September 13, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

Interlude: 1967-1970

Although the Arkestra was finding an increasing amount of paying work during the late nineteen-sixties, maintaining a residence in Manhattan was becoming untenable. Szwed describes the situation:

As New York City became aware of the shift in demographics taking place in the
East Village, the police began to pay more attention to the area, and the Arkestra was regularly warned about the noise at rehearsals. So when the landlord decided to put the house up for sale Sun Ra saw that it was time for a move. Marshall Allen’s father owned some property in Philadelphia and offered to rent them a row house at 5626 Morton Street in Germantown. So in the fall of 1968 Sun Ra moved to what he called ‘the city Brotherly shove,’ the ‘worst place in America,’ ‘the headquarters of the devil in disguise.’

Philadelphia was perhaps not quite as bad as all that; the Morton Street house remained Ra’s headquarters for the rest of his life and, to this day, Marshall Allen still lives there where he continues to conduct the posthumous Arkestra’s business. Szwed goes on to inform us:
Rehearsals created a few complaints from their new neighbors, but when the
police arrived, Sonny told them they were merely making a joyous noise to the
Lord in the city as the Good Book required. And gradually they became known as
good neighbors, especially liked by the kids. Within a year there was a record
by the Arkestra on the juke box in the neighborhood Laundromat and Sonny was
listed in the Philadelphia phone book as ‘Ra, Sun.’ (the phone was sometimes
answered by an ominous voice which proclaimed, ‘You have reached Outer Space…’)

Nevertheless, the move to Philadelphia was disruptive. In 1968, Ra’s music was still virtually unknown outside of New York (and perhaps Chicago) so recruiting competent musicians was more difficult and, with much of the Arkestra scattered across the eastern seaboard, the more intricate ensemble pieces and swing-era showpieces of the old repertoire suffered from inadequate rehearsal time. Philadelphia also lacked a thriving jazz scene so any paying work would entail travelling back and forth to New York City. Soon, relentless travelling would come to define the Arkestra’s existence: first out to California, then to Europe and beyond.

By mid-1970, everything was in place for the next phase of Sun Ra’s earthly journey, a great adventure that would take him around the planet as the intergalactic cosmic messenger of space-age jazz. Always an early-adopter of new technology, Sonny had acquired the latest electronic keyboards: a Hohner Clavinet, a Gibson Kalamazoo organ, a more deluxe Farisa, the RMI Rocksichord electric piano, and a Moog Minimoog monophonic synthesizer. Along with the acoustic piano, these instruments would comprise his arsenal throughout the nineteen-seventies. On stage, Ra appeared to be piloting a spaceship from behind his cockpit of keyboards with their myriad knobs, switches and twinkling lights. The core members of the Arkestra were by now wholly committed to Ra’s expansive vision; brass players and rhythm section members would come and go, but these musicians would remain stalwart accomplices to the end. Sonny was refining his compositional approach, writing specifically for these core musicians and incorporating conducted improvisations into the structure of his compositions. Soon he would embark on his ambitious “Discipline” series (which eventually numbered well over one hundred titles) each of which builds insanely complex structures out of the simplest materials. With the addition of June Tyson and other singer/dancers along with a full-blown light show, Sun Ra was transforming live performances into a ritualized “cosmo drama” full of theatrical choreography, sanctified exhortations, elaborate space chants, and maniacal percussion workouts — perfect for the psychedelic-ized audiences of the time. But at the same time, Ra could now rely on his “micro-Arkestra” consisting of John Gilmore, Marshall Allen, and Danny Davis to realize any new music, as The Night of the Purple Moon so ably demonstrates.

Aside from the handful of albums we’ve just discussed, this transformative period from 1967 to 1970 is (relatively speaking) sparsely documented and various and sundry tracks only appear on a handful of compilations which were issued in later years. Interestingly, a decent-quality audience recording from the Electric Circus in 1968 also circulates amongst collectors, giving some crude indication of the state of the “cosmo drama” during this period. Sorting all of this material out will be the focus of the next several Sun Ra Sundays.

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