Sun Ra Arkestra (Interview)

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, a man of considerable prowess as a composer, bandleader and piano player, but one who will probably always be better remembered his outlandish "cosmic philosophy".

To do so however, does a serious disservice to his contributions to music. As Marshall Allen (member for over 40 years and current bandleader of Sun Ra's 'Arkestra') explains graciously to The Skinny "There is so much that Sun Ra has left us that it is impossible to encapsulate it - whether we are talking about the music or his philosophies." He has a point - 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 musicians to assist in cultivating and spreading his message. 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.

Humour though, played a large part - Sun 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. More specifically, his brand of symphony through cacophony has been the inspiration for a diverse body of work - George Clinton's P-Funk, and the works of MF Doom and Four Tet to name but a scant few.

The Arkestra continues to tour and perform as of October 2005. 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. When asked why, as extraordinarily talented musicians in their own right, members of the Arkestra have been happy to play on in his name, Allen explains. "As musicians, where else are we going to go - what more can we possibly say that Sun Ra hasn't already touched on? Would it be anything greater? The more that the future becomes the present, the more that what Sun Ra said in the past is understood and verified." And if that doesn't make sense, you just don't get it.
*New Version for print