January 17, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra and His Intergalactic Infinity Arkestra:
J.P. Widney Jr. High School, Los Angeles, CA 6-12-71 (AUD 2CDR)

After their (semi)triumphant tour of Europe, the Arkestra’s return to the United States must have been something of a letdown, with paying work still somewhat hard to find and the musicians once again scattered between Phildelphia, New York and Chicago. Szwed mentions a gig at the beginning of 1971 at the Village Vanguard as well as a concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s prestigious “Composers in Performance” series in February (p.285). According to Campbell and Trent, the Arkestra also played Sunday and Monday nights at The East Village In in March (and perhaps at other times later in the year) (p.170). But the West Coast beckoned once again and in April, the Arkestra headed out for an extended stay in California appearing at the first UC Jazz Festival at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley on April 23 and a two-night stand at San Francisco’s Harding Theater on April 30 and May 1 (Id.). Tommy Hunter had once again rejoined the group and remembers Sun Ra writing the "Discipline" series of compositions during this time, rehearsing a new one with the band every day (Id. and see also Szwed, p.285).

After a stint in Berkeley, the Arkestra accepted Bobby Seale’s invitation to move into a house in Oakland owned by the controversial Black Panthers. Sonny had generally positive feelings about the Black Panthers’ goals but was skeptical of their incendiary politics; not surprisingly, this move brought the Arkestra some unwanted attention from the authorities:


Sonny was impressed by the practical side of the Panthers -- their ideas for schools, a breakfast program for children, providing groceries for the needy, building a community – and though he did not share their theoretical underpinnings and their violent implications, he thought they had the best program he had heard of for black people. The Arkestra was now at least remotely connected to the group that J. Edgar Hoover declared the biggest threat to American internal security. So as benign as the Arkestra’s activities were – they played a local mental hospital, performed at the wedding at the Rosicrucian Museum in San Jose, worked at clubs like the Native Son, and gave free concerts in the parks – they found themselves under surveillance by both the FBI and the Oakland police (Szwed, p.286).

On June 11, the Arkestra travelled down to Los Angeles where Danny Thompson’s cousin, Alden Kimborough, had arranged a concert at the J.P. Widney Junior High School. A school for handicapped children, it was inauspiciously named after Joseph Pomeroy Widney (1841-1948), one of the first presidents of the University of California -- and a virulent racist. In 1907, Widney published a two-volume manifesto entitled, Race Life of the Aryan People (Funk & Wagnall), which predicted that Los Angeles would some day become the center of white supremacy (Id.). Widney’s malevolent spirit seems to loom over the proceedings: For while the concert was well-received by the audience, “things turned ugly when the custodial staff – not knowing Sun Ra’s practice of playing without regard for time – interrupted the concert by turning off the lights. Sun Ra was furious and lectured the guard and the audience on injustice, race, leadership, and civil order, and ended by putting a curse on the City of Angels” (p.285).

The whole thing (including Sun Ra’s curse) was recorded on a reel-to-reel machine “that was set up right in the middle of the band” (Campbell & Trent, p.171), presumably by Dr. Reggie Scott, who provides some six minutes of embittered commentary at the end of the eighty-two minute tape. The sound quality is, unfortunately, predictably awful, with loud passages overloaded to the point of pure distortion (not to mention the serious wow-and-flutter issues throughout); but the microphone’s position on the stage otherwise provides some immediacy to the music, making less-loud portions (almost) listenable. What is notable about this recording, besides the return of Hunter on drums, is that it marks the first appearance of bassist Ronnie Boykins since his defection for greener pastures in 1968. Somehow, Boykins was cajoled into joining the Arkestra on its California sojourn, perhaps after being informed of the band’s enthusiastic reception in Europe. His distinctive and effortlessly virtuosic bass playing had been integral to the development of Sun Ra’s music during its formative years and his return to the band was certainly most welcome. Boykins would continue to play off and on with the Arkestra through 1974 but Sonny was never able to find anyone else who could really fill his shoes except for perhaps Alan Silva, who had just recently left the band for good. Sadly, although Boykins’s presence can be felt driving the rhythm section, his contributions to this concert are mostly inaudible.

