Sun Ra: Brother from Another Planet

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In addition to The Universal Mind of Bill Evans, I also recently rediscovered the BBC documentary, Sun Ra, Brother from Another Planet. I have enjoyed his music since I discovered his ESP-Disk lp’s while in high school. My surfing club–Chickens of the Sea–even had local artist Chris Gordon design silk screen tee shirts with the words “Sun Ra Solar Arkestra”. I also loved the graphics on the ESP-Disk LP’s–one of them, pictured here, shows him alongside Copernicus, Kepler, Tycho Brahe, Galileo and other early cosmologists. And don’t  forget that ESP-Disk had liner notes in Esperanto.

I saw him twice in the 1980s: once at Myron’s Ballroom in downtown LA, the other time at Club Lingerie in Hollywood. At Myron’s he had his musicians suspended on ceiling lighting tracks, floating around like astronauts in space. Punks were there, jazz fans were there. It was an unforgettable evening, a mixture of Kansas City big band jazz and sounds from outer space.  Not to mention the elegant extraterrestrial clothing the band wore.  The lithe and tall June Tyson sang, “We Travel the Spaceways, from Planet to Planet” while Marshall Allen riffed on alto sax, and John Gilmore delivered Coltrane-like sermons on tenor.

I interviewed Sun Ra at the time. I didn’t know how to address him: Mr. Ra? Sun? Sonny? He told me about shopping for iridescent socks on Uranus (or was it Neptune?) He also told me that when you see someone with eyebrows that turn up at the sides, those upturns were actually antenna, and that person was extraterrestrial.

I know Sun Ra’s biography pretty well. It is a sad story, one of growing up in racist Birmingham, Alabama in the 1920s, being a conscientious objector during World War II and being in prison, his psychic isolation from jazz musicians–he didn’t drink, smoke, do drugs, chase women. He was asexual. Music was everything for him.

I prefer to celebrate his unique music and personality. We see him in George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, even Cee-Lo Green.  Sun Ra liberated a lot of subsequent artists who could do their own thing and not be afraid. And he even did a concert with John Cage in Coney Island, New York!

God bless Sun Ra. His star burns brightly. His planet (Saturn) will always shine on him.