Being a bold creative genius who flouts the rules of society to create art that has little to no commercial value for five decades on the trot takes a lot of balls. Even more so if you were a black man in the southern US in the early part of the 20th century.
Sun Ra was born Herman Blount in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914. Sometime in 1936, Blount said he had some sort of revelation that revealed to him that he had been born on Saturn and was brought to Earth for a divine musical purpose. Although he had played piano previous to this, after the “Saturn incident” he spent all of his time practising, avoiding friends and family in the process. He was a conscientious objector during the Second World War, something that would have been hell for anyone to endure, yet again, surely much, much worse for a black man in the South. Ra only ever hinted at what he experienced during the years 1942 through ’45 but it isn’t hard to imagine how horrible it all was.
After the war ended, Ra moved to Chicago, determined to be a professional jazz pianist in what was one of the biggest scenes in the States at the time. He found some success, playing with blues singer Wynonie Harris before being in the band of Fletcher Henderson, a big band era name in Illinois. But Sun Ra had a higher calling and started his own group in the early 50’s. In some form or another, he kept a band of his own going for the next 40+ years.
When speaking of underrated albums, truth is you could put any album in Sun Ra’s catalogue on such a list. And the temptation in writing this was to simply put my favourite Sun Ra album on here (which, for the record, is the first thing he ever recorded, the magnificent “Jazz by Sun Ra” which features the immortal “Brainville”) – both the man and his voluminous discography (he recorded over 100 albums) are massively underrated. Yet instead, I’ve chosen “Lanquidity”, a mostly jazz funk thing Ra recorded in 1978. That this and “The Alice Cooper Show” were released eight months apart from one another freaks me out a little; they sound like they come from different planets to one another.
The album is bookended by two numbers that sound a little like progressions on the sort of stuff Ra was doing in the late 60s. Kind of soundscapes, free jazzy with hints of big band melodies floating through. In the middle of the album are three numbers which are all Ra’s take on jazz funk. “Where Pathways Meet”, “That’s How I Feel” and “Twin Stars of Thence” (a classic Ra-esque song title) – none of them sound like what Herbie Hancock was doing around the same time, but they do sound like that sort of stuff put through Sun Ra’s unique creative sieve. Not being one of his (regarded now, since the 1990s) “classic” early albums, “Lanquidity” is mostly forgotten, even by hardcore jazz heads (hell, even by hardcore Sun Ra fans).
Part of what interests me about the album (and thus why I’ve drawn it into this series) is that Ra decided to try the jazz funk thing in 1978, at a time when even the potential commercial value of such a move was by then nil. As if Ra was only comfortable with the genre now that its heyday had passed. This chimes with his whole career: still interested in big band in the mid-50s, when it had become very passe; embracing free jazz in the mid to late 60s when everyone else was going towards fusion (although in fairness, he did catch the tail end of this and managed the most notoriety in jazz circles he ever would achieve while still alive around ’65-’67 with records like “The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra”); finally, trying jazz funk in the late 70s, when everyone was just upping sticks and going full on disco. This helped Ra survive the 80s, when he made some funk records that sound even more impressive given when they were created (see: “Nuclear War”, a sort of proto-hip hop/jazz crossover that sounds way better than I’ve just made it sound).
What can one take as a life lesson from the career of Sun Ra? That perseverance pays off? Not really: he lived in poverty by most yardsticks for most of his adult life, only really getting any due whatsoever when he died in 1993. That a man of Ra’s genius felt so trapped by what his skin colour made of him in his own country (discounting the veracity of the Saturn story for the moment) that he felt the need to re-imagine himself as hailing from a gas giant 750 million miles away? Perhaps, but that still isn’t quite it.
In the year 2000, a man named Irwin Chusid wrote a semi-obscure book (mirroring his subjects) entitled “Songs in the Key of Z: the Curious Universe of Outsider Music”. It detailed what Chusid felt counted as “outsider music”, which consisted of artists such as The Shaggs, Westley Willis, Jandek and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. Sun Ra is included in Chusid’s definition and has a section in the book dedicated to him. In some ways I can see why: Ra was a cult artist, who kept a reasonably large band together over the course of several decades, often involving said band members living in conditions that were closer to being in a cult than a jazz band. In other, much more crucial ways, however, it seems really unfair to place Ra in this category. All of the four artists I mentioned there, and I say this as fans of all of them, are musically fairly terrible. That is, in fact, a huge part of their appeal. Placing Sun Ra in this category feels suddenly wrong. He was a fantastic jazz pianist – in fact, apart from Thelonious Monk and McCoy Tyner, I think he is the best jazz pianist of all time. Ra had a distinct style that is instantly recognisable. He could play any jazz standard imaginable. Ra was no amateur, setting out to make weird music because that’s all he could do; he was a pioneer that decided to try and break the mould. All of his bands were highly competent as well, from the mid-50s until his death.
I guess it comes down to this: do I like Sun Ra so much because of the mystique? The peripatetic wandering group dedicated to their craft, led by a man who thought he was from Saturn? I think that was part of what drew me to him in the first place, but not what kept me still interested in his music thirty years after I first came upon it. Truth is, I think the “Space is the Place” vibe probably detracted from Sun Ra’s potential audience; those who would have heard in him the truly interesting intersection of bebop, big band and free jazz could have been put off by the perceived insanity at the heart of it.
I know I’m two down in my pentology and I’m still going rather thin on the whole “effect on politics and society” thing: I feel a bit like George Lucas should have felt after making “The Phantom Menace”, having burned a third of his trilogy telling 0% of the necessary story, using what screen time he had to set up future video game franchises and have Jar Jar Binks tell shit jokes for small children instead. But stick with me, I’ll get there.
Next time: an English band that is kind of obscure in some senses makes what is seen as their most mediocre record! But I disagree! Something about the Falklands that will make me feel a lot less like George Lucas!