Originally published in Uncut’s February 2016 issue
How the interstellar pioneer of free jazz created a mystical, Afro-futurist epic as a gift for the Creator: “He was the most unusual person…”
While history is full of musical auteurs, single-mindedly pursuing their own niche interests and expanding the minds of a coterie of cult followers, few have been quite as dedicated to their art as Sun Ra. Born Herman Poole Blount in 1914 – though he claimed he was in fact from Saturn – and backed by his Arkestra collective, he released multiple albums of experimental jazz each year from 1957 until his death in 1993, sometimes in runs as small as 75 copies.
“He wrote at least one composition a day!” marvels Arkestra member Knoel Scott. “Every day. I remember I’d see him at the piano in the mornings. I asked him why, and he said, ‘Everybody all over this planet is always begging the Creator for things, but nobody ever gives the Creator anything. So every morning I give the Creator a song…’”
One of his most enduring gifts to the Creator remains “Space Is The Place”, a 22-minute epic that appears to mix Duke Ellington, West African funk and Afro-futurist mysticism. With the title repeated by female singers including the late June Tyson, the song builds and builds, propelled by percussion, free-jazz saxophones and Sun Ra’s interstellar organ.
“He pioneered a lot of things,” explains Val Wilmer, the British jazz photographer and writer who became good friends with Sun Ra and the Arkestra during the late ’60s and ’70s, “in the use of keyboards and so on in jazz. The other thing he did, the way they dressed in that Egyptian look, well, Earth Wind And Fire and lots of other bands were inspired by that.”
As well as acting as the title track and centrepiece of the Space Is The Place album, the song also gave its name to a feature-length film that Sun Ra and his group filmed in 1972. Mixing live footage with a surreal narrative, the movie dealt with time travel, teleportation and the emigration of all African-Americans to a distant planet. As Scott explains later on, this wasn’t just some Ziggy-style fantasy, but genuinely a deeply held mythological belief system for Ra and many of the Arkestra.
“He was the most unusual person,” says Marshall Allen, Sun Ra’s trusted lieutenant and now leader of the Arkestra. “He kept you working and kept ideas flowing until there was so much that it was sometimes overwhelming. It was once in a lifetime, you know?”
Danny Ray Thompson