Sun Ra: The Eternal Myth Revealed Vol. 1

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Author's note: Michael Ricci has ordained me with the power to come to you once a month and throw a little information your way. A lot of great music falls through the cracks, often enough because the people who make it don't live comfortably in some nice categorical box. If you're someone who prefers music to categorical boxes, this column is dedicated to you.

I'm starting things off with a look into a document that embodies the great American pioneering spirit. I hope this sets the tone for a look into some very rewarding music that doesn't get its fair consideration. Thanks.

Sun Ra

The Eternal Myth Revealed Vol. 1



Growing up in Philadelphia in the punk rock era as I did, my teen years were strangely informed by Sun Ra and his Arkestra. They lived in the Germantown section of town, together in a house on Morton Street, kind of a cosmic free jazz version of The Monkees or something. I lived around the corner from that house during the spring months of—I think—1985, and they seemed to rehearse all the time. Their music was literally in the air for me. And the annual Sun Ra Halloween shows at Grendel's Lair were epic, legendary events.

Over the years, I've worked with musicians who either worked closely with Ra and the Arkestra (singer and guitarist Phil Alvin, keyboardist Terry Adams}, or I've played with Arkestra members (saxophonist Knoell Scott, trombonist Tyrone Hill). They all spoke of Ra with intense respect and wonderment. But few people knew enough to comment on Sun Ra's immense recorded legacy. Tom Ardolino, drummer from NRBQ, was the first guy I knew who had all the records dating back to Ra's self-released singles from the 1950s on the Saturn label, and he started turning me onto that stuff in 1991 via his own compilation tapes. Five years later, Evidence put out its justly celebrated Sun Ra: The Singles double disc set. Doo wop, blues, hard bop, avant-garde—The Singles did something few journalists had been able to do: it put Sun Ra squarely in a knowable traditional black music context.

Evidence really did a wonderful job of reissuing the bulk of the early Sun Ra albums, finally presenting Ra's music with clarity and continuity. It suddenly seemed as if his Duke Ellingtonian 1950s hard bop phase had been absorbed into the 1990s post modern jazz conscience. Ra went from being considered the marginalized big band wing of the 1960s avant-garde to deserved veneration as another Charles Mingus. I'm simplifying, but you get the point.

The Eternal Myth Revealed is a 14 disc docu-biography of Ra's life and career, from his birth in 1914 up to 1959. In addition to his own music, it includes music he was influenced by, and a lot of stuff he may or may not have had a hand in as arranger, vocal coach, pianist or something else. Sun Ra's output was as prolific as Ellington's, and discographers have had nightmares and arguments attempting to document it accurately. This mammoth box set will raise as many questions as it sets out to answer, and will no doubt inspire controversy in a few corners. It's 17 hours of history and music, and it's riveting. I listened to it over a weekend, in two seven disc stretches. Then I dumped a bunch of the music into my iTunes.

The auteur behind this landmark is Michael D. Anderson, whose knowledge of jazz, rhythm 'n' blues, blues, Latin music and other styles is pretty staggering. His archival command of pre-war jazz and blues makes me hopeful that he will write a book about this stuff. EMR strips away element by element that almost insulting view of Ra as a hodgepodge crackpot from out of nowhere. Moving between Anderson's own narration are threads of Ra's own recollections, with relevant comments from Ray Charles, Coleman Hawkins, Bobby Blue Bland and a few other heavyweights. A vivid portrait of a black music world transforming itself emerges, as does a clear picture of Ra as a musician living at the crossroads of his time, very much a thorough professional but also a restless experimenter and (to use Uri Caine's expression) checker-outter. Ra was singular but no fluke, and Anderson does a fantastic job of tying together the threads of his influences. He knows his subject deeply, and does not shy away from editorializing and speculating. The approach is bound to infuriate the more scholarly types, but it fits Ra very well.

Anderson's musical selections—not only of Ra's own music, but of the music from which Ra drew as well, are spotless—and his taste is impeccable. The choices he makes not only illustrate why Ra would have been enchanted and influenced, but why you should be. Luis Russell, Don Redman, Bennie Moten, John Kirby and others are represented by some truly exciting Jazz Age jazz.

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, Mary Lou Williams, Jimmie Lunceford and of course Fletcher Henderson—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 imitating Billie Holiday). 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 and trombonist Janice "Ms. JJ" Johnson. 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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