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Hardly Strictly Jazz

Sun Ra: The Eternal Myth Revealed Vol. 1

By Published: April 9, 2012
According to Anderson, Clarence Williams was the first to record a Ra composition—"Chocolate Street"—in 1933. Williams did not credit the song's composer. Ra was then 18 or 19. His first LP as a leader was still 24 years away (Jazz By Sun Ra, Vol 1 on the short-lived Transition label), by which point he had cultivated his space-themed presentation, and "Chocolate Street" gives us a look at the seeds. The piece is properly Ellingtonian, and also—as Anderson points out—a close melodic cousin of Irving Berlin's "Coquette." "Chocolate Street" shows us Ra as a gifted creature of his time, if nearly interchangeable with any number of Ellingtons-in-training. Anderson presents music that Ra dug into—including John Kirby
John Kirby
1908 - 1942
bass, acoustic
, Mary Lou Williams
Mary Lou Williams
Mary Lou Williams
1910 - 1981
piano
, Jimmie Lunceford
Jimmie Lunceford
Jimmie Lunceford
1902 - 1947
composer/conductor
and of course Fletcher Henderson
Fletcher Henderson
Fletcher Henderson
1897 - 1952
arranger
—and we can hear the influences combining in a very apparent way. In the ensuing dozen years from "Chocolate Street," jazz was exploding, and Sun Ra was collecting the resultant sparks, flames and smoke—theorizing, internalizing and developing a lot of music, even if he wasn't yet recording.



The first unrefuted appearance of Ra playing on record finds him backing the legendary blues shouter Wynonie Harris in 1946 on a session for the Bullet label, a Nashville indie. This same year Ra settled in Chicago for what would be a 15 year stay. Arguably, this was his most important period, and he was prolific.

Just how prolific? Well, this is where the arguments will likely pick up, because there is a lot of music included in the box that may or may not actually include Ra's participation. As Anderson himself notes in hundred-plus page book (whose pages are not numbered), "Most of the materials collected here were never discussed by Ra himself in later years; much here has depended on the memories of the engineers and musicians who played with Ra."

To my ears, some of this stuff doesn't have Ra's fingerprints on it. But a lot of it does. I'm speculating, but so is Anderson. It's of little consequence, because whether or not Ra was directly involved with every song on here, this is the music community in which he made his way during that time, and it does sound right together as a fully realized portrait of the time and place.

EMR is rife with fascinating prototypical jewels that are absolutely Ra—including a solo pipe organ session from 1948, early electric keyboard experiments, the Red Saunders stuff he arranged in 1953 (including cuts with vocalist Joe Williams), rhythm 'n' blues sessions, even recordings of Ra as jazz vocalist (he sounds something like Al Hibbler
Al Hibbler
Al Hibbler
1915 - 2001
vocalist
imitating Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
1915 - 1959
vocalist
). It presents a clear and rounded picture of Ra as the consummate post-war black entertainment professional. There are early live recordings that are the important initial steps towards the Sun Ra we would come to know and very often love, culminating in a riveting 1958 live jam session that brings Ra together with no less than saxophonist Gene Ammons
Gene Ammons
Gene Ammons
1925 - 1974
sax, tenor
and trombonist Janice "Ms. JJ" Johnson
Janice "Ms. JJ" Johnson
b.1953
vocalist
. And of course, there is a generous sampling of those incredible Saturn recordings of the 1950s that established him as one of the most original and audacious big band leaders, pretty much ever.

As a document of Ra's life and musical world from 1914-59, EMR is a landmark, even a new take on the jazz biography. Except for Charles Mingus, who else could be examined in so sweeping a format? It's not really a trend waiting to catch on. And its $110 pricetag doesn't exactly encourage imitation. But it will invite speculation and touch off arguments while it stands as the definitive bio-document of this major artist. Cool.

(Postscript: a second volume is planned, which will pick up chronologically where this box leaves off and will cover Ra's work up to his death in 1993.)


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