January 24, 2010

Sun Ra Sunday

Sun Ra: The Creator of the Universe (The Lost Reels Collection Vol.1) (Transparency 2CD)

It is hard to believe, but in 1971 Sun Ra was briefly appointed lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley via the Regents’ Program and the newly-formed Department of Afro-American Studies. As Szwed points out, such an outlandish appointment was “only conceivable in the early 1960s and early 1970s”:

Every week during the spring quarter of 1971 he met his class, Afro-American Studies 198: “The Black Man in the Cosmos,” in a large room in the music department building. Although a respectable number of students signed up, after
a couple of classes it was down to a handful (“What could you expect with a course named like that,” Sun Ra once chortled). But a large number of local black folks regularly attended, always distinguishable from the students by their party dress. The classes ran like rehearsals: first came the lecture, followed by a half hour of solo keyboard or Arkestra performance. But it was a proper course -- Sun Ra after all trained to be a teacher in college [for one year at Alabama State A&M circa. 1935 (see pp.25-32)] -- with class handouts, assignments, and a reading list which made even the most au courant sixties professors’ courses pale. There was The Egyptian Book of the Dead; Bill Looney’s, Radix, a book of astrology; Alexander Hislip’s Two Babylons; the theosophical works of Madame Blavatsky; spiritually channeled tomes like The Book of Oahspe; Henry Dumas’s, Ark of Bones and Poetry for My People; LeRoi Jones’s and Larry Neal’s, Black Fire; David Livingston’s, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa; Theodore P. Ford’s, God Wills the Negro; Archibald Rutledge’s, God’s Children; the Spring 1971 issue of Stylus, the literary magazine of the black students of Temple University (which contained poetry by Sun Ra): John S. Wilson’s, Jazz: Where It Came From, Where It’s At (published by the United States Information Agency); Yosef A. A. Ben-Jochannan’s, Black Man of the Nile and His Family; Count Volney’s, Ruins of Empire; the King James version of the Bible (listed on the syllabus only as “The Source Book of Man’s Life and Death”); P.D. Ouspensky’s, A New Model of the Universe; Frederick Bodmer’s, The Loom of Language; Blackies Etymology; and other books on hieroglyphics, color therapy, the Rosicrucians, Afro-American folklore, and ex-slaves’ writings. When students returned after the first class to tell Sun Ra that the books were not available in the bookstores and were either missing from the library or had never been there in the first place, he merely smiled knowingly.

His list of suggested topics for student term papers summed up his interests at the time, but it also showed an astute sense of what universities expect their student’s papers to deal with: “The Striving of the Black Bourgeoisie,” “Negritude,” “Planning for the Future,” “The Role of Technology in Music,” and “Developing Relevant Culture.”

In a typical lecture, Sun Ra wrote biblical quotes on the board and then “permutated” them -- rewrote and transformed their letters and syntax into new equations of meaning, while members of the Arkestra passed through the room, preventing anyone from taping the class. His lecture subjects included Neoplatonic doctrines; the application of ancient history and religious texts to racial problems; pollution and war; and a radical reinterpretation of the Bible in light of Egyptology. Sun Ra the southern black man, the jazz musician, the militant, the hippie icon, the avant-gardist, was now Sun Ra, visiting lecturer (pp.294-295).

Apparently, the Arkestra was less than vigilant on the afternoon of May 4, 1971, as a tape recording of Ra’s fifty minute lecture survives and can be found on disc two of Transparency’s 2007 release, The Creator of the Universe (The Lost Reels Collection Vol.1). The sound quality is exceptionally good, all things considered, and you can clearly hear the sound of chalk on blackboard and the disconcerted giggling of students. Sonny’s voice is measured and calm, but there is an angry undertone to his discourses on race and black man’s failure to embrace his “alter-destiny.” While it would be easy to dismiss all this as the ravings of a lunatic (or pure charlatanism or fakery), that would, in my opinion, be a grave mistake. Sonny is witty and entertaining but also deadly serious; there is a method to his madness for he believed that by breaking the bonds of logic and received wisdom and thereby “decoding” mystical texts, humans could realize their spiritual nature, transcend earthly existence (death), and “do the impossible”:

I’m talking about something that’s so impossible, it can’t possibly be true. But it’s the only way the world’s gonna survive, this impossible thing. My job is to change five billion people to something else. Totally impossible. But everything that’s possible’s been done by man, I have to deal with the impossible. And when I deal with the impossible and am successful, it makes me feel good because I know that I’m not bullshittin’ (quoted in Szwed, p. 295).

