Sibylle Zerr: Picture Infinity - Marshall Allen & The Sun Ra Arkestra
152 pages, paperback
Half a dozen books covering the life, times and music of enigmatic big band leader Sun Ra have appeared since his death in 1993, aged 79. Detailed biography, collections of interviews, early writings, poetry and street corner pamphlets give substantial insight into his artistic and philosophical roots. Weightier, academic tomes have studied the impact of jazz's most prolific composer on American history and culture.
What these studies have in commonand the very thing that sets Sibylle Zerr's book apartis that they tend to treat Sun Ra's death as the end of the line, a full stop in the history of the Arkestra, the big band Ra formed in the early 1950s. But as Zerr relates, the band barely paused for breath, continuing under tenor saxophonist John Gilmore until he passed away two years later in 1995. And for the past 17 years the Sun Ra Arkestra has continued to plot its unique course under the leadership of alto saxophonist Marshall Allen.
Zerra cultural anthropologist and journalisthas been following Sun Ra's Arkestra since 2003, and brings something of an insider's view into the workings of the big band, and, by extension, the continuing, self-perpetuating legacy of Sun Ra.
At 152 pages, of which 86 are photographs, this is neither a comprehensive history of Sun Ra's Arkestra, nor of Allen. Instead, Zerr weaves the observations and thoughts of Allen and current Arkestra members into the text of carefully crafted essays. A number of Sun Ra's colorful quotations and philosophical utterances-cum-poetry serve as a backdrop to these thoughts and Zerr's own insightful observations. These threads combine to create a vivid picture of a unique musical institution, one sustained by the musical vision and enduring myth of Sun Ra.
"I'm actually painting pictures of infinity with my music," Ra said in 1970, "that's why a lot of people can't understand it." What many people couldn't understand was Ra's esoteric cosmic philosophy, his claim to have been born on Saturn, his self-created myth, and the Arkestra's dressing-up in sequined robes that are part-Pharonic and part-Flash Gordon props. This mixture of Egyptology, cosmology, Afro-Futurism and the neo-hippy message of love and peace probably caused way more confusion than the sweeping musical reach of Ra's Arkestra. Zerr, as an unabashed acolyte, rationalizes this aspect of the Arkestra's personality in relatively convincing terms.
The colorful regalia and seemingly New Age universal view partly explains the Arkestra's continuing cult following, but it also underlinesthough not intentionally on the author's partwhy Sun Ra remains something of a controversial figure. It's almost impossible to consider Sun Ra's music without the image, myth and countless space metaphors getting in the way. Zerr stateswithout the slightest hint of irony"Until today, the musical genius of Sun Ra is clouded in an astral nebula of misunderstanding." Ra, however, was not without a sense of humor, once informing President Richard Nixon he had "24 hours to get off the planet."
In the Arkestra's personal idiom band members are not born but "arrive" on the planet and later "depart." Deceased members are referred to as "ancestors." The Arkestra doesn't arrive for a concert; it "docks" at "4pm terrestrial time." Zerr recounts how some of the Arkestra members believe that current pianist Farid Barron was chosen by Sun Ra, a dozen years after the leader departed. Barron himself says: "I feel that I have been initiated into a sacred fraternal order." Allen's houseand home to Arkestra members since 1968is called The Ark.
The real strength of the book lies in Zerr's vivid descriptions of the Arkestra on stage and her astute comparisons between Ra's dictatorial running of the band and Allen's more accommodatingthough no less focusedapproach. This provides a very real sense of the Arkestra's evolution and continuing growth. The musicians' devotion to Ra's musical ethos leaps off the pages and will convince even the most skeptical reader that this is no ghost band, but a thriving organism.
Whilst Zerr refers to the tremendous breadth and almost unparalleled scope of the Arkestra's music, interestingly, the Arkestra members do not readily identify with the term "free jazz": "Sun Ra did not like the word freedom," explains trombonist Tyrone Hill. "He liked discipline. It takes a lot of discipline to play this music. You have to know when to play it free and when not to."
There's no shortage of music either. When Allen took over the reins, he was entrusted with five suitcases full of Ra's scores and musical sketches. "Sun Ra left us a strong basis on which a huge musical structure could be built," explains the 88 year-old Allen, now in his 55th year in the Arkestra. "We have only just begun to build on it. That is why the Arkestra and the music of Sun Ra will survive." For Zerr, the Arkestra under Allen is merely a new chapter in the saga. For Allen, it's perhaps just the beginning of the story.