Tag Archives: Arkestra

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