The performance begins with an unidentified title featuring Sun Ra’s portentous electronic keyboards which summon forth a series of hectoring space chants. After a leisurely romp through “Enlightenment,” the ensemble gradually comes together to build up a dense polyrhythmic groove on the lilting “Love in Outer Space,” with Ra taking the lead on organ. As usual, “Watusi” explodes into an extended percussion jam and “Second Stop is Jupiter” serves as a platform for some bluesy, gut-bucket group improvisation, anchored by Boykins’s rock-solid arco riffing. Suitably warmed up, the band launches into the infinitely challenging “Shadow World” at a cartoonishly fast tempo. Unfortunately, the recording is so distorted, it’s impossible to tell what’s going on musically aside from Ra’s furious organ playing and some braying horns. Intermittently, the ensemble drops out, leaving a saxophone or trumpet to solo a cappella. After about fifteen minutes, Ra enters with a dramatic organ chord to introduce the first known performance of “Discipline 15,” a through-composed dirge, similar to the “prototypes” they were playing in Europe. Basically a sequence of sweet but wayward vertical harmonies orchestrated at the extremes of instrumental registers, it is all unresolved tension. This is immediately followed by a snaky improvisation by Marshall Allen on oboe, but he is soon overwhelmed by roaring bass and pounding percussion. June Tyson sings “They’ll Come Back” with a sure-footed sense of pitch and timing over randomly tinkling bells, crashing gongs, clattering percussion, and what sounds like breaking glass (!); but when the full ensemble enters with the theme, the sound quality degenerates into horrific noise. Frankly, it sounds like a cable is loose, creating an electrical short-circuit. Egads! The sound clears up somewhat for the last known performance of “Walkin’ on the Moon,” but the tape quickly fades out after the first couple of minutes.

Apparently, the custodians shut off the lights a short time after, as the tape next picks up in the middle of “The Curse.” And, wow, Sun Ra is pissed off! For more than five minutes, Sonny rains down sheets of radioactive organ and angrily rants about darkness and light, race and righteousness:

The darkness means nothing to you. It’s my home. And my people are dark and black….there’s nothing but darkness anyway and there’s no escape for white, yellow, brown or black for what I represent. And you can believe it if you want to or not; I don’t care! This planet needs me! I don’t need it!…You cannot afford to take a chance. I’m not playing with anything, I’m not Christ, I’m not righteous, I’m so evil…I’ll destroy the whole planet! I’m here to do something! I’m a product of nature! I don’t care anything about the governments of man, I don’t care anything about anyone who is not true and sincere. There is no excuse for any man to mistreat another man. I will not tolerate it! I don’t care if you’re the strongest government on the face of the earth, you are a part of nature!...Do not ever turn the lights out on me! You may be ever so light, but you don’t own anything! You are here by the grace of the god you say you worship!… You will wake up! Black people don’t need to wake up, they got me -- you don’t have nothin’!

Sun Ra ends with an explicit threat: “The birds don’t have to stop playing at one o’clock; why should I? You just had one earthquake…you might expect another!” Whoah. This followed by an eerie minute or so of the audience exiting the auditorium, muttering in stunned disbelief; meanwhile some woman invites everyone to meet “at 4506 Southwest” for further consciousness-raising experiences. The tape concludes with Dr. Reggie Scott’s monologue (over Sun Ra music), in which he recalls an “embarrassing evening for what could have been a perfect evening.” In a coolly angry voice, Dr. Scott laments:


Sun Ra and his band never played better. The crowd never responded better. The people loved and begged for more. But it was ended; ended in another kind of tragic commentary on sensitivity, on responsibility, on man’s -- black man’s -- failure to share the artistic point of view, share the love of art with the artist…The crowd hungered for more, but was not permitted. It was embarrassing to people who love and worship the mighty Sun Ra. The band wanted to play. Sun Ra wanted to play. The audience wanted more…The crowd was at a feverish pitch to hear more Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Infinity Arkestra but it was brought to a halt by the powers that be.

Dr. Scott goes to on to describe the “furious” Sun Ra cursing the City of Los Angeles and concludes: “Sun Ra remains the myth. Sun Ra remains the puzzle. Sun Ra remains undisputed. Sun Ra can only be interpreted in one of two ways: You either go into the galaxy with him or stay left behind. It was that kind of evening. It was that kind of night…” Indeed.

Sun Ra would stay in Oakland until well into 1972, but events would soon overwhelm the Black Panthers when the powers that be turned the lights out on the black power movement (such as it was). And as Ra’s international touring career grew, his political emphasis would necessarily soften into a more pan-racial, intergalactic ecumenicalism. This recording, although of extremely poor fidelity, is a rare document of Sun Ra at his most militant and is worth hearing for “The Curse” alone. Powerful stuff!

1 comment:

WOO DOPS said...

I found a copy of this concert after I read your post..don't mess with the Ra! The tape distortion is unfortunate but I can handle that, even quite like it. Sun Ra could always make the best noise anyway. Great blog and keep you the terrific work.