Here, Sun Ra unequivocally claims that, at least sometimes, he is able to successfully “deal with the impossible” and his guileless statement about how this makes him “feel good” indicates this is, in fact, more than just mere bullshit. The truth of this assertion is evidenced by the music and structure of the Arkestra, where true freedom exists within the confines of extraordinary discipline and where a strictly hierarchical organization allows for genuine self-expression within a utopian society based upon the harmonious relations between people. Szwed devotes twenty-five pages to an extended paraphrase of Sun Ra’s philosophy, drawing upon a vast bibliography of interviews and articles in which Sonny expanded upon his ideas, from the nature of God and spirit, good and bad, angels and demons, life and death, truth, history and myth, racial relations, and music’s innate ability to overcome the limitations of language (pp.294-319). Despite surface appearances, all that carrying on about “interplanetary music” was more than just kitschy, space-age theatricality; it was about “creating myths about the future” (p.315): “Myth speaks of the impossible, of immortality” (quoted in Szwed, p. 316). On this recording of Sun Ra’s Berkeley lecture, you can hear him practicing “wordology,” constructing “cosmic equations” based upon “phonetic equivalence, as in homonyms and homophones, and recognizing euphemistic equivalence” (p.305). Listening to it, one feels more like an initiate into an ancient mystery cult than a student at a major research university and it is unsurprising that a permanent faculty appointment was not forthcoming. It is nonetheless a fascinating historical document which provides first-hand insight into Ra’s complex metaphysics. Even if Sun Ra’s cosmology is ultimately dubious, there can be no doubting the sincerity of his beliefs and the goodness of his works.


Disc one contains a forty-eight minute concert fragment recorded at The Warehouse in San Francisco on (supposedly) June 10, 1971. I am skeptical about this date as it would place it a mere two days before the Arkestra’s concert at J.P. Widney Jr. High School in Los Angeles and the band appears to have different personnel. (This concert is not listed in Campbell & Trent – I think it’s time for a third edition!) Specifically, the extended drum solo on track three sounds suspiciously like Clifford Jarvis, who does not appear on the June 12 show. Then again, Ronnie Boykins is definitely present on bass and Tommy Hunter, Lex Humphries, and Jarvis all traveled to Europe in the fall, so I suppose anything is possible. The sound quality is OK, probably recorded from the soundboard (vocals are way up front, drums way back), but it’s degraded in a most unfortunate fashion: the original master probably sounds very good (wherever it might be), but this CD is clearly several generations removed and there was obviously a “Dolby mismatch” along the way, resulting in muffled and swishy upper frequencies, most noticeable in the sound of the cymbals. Oh well, so it goes with Sun Ra’s “unofficial” discography.

The tape opens with an unknown number in the “Discipline” series of compositions, conceptually similar to “Discipline 15” but with differently un-resolving harmonies. Spacey improvisational sections follow statements of the slow, somber theme, featuring Boykins’s inimitable thrumming and bowing and (I’m guessing) Eloe Omoe’s growling and burbling bass clarinet. “Ra Declamation” is just that: a twenty-five minute mytho-poetic polemic full of cryptic admonishments and black-power sentiments, interspersed with moments of bashing free-jazz skronk. It is interesting to compare this to the U.C. Berkeley lecture and his venomous “curse” on Los Angeles two days later as Sonny mines related material absent the scholarly affectations of the former and the abject fury of the latter. Next up is an unknown title for ominous percussion and brooding trumpet which gives way to a lengthy yet oddly compelling drum solo. If this is Jarvis (and that hyperactive bass drum sure sounds like him), he is not as blithely self-indulgent as usual, resulting in a musically satisfying prelude to Sun Ra’s typically inventive synthesizer solo. Ra coaxes worlds of sounds from his MiniMoog, once again demonstrating his quick mastery of that technologically sophisticated instrument over the past year. “Satellites Are Spinning” follows with June Tyson and John Gilmore duetting on the loping sing-along. Sadly, the tape cuts off a mere two minutes into “Enlightenment.” Ouch.


I must admit to having deep ethical qualms about the Transparency label since most of their Sun Ra releases consist of amateur recordings that have circulated amongst collectors for years. As such, these CDs can best be described as “bootlegs.” I read someplace where Marshall Allen has granted Transparency the “moral right” to release these recordings and, in return, the Arkestra receives a percentage from their sales. That is all very well and good, but copyright law does not (as far as I know) recognize “moral rights” and, even if it did, it is questionable whether or not Allen retains those rights with regard to these recordings. Nevertheless, I have to admit that any effort to bring these tapes to light should be applauded by those of us who are fanatically obsessed with Sun Ra’s music. For the merely curious, I would suggest staying away from the Transparency CDs and sticking to the myriad “official” releases on offer. If you already have all that stuff, then by all means, indulge yourself; these recordings are well worth hearing, despite their dodgy provenance. But, as always, caveat emptor!

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