Sun Ra’s 100th Birthday and Irrealism

[posted by Greg]

It might be going a bit far for us, as irrealists, to claim the great jazz musician, bandleader and Afro-futurist Sun Ra as one of our own. But I can certainly report having my sense of reality undermined anytime that I saw Ra and his Solar Jet Set Arkestra. Certainly one does not expect to go to a jazz concert and, after the band sans leader has warmed the audience up with a tune or two, to see the band’s singer get up and start singing the lyric “When the world was in darkness, and darkness was ignorance, along came Ra,” and then, as the rest of the band repeated the refrain “Along came Ra,” to see Sun Ra himself, dressed in a kind of futurist-Egyptian garb, coming onstage. Nor did one expect, as happened at a concert at Chicago’s Navy Pier in 1980, to hear a long monologue from Ra, detailing how he had once been the pharaoh of Egypt but had given up his kingdom for immortality. And beyond the unexpected theatrical juxtapositions there were the musical ones, as the band effortlessly moved back and forth between playing with the raw energy and deceptive simplicity of a 1920s or 1930s jazz territorial band and with the sophistication and boundary-breaking sensibilities of the cutting-edge avant-garde group that they also were.

Some of the sense of strangeness of these performances came from not appreciating the musical and cultural roots of Sun Ra, who in his youth played with the great 1920s bandleader Fletcher Henderson and whose stage sensibilities lay in the more theatrical jazz of, e.g., Cab Calloway, which preceded the sanitizing of big band jazz that occurred in the course of the 1930s and 1940s. In that sense, he was both a throwback to a previous era and yet an exemplar of the avant-garde. But it also flowed from the personality of Sun Ra himself, aided by his brilliant musicians, including vocalist June Tyson, tenor saxophonist John Gilmore, and alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, and the whole tradition of the touring big band, which the Arkestra exemplified.

In 1985 Alice and I were living at the Blackstone Hotel in downtown Chicago when the Arkestra had a two-week engagement at the Jazz Showcase, which was located in a room off the lobby of the hotel. The whole of the fifteen or so member Arkestra stayed at the hotel as well, and so for that two weeks we would frequently encounter its members as they came and went from rehearsals, ate at the diner downstairs, and so on. Like any touring band they lived in a world of their own, but this was obviously a very unique world, influenced as it was by the singular vision of Sun Ra. And here, perhaps, we could make a leap to some of the icons of irrealism, for if exceptionally distinct visions of the world, with brilliant art flowing from them, characterized figures such as Kafka and Borges, then the same can certainly also be said of Sun Ra.