died, Allen took over leadership of the Arkestra.
Sun Ra went back to Birmingham and reconnected with his sister whom he had rarely seen for nearly forty years. He contracted pneumonia, died in Birmingham on May 30, 1993, and was buried at the Elmwood Cemetery. The small foot-stone read only “Sonny Blount (aka Le Son’y Ra)”shortly before his death.
The Arkestra continues to tour and perform as of September 2006. Following Sun Ra’s death, the Arkestra was led by tenor saxophonist John Gilmore. Following Gilmore’s death the group has performed under the direction of alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, who celebrated his 80th birthday on stage during Arkestra performances at the Vox Populi gallery in Philadelphia and the Vision Festival in New York City. In the summer of 2004 became the first American jazz band to perform in Tuva, playing five sets at the Ustuu-Huree Festival.
Sun Ra’s piano technique touched on many styles: his youthful fascination with boogie-woogie, stride piano and blues; he sometimes had a refined touch reminiscent of Count Basie or Ahmad Jamal, and could play angular phrases like Thelonious Monk or brutal, percussive attacks like Cecil Taylor. Often overlooked is the range of influences from classical music — Ra cited Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Schoenberg and Shostakovich as his favourite composers for the piano.
As a synthesizer and electric keyboard player, Sun Ra ranks among one of the earliest and most radical pioneers. By the mid-1950s, he used a variety of electric keyboards, and almost immediately, he exploited their potential perhaps more than anyone, sometimes modifying them himself to produce sounds rarely if ever heard before. His live albums from the late ’60s and early ’70s feature some of the noisiest, most bizarre keyboard work ever recorded. Though often associated with avant-garde jazz, Sun Ra did not believe his work could be classified as “free music:” “I have to make sure that every note, every nuance, is correct.… If you want to call it that, spell it p-h-r-e, because ph is a definite article and re is the name of the sun. So I play phre music – music of the sun.”
Sun Ra’s music can be roughly divided into three phases, but his records and performances were full of surprises, and Swzed cautions against “attempt[s] to drawn a coherent evolutionary line over time” in describing the Arkestra’s music.
The first period, in the 1950s was when Ra’s music evolved from big band swing into the outer-space-themed “cosmic jazz” for which he was best known. Music critics and jazz historians say some of his best work was recorded during this period, and it is also some of his most accessible music. Sun Ra’s music in this era was often tightly arranged, and sometimes reminiscent of Duke Ellington’s, Count Basie’s, or other important swing music ensembles. However, there was a strong influence from post-swing styles like bebop, hard bop and modal jazz, and touches of the exotic and hints of the experimentalism that would dominate his later music.
Notable Sun Ra albums from the 1950s include Sun Ra Visits Planet Earth, Interstellar Low Ways, Super-Sonic Jazz, We Travel The Spaceways, The Nubians Of Plutonia and Jazz In Silhouette.
After the move to New York, Ra and company plunged headlong into the experimentalism that they’d only hinted at in Chicago. The music was often extremely loud, and the Arkestra grew to include multiple drummers and percussionists.
Recordings of these era began to utilise new technological possibilities, such as extensive use of tape delay systems to assemble spacial sound pieces which are far removed from earlier compositions such as “Saturn”. Recordings and live performances often featured passages for unusual instrumental combinations and passages of collective playing which point towards free improvisation — in fact, it’s often difficult to tell where the compositions end and the improvisations begin.
In this era Ra began conducting using hand and body gestures. This system would inspire cornettist Butch Morris, who would later develop his own more highly refined way to conduct improvisers. Seeking to broaden his compositional possibilities, Sun Ra insisted all band members double on various percussion instruments–pre-dating world music by drawing on various ethnic musical forms–and most saxophonists became multi-reedist’s, adding instruments such as flutes, oboes or clarinets to their arsenals.
In this era, Ra was among the first of any musicians to make extensive and pioneering use of synthesizers and other various electronic keyboards; he was given a prototype mini-moog by its inventor, Robert Moog.
Newcomers to Ra’s music may have difficulty with his albums of this era; these recordings may seem noisy or chaotic. Notable titles from this period include The Magic City, ‘Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy, When Sun Comes Out, The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume One, Atlantis, Secrets Of The Sun and Other Planes Of There.
During their third period, beginning in the 1970s and onward, Sun Ra and the Arkestra settled down into a relatively conventional sound, often incorporating swing standards, though their records and concerts were still highly eclectic and energetic, and typically included at least one lengthy percussion jam. Ra was explicitly asserting a continuity with the ignored jazz tradition: “They tried to fool you, now I got to school you, about jazz, all about jazz” he rapped, framing the inclusion of pieces by Fletcher Henderson and Jelly Roll Morton. The spectacle of the Arkestra became a familiar feature on the international jazz festival circuit, which provided a useful financial support structure for the Arkestra.
