Sun Ra Arkestra

This is Sun Ra; of course he's from Saturn

Feature by Paul Mitchell | 16 Apr 2006
During his final illness, Sun Ra's baffled physician called a neurologist for his advice. "This man insists he's from Saturn. What should we do?" The second doctor arrived, and taking one look said, "This is Sun Ra; of course he's from Saturn."

Thus in 1993 were ended the days of the man known as the 'Salvador Dali' of jazz, and possibly the key component in the loosely defined movement known as 'afro-futurism'.

Despite his prowess as a composer, bandleader and piano player, Sun Ra will probably always be better remembered for his eccentricity of character and his outlandish "cosmic philosophy". This however, does a serious disservice to his contributions to music. Long before Miles Davis had presented us with his electric jazz fusion, Sun Ra (birth name: Herman Blount) had introduced keyboards, synthesisers and a spirit of freewheeling invention into the form.

Despite his downright oddness as a person, he also had little difficulty recruiting supremely talented musician to assist in cultivating and spreading his message. Although the personnel of this 'Arkestra' were subject to variation since its inception in the 1950s, there remained a loyal core membership, in particular three talented saxophonists: Marshall Allen, John Gilmore and Pat Patrick. Each would devote over forty years to Sun Ra's bands.

Sun Ra was quite adamant that all members double up on assorted percussion instruments and were also expected to adopt his own ascetic lifestyle – in other words, no drugs, no women, and very little pay. Their mission was to strive for innovation and spirituality in music. More specifically, his brand of symphony through cacophony has been the inspiration for all kinds of joyous experimentation - George Clinton's P-Funk, and the works of MF Doom and Four Tet to name but a few.

The Arkestra continues to tour and perform as of October 2005. First directed by John Gilmore, then after his death, by octogenarian Marshall Allen. It is a remarkable testament to the impact of the Sun Ra legacy, that these talented musicians are content to endeavour keeping his memory alive. Certainly the humour remains intact. Su Ra delighted in telling people he had been sent to earth by an interstellar agency, and liked to dress as some kind of Space Pharaoh. The outfits remain, and will be one, just one element of what should be an otherworldly occasion.
Sun Ra Arkestra play The Liquid Room, Edinburgh on April 28 and The Tramway, Glasgow on April 29.