Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

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Monday, February 21, 2011

“Traveling the Spaceways: Sun Ra, The Astro Black and Other Solar Myths” edited by John Corbett, Anthony Elms, and Terri Kapsalis (Whitewalls)

Few musicians have attracted as much rabid adoration by what is essentially a small cult audience as did the late Sun Ra. Few musicians have also attracted as many naysayers, among music lovers who have yet to come to grips with Ra’s music, his flamboyant stage presentation, and/or his seemingly impenetrable philosophy combining ancient Egyptian and futuristic outer-space elements. This marvelous little book - 91 pages, crammed with tiny print and illustrative materials, most likely possessing as much content as many books three times its length - goes far in explicating much of the background which factored into the development of Sun Ra, the man and the myth. After reading it, I have reached the conclusion that, whatever else one might have to say about the man and his art, crazy he wasn’t.

This collection of essays, poems, and photos/posters/label-art/oddities has its origins in presentations made during a symposium in Chicago engendered by an art exhibit devoted to Sun Ra. The Windy City figures prominently in Sun Ra lore. Although he was born in Birmingham, Alabama (nickname, “The Magic City”, which later became the title of one of his most fabled LP’s), and spent his most successful years in New York and Philadelphia, it was Chicago which provided a home for his early apprenticeship and the subsequent beginnings of his “Arkestra”. Although a few of the writings included here strike me as self-indulgent and obscurant, the bulk of the essays give the Sun Ra fan a great deal to chew on.

Robert L. Campbell’s “The Early Arkestra: In The Clubs And On Film”, looks at the transformation of jazz pianist and arranger Herman Poole “Sonny” Blount into Le Sonyr Ra, scuffling in the small jazz and r&b nightclubs of Chicago, working on a sound and hoping to establish a reputation as an in-demand entertainer. Ra’s early, more easily accessible recordings have often puzzled fans of his later, more avant-garde work, but he did not begin as a fully-formed experimentalist. Nevertheless (as the next essay makes more clear), his arrangements often pushed the harmonic and sonic envelopes, using electronics and percussion in ways that were quite unorthodox for the 1950’s. It becomes clear that seeds were being sown. These were years of distinct non-success, with gigs being low-paying and short-term, often accompanying touring blues/r&b/jazz singers. He was lucky to keep a small combo (not yet a big band) going as long as he did. Campbell talks about Ra’s early recording sessions (though her has little to say about the Saturn r&b 45’s), as well as a film in which the band appeared. This half-dozen-year period witnessed the first Sun Ra LP’s and the first inklings of a Legend in the Making, but clearly Chicago was not opening up for Sun Ra, and he left hoping to find greener pastures in 1961.

While Campbell details the professional comings and goings of Sun Ra in Chicago, it is left up to Kevin Whitehead’s “Sun Ra’s Chicago Music: El Is A Sound Of Joy” to examine his actual musical development during this early period in more depth. He finds many of the later, by-now familiar elements of Sun Ra’s art already appearing in embryonic form in Chicago. Some of his discoveries struck me as surprising. For instance, I had always taken the title “El Is A Sound of Joy” to derive from an inexplicable corner of Sun Ra’s mysticism. But it turns out that the “El” in question is, very simply - and perhaps so obviously that I looked for the arcane where it did not exist! - the elevated railway, commonly called the “El”, which is such a distinctive feature of the Chicago skyline. We also find Ra arranging jazz and pop songs for nightclub performances, learning how to voice his instrumentation in intriguing ways. And we find him trying to conjure up the essence of world-music traditions during an era when authentic world-music was little known in America.

Graham Lock’s “Right Time, Right Place, Wrong Planet” is the real eye-opener among the essays, as he tackles the question of whether Sun Ra was indeed crazy, as seems to be the general consensus, even among his fans. What Lock tells us is rather that Ra was highly self-educated (being a voracious reader) in aspects of African-American history that most Americans simply do not know about. He also had a sense of humor, a sense of theatricality, and a fondness for creative metaphors. Lock talks about sermons by black preachers from early in the 20th century, in which the concept of Heaven is used in a metaphorical sense. He then points out how, as a black man living in the Space Age who had an antipathy to the Black Church, Sun Ra would employ many of the same metaphors, but replacing Heaven with space-travel references. Likewise, Lock suggests that the song “Let’s Go Fly A Kite”” may connect to the 19th-century slave codes, in which slaves were forbidden to fly kites. Seen in the light of hidden historical context, Lock opens the door for many of Sun Ra’s seeming eccentricities to be be looked at in an entirely new light. This would appear to be an area of Sun Ra studies which demands considerable further research.

In other essays, John Corbett looks at Sun Ra’s Chicago recordings from a critical perspective, revealing that many of Ra’s later-released LP”s were actually products of the Chicago era, but were not issued until after the artist settled in New York. He also examines the question of who was responsible for Saturn Records’ early cover art, which is a more interesting discussion than one might expect. Kerry James Marshall looks at some of the formative influences from the 1920’s and 30’s which may have affected Sun Ra’s worldview and contributed to the “strangeness” we often see in his philosophy, flamboyance, and actions. Calvin Forbes looks at Sun Ra from a Black Nationalist viewpoint, and connects Ra’s Egyptian-isms to the belief that ancient Egypt was a black African civilization. We’ve become so used to seeing portrayals of ancient Egyptians as swarthy white people in Hollywood films, and thinking of the current Arab-dominated population of Egypt as descendants of the original Egyptians (albeit without sufficient proof) that most of us have not given much thought to the possibility that ancient Egyptians may have been black. Terri Kapsalis offers a fascinating look at Sun Ra’s wordplay, and finds much meaning in it.

There are more, though to my way of thinking some of the shorter pieces tell us more about the authors of these essays than they do about Sun Ra or his art. But other readers may well disagree. I must confess I have never seen John Szwed’s bio of Sun Ra, so I am willing to consider that some of the personal discoveries I’ve made reading this book may have been covered there. But there are so many fresh perspectives in this collection that I have no qualms about giving a very high recommendation to anyone, fan or foe, who would like to better understand that self-styled man of mystery, Herman Poole Blount, Le Sonyr Ra.

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