In the 1970s, Ra took a liking to the films of Walt Disney. He incorporated smatterings of Disney musical numbers into many of his performances from then on. In the late 1980s the Arkestra even performed a concert at Walt Disney World. The Arkestra’s version of “Pink Elephants on Parade” is available on Stay Awake, a ‘tribute album’ of Disney tunes played by various artists, and produced by Hal Willner. A number of Sun Ra’s 1970s concerts are available on CD, but none have received a wide release in comparison to his earlier music. The album Atlantis can be considered the landmark that led into his 1970s era.
Certainly dozens of musicians — perhaps hundreds — passed through Sun Ra’s bands over the years. Some stayed with him for decades, while others made only a few recordings or performances.
Sun Ra was personally responsible for the vast majority of the constant changes in the Arkestra’s lineup. According to contra-bassist Juini Booth, himself a member of the Arkestra, Sun Ra would not confront any musician whose performance he was unsatisfied with. Instead, Sun Ra would simply gather the entire Arkestra minus the offending musician, and skip town, leaving the fired musician stranded. After repeated instances of U.S. Jazz musicians becoming stranded in foreign countries, Sun Ra’s unique method of dismissal became a diplomatic liability for the United States. The U.S. State Department was compelled to tell Sun Ra to bring any fired musicians stateside rather than leaving them stranded.
Sun Ra’s world view was often described as a philosophy, but he rejected this term, describing his own manner as an “equation” — he claimed that while philosophy was based on theories and abstract reasoning, his method was based on logic and pragmatism. Many of the Arkestra cite Sun Ra’s teachings as pivotal, and for inspiring such long-term devotion to the music that they knew would never make them much money.
His equation was rarely (if ever) explained as a whole; instead, it was related in bits and pieces over many years, leading some to think his worldview was naïve, or comprised of nonsensical new-age platitudes. However, Martinelli argues that, when considered as a whole, one can discern a unified world view that draws upon many sources, but is also unique to Ra, writing,
“Sun Ra presents a unified conception, incorporating music, myth, and performance into his multi-leveled equations. Every aspect of the Sun Ra experience, from business practices like Saturn Records to published collections of poetry to his 35-year career in music, is a manifestation of his equations. Sun Ra seeks to elevate humanity beyond their current earthbound state, tied to outmoded conceptions of life and death when the potential future of immortality awaits them. As Hall has put it, “In this era of ‘practical’ things men ridicule even the existence of God. They scoff at goodness while they ponder with befuddled minds the phantasmagoria of materiality. They have forgotten the path which leads beyond the stars”
He drew on sources as diverse as the Kabbala, Rosicrucianism, channeling, numerology, Freemasonry and Black Nationalism. Sun Ra’s system had distinct Gnostic leanings arguing that the god of most monotheistic religions was not the creator god, not the ultimate god, but a lesser, evil being.
Sun Ra was wary of the Bible, knowing that it had been used to justify slavery. He would often re-arrange and re-word Biblical passages (along with re-working many other words, names or phrases) in an attempt to uncover “hidden” meanings. The most obvious evidence of this system was Ra’s practice of renaming many of the musicians who played with him. Szwed argues this is reminiscent of the similar Rastafarian principle of “word-sound-power.”
Bassoonist/multireedist James Jacson had studied Zen Buddhism before joining Sun Ra, and identified strong similarities between Zen teachings and practices (particularly Zen koans) and Ra’s use of non-sequiters and seemingly absurd replies to questions. Drummer Art Jenkins admitted that Ra’s “nonsense” sometimes troubled his thoughts for days until inspiring a sort of paradigm shift, or profound change in outlook. Drummer Andrew Cyrille said Ra’s comments were “very interesting stuff … whether you believed it or not. And a lot of times it was humorous, and a lot of times it was ridiculous, and a lot of times it was right on the money.”
According to Szwed Ra’s view of his relationship to black people and black cultures “changed drastically” over time. Initially, Ra identified closely with broader struggles for black power, black political influence, and black identity, and saw his own music as a key element in educating and liberating blacks. But by the heyday of black power radicalism in the 1960s, Ra was expressing disillusionment with such ambitious aims, and he denied feeling closely connected to any race; in 1970 he said:
- “I couldn’t approach black people with the truth because they like lies. They live lies … At one time I felt that white people were to blame for everything, but then I found out that they were just puppets and pawns of some greater force, which has been using them … Some force is having a good time [manipulating black and white people] and looking, enjoying itself up in a reserved seat, wondering, “I wonder when they’re going to wake up.”