Brother From Another Planet

The cult and culture of Sun Ra.

Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra
By John F. Szwed
Pantheon Books; 320 pages; $20.97

In 1958, the jazz pianist known as Sun Ra recorded a remarkable album, Jazz in Silhouette. Borne aloft by splendid dancing melodies and often-startling syncopation, Jazz in Silhouette soared in the manner of Duke Ellington. The compositions were ingeniously conceived suites, where a boppish swing might break into a Cuban cha-cha-cha; or a trumpet’s eerie whisper, into a thunderous row of piano clusters. The best Sun on vinyl, Jazz in Silhouette is also the most obscure. (Click here for a clip from the album.)

That’s because Sun Ra’s reputation was established not by Jazz in Silhouette but by albums like the 1965 Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, whose garrulous improvisations and expressionist timbres–devoid of a tonal center, with much less of a tune to hang on to–made it an exemplary statement of free jazz. From a strictly aesthetic perspective, neither of the two volumes of Heliocentric Worlds holds up well against free-jazz albums from the same year by Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, and Don Cherry. The saxophones cry balefully, the drums rumble ominously, the marimba echoes warmly–yet the combined effect is more curious than moving. (Click here for a clip from Heliocentric Worlds.)

But then, as John F. Szwed makes clear in his new biography, Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, Sun Ra never aspired to conventional lyricism; he wished to re-create the roars and the silences of the cosmos. And, in Heliocentric Worlds, he forged an original style intended to do just that. Rejecting chords–the traditional foundation of improvisation–as an impediment to creativity, Sun Ra favored the more supple backdrop provided by a hypnotically sustained drone, or “space key.” This freed his sidemen to pursue the music in their heads–a fairly turbulent journey, as it turned out. Even today, the music sounds pretty far out, clanging with esoteric percussion, electronic distortion, and novel instrumental voicings. Heliocentric Worlds was also an expression of Sun Ra’s persona, a persona so extraordinary it ended up casting a permanent shadow over his art. The cover illustration of the second volume linked Sun Ra to a visionary heritage of space explorers including da Vinci, Copernicus, Galileo, Pythagoras, and Tycho Brahe. The songs were interstellar tone poems, bearing titles like “Cosmic Chaos” and “Outer Nothingness.”

Sun Ra’s fascination with outer space was no publicity stunt. Born Herman Blount in Birmingham, Ala. (he took the name of the Egyptian sun god in 1952), Sun Ra genuinely and fervently believed that he was a visitor from Saturn. He denied that he had been born and, therefore, that he would die–a claim he maintained right until he died, at age 79, in 1993. A short, rotund black man, dour of expression, he appeared in garish flowing robes, a shining turban, and space goggles. For nearly four decades, this cosmic jazz messenger performed, lived, and traveled across the world with an entourage of Afro-futurist troubadours called “Arkestra” (a cross between “ark” and “orchestra”). Sun Ra’s men believed in the myth of their leader’s origins and, like him, waited to be rescued from Earth by alien spaceships. According to Art Blakey, Arkestra saxophonist John Gilmore often boasted about his “fans on Mars or Jupiter.” The band’s concerts were filled with dance, light shows, midgets, fire breathing, and space chants.

Unlike most jazz musicians, Sun Ra was not a child of the black bourgeoisie. Poor and fatherless, he grew up in 1920s Birmingham, one of the most segregated cities in the country. As an adolescent, he was afflicted by cryptorchidism, an especially ferocious hernia. Terrified that “others might find out and that he might be treated as a freak,” he became a recluse, burying himself in music. When not practicing piano, he was delving into mystical treatises at the black-run Masonic Lodge. Declaring himself a conscientious objector to World War II, he directed a poignant appeal to the National Service Board: “I don’t see how the government or anyone else could expect me to agree to being judged by the standards of a normal person.”

Sun Ra’s struggle with disability is the real revelation of Szwed’s book. (Oddly enough, he neglects to mention Sun Ra’s apparent homosexuality, to which jazz aficionados refer as if it were common knowledge.) Unfortunately, Szwed does not explore it enough. Might it help explain Sun Ra’s attraction to theosophy, his repudiation of physical reality as a “prison,” his conviction that our bodies are mere vehicles, his obsession with secret layers of meaning? Sun Ra hinted at such connections to the tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin: “I must be from someplace else because I’m a total misfit.” Many of us have entertained such a thought about ourselves. The difference is that Sun Ra actually came to believe it. There’s a tale here as rich as, and in some ways akin to, Marshall Applewhite’s.

Like many ‘50s outcasts, Sun Ra came into his own in the ‘60s. He was honored as an elder statesman of the avant-garde, housed in Oakland by Bobby Seale, hired as a guest lecturer at Berkeley, embraced by white hippies. His appeal to different constituencies isn’t hard to fathom. To flower children, the Arkestra was a commune; to black admirers, a black commune. The band’s ensemble structure seemed to prefigure the black music cooperatives then being set up in Chicago, St. Louis, and Los Angeles, as well as such emerging family funk bands as Sly and the Family Stone. In 1979, the eccentric funk pioneer George Clinton said of Sun Ra: “This boy was definitely out to lunch–the same place I eat at.” It was a compliment.

Sun Ra saw himself as a charismatic leader who would deliver his followers through patriarchal discipline. The anarchism of his music was deceptive. Sun Ra’s dream was to rule something like an intergalactic Singapore. Music, he believed, provided a “model for government.” That model combined futurism, Egyptology, and black uplift. In the post-Sputnik age, Sun Ra argued, it was incumbent upon black musicians to master electronic instruments, notably the Moog synthesizer. As he put it, “Black people are behind on these things, and they’ve got to catch up.” (If Sun Ra were around today, he would almost surely be an Internet zealot–as is, for example, Ornette Coleman, whose performance piece, Tone Dialing, owes much to Sun Ra.)

His followers were to achieve transcendence through self-abnegation. In living with Sun Ra, Arkestra members renounced drink, drugs, and sex. Until the moment of “emigration to space,” Sun Ra’s word was the law. He could wake up the men in the middle of the night if he desired, for rehearsal, or for a windy lecture on ancient Egypt. Those who crossed him risked corporal punishment. “We’re less than his pupils,” explained one Arkestra musician. “We’re nobodies with the master.” Gilmore, a brilliant tenor saxophonist who influenced Coltrane and played with both Blakey and Miles Davis, gave up what was bound to be a distinguished solo career to play with Sun Ra for four decades. He never led his own group.

How was Sun Ra able to command this kind of sacrifice? Szwed stresses the musician’s affiliations with a powerful current of black American prophecy. From slaves’ dreams of being transported magically back to Africa to Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, the idea of a miraculous exodus has loomed large in black American narratives. It’s understandable why this fantasy of flight would take root in black America, which, at numerous moments in its history, has been given reason to fear that conditions in the diaspora can never be improved. Sun Ra’s spaceships did not come, as it were, out of nowhere. But Szwed overlooks a crucial distinction between Sun Ra and his forebears. He and his associates weren’t operating at the level of metaphor. Like the Nation of Islam, which claims Elijah Muhammad is currently circling Earth on a space shuttle, Sun Ra made his vision of liberation in Saturn the ideological bedrock of a rigorous theology, organization, and enterprise. There is a word for organizations that obey a charismatic leader, uphold fantastic founding myths, and assemble a body of secretive lore, but Szwed can’t bring himself to call the Arkestra a cult. It’s too bad he’s squeamish. As a jazz composer, Sun Ra never fulfilled the bright promise of his early recordings like Jazz in Silhouette. But by founding a cult, he earned a lasting place in the larger culture, which otherwise might have eluded him.