You have a choice: accept that Sun Ra was born Herman (Sonny) Blount in Alabama, or can take his word that he was an angel from Saturn. Given the perspicacity of my readers I can assume which you lean, and, anyway, being a Saturnian angel neatly explains why Sun Ra was light years ahead of the pack in jazz innovations.
After arranging and playing piano for the influential Fletcher Henderson in the 1940s he immersed himself in Egyptology, and re-emerged as Le Sony’r Ra, an angel sent to spread the Creator’s message and enlighten Planet Earth. Formed in the early 1950s, his Arkestra looked back to classic jazz, sideways at doo-wop and forward to pre-empt the sonic adventuring and exotic textures of the ’60s. A decade later he would be among the first jazz musicians to embrace electric and electronic keyboards.
The brilliant multi-reeds player Marshall Allen, now 89, fell under Sun Ra’s spell in 1957 after studying at the Paris Conservatoire. “I thought I knew how to play,” he recalls. “But I got with Sun Ra and everything I do he’d say, ‘Well that’s good, but that’s not what I want.’”
Sun Ra wanted his musicians to play with their spirits rather than their minds or ears. “He’d be talking about going to the moon and quoting the bible and all these things,” Allen continues, “and I’d be saying ‘What about the music?’” Where Allen expected discussion of notes, Sun Ra espoused philosophies that lay behind them. “I had to kind of brainwash myself,” he says.
Despite the trappings of kookiness Sun Ra was a strict disciplinarian. “I was kinda wild, so I needed that,” says Allen. “I had to cut out some of these good-time and crazy things that musicians are given to. I’d had the army discipline, but this was another kind of discipline for civilian life, for music. So I just shut up and listened to everything he was talking about, even if I didn’t understand. He was a very warm person, but he didn’t stand for no fools.”
During the ’50s Sun Ra decreed the band adopt exotic costumes in place of their blazers and bow-ties. “The Chicago Opera had some old William Tell costumes,” says Allen,” and we took ’em, and took some of the stuff off, cos all the fellas were shyin’ off of wearing all those colours. But Sun Ra said the costumes reflected your personality and your colour and your way… We got used to it after a while.”
When the visionary composer left our galaxy in 1993 he had provided everything that Allen had needed artistically for 36 years. “Sun Ra was a great band-leader, and he’d always have something new every day,” Allen says. “That’s why I stayed with him so long. He’d write amazing music for each musician, according the personality and what horn you played.”
In 1995 Allen assumed the leadership, keeping alive Sun Ra’s vast repertoire alongside pieces by Duke Ellington and others. He is now convinced the 63-year-old band will continue its intergalactic journey when he is gone.
Sun Ra Arkestra, Sydney Festival, State Theatre, January 18.