Remembering Sun Ra

Limited-edition press of a Sun Ra remix by Brendan Lynch/deUS
Limited-edition press of a Sun Ra remix by Brendan Lynch/deUS

Space is the Place—the wild space-fantasy film starring Sun Ra, the legendary experimental jazz artist—came out in 1974. It follows Sun Ra and his Arkestra as they travel to another planet, where they hope to create an off-earth home for African Americans. Back on Earth, they do battle with a pimp-overlord over the fate of their mission, and play some fantastic music.

This Friday, Bowerbird will screen a newly restored, digital version of this one-of-a-kind film at the Rotunda in Philadelphia. The event celebrates (just a little late) the movie’s 40th anniversary, and the centenary of Sun Ra’s “arrival,” as he called it, in 1914 in Alabama, as Herman Poole Blount. He settled in Philadelphia for the final chapter of a long and prolific career, “leaving” in 1993.

I saw Sun Ra and his Arkestra in the early 1970s, a little before Space is the Place premiered. I was a college freshman, and I’d never heard of him. A friend who was a musician took me to a little club in West Philadelphia that looked like a bar on the outside—maybe it was a bar. Crowded in at small tables, we sat just feet away from a phalanx of psychedelic Pharaohs: the members of Sun Ra’s Arkestra, dressed in shiny, many-colored robes, and headgear that included some tinfoil. They proceeded to blast me out of any thought I’d ever had about music and what it could be, building to a wailing, clanging, pounding wall of sound, even while the musicians seemed to know exactly what they were doing. That night the Arkestra played their guts out, making sounds that seemed devised to lift the club into earth orbit. Sun Ra may have intended to give black people a sense of transcendence and galactic-level freedom, but he also made room for someone like me, a white teenaged girl who’d studied classical music, to sense the far horizons he was aiming toward.

That night became a touchstone for me. Sun Ra’s joining of costumed spectacle and no-holds-barred playing made a kind of alchemy happen, and over the years I measured other experimental music and performance against it. No question, Sun Ra achieved serious regard in the jazz world, even as he influenced many other musicians, from George Clinton to Deep Purple to Phish. He may not have managed to transport his people to another planet, but he made music that suggested it was possible.

Space is the Place, screening as part of Bowerbird’s GATE @ The Rotunda

Friday January 16, 8 pm / 4014 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA

Introduction by Sun Ra biographer John Szwed / Free / more info at bowerbird.org

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