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Why Buy Old Sounds?


Sun Ra’s business card.

It’s a good question.

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  • howard

    the ra was something else all right: i was lucky enough to see him and the arkestra a good 15 times or so, starting in the mid-’70s.

    anyone with an interest in ra should definitely read the john szwed bio; as for the music, start with jazz in silhouette.

    the funny thing is that for all his love for advanced harmonies, out there intonation, small instruments, and percussion of all kinds, the ra loved old music: duke ellington and fletcher henderson were touchstones for him.

    • Richard

      Since Ra has been dead for twenty years now, his music is now old.

      Only got to see him once. A unique experience. Havent read the Szwed bio. Does he come to any conclusion whether Ra believed the outer space mythology he promulgated about his origins or whether it was just showmanship?

      • A book came out about 7 or 8 years ago that was nothing more than reprints of the handouts Sun Ra gave to people on the streets of Chicago about his ideas. The extent to which it was belief or performance is hard to know, but it was definitely more than just a stage act.

        • howard

          yes, i’ve seen that too, erik, and richard, in short, yes, mr. herman blount believed, but he was also very influenced by street preachers and certainly was very conscious of creating a presence.

          two wonderful and inter-related ra stories: many members of the band lived for years (one gathers that marshall allen and some of the ongoing tribute band survivors still do) lived in a communal house in the philly working class neighborhood of germantown, and then, in the early ’60s, when they had a regular weekly gig at slug’s on the lower east side in new york, they would go up to new york on the train in costume, gig all night, and then join the morning commuters on the train back to philly!

          talk about your grand fly on the moment opportunity: over here you got your exhausted members of the arkestra in full regalia and over there you got your 3-piece suited business types trying to get to work and read the wall street journal….

          • Richard

            I’m sure you’ve heard them, Howard, but fascinating listening are the doo wop and r&b sides which Sun Ra produced on his own label as 45s and 78s and sold at gigs. Yochanan’s Hot skillet Mama and Muck Muck are incredible if you like demented, screaming hot r&b

            • howard

              richard, funny thing is, i considered, in recommending jazz in silhouette, continuing on with 3 more, which i’ll do now: “heliocentric worlds” (the first sun ra album i ever heard), “space is the place” (probably my actual favorite ra to listen to), and then the material you’re talking about, which can be found on “singles” (including what i believe is the original of “rocket number 9,” later covered by nrbq).

              but as long as we’re talking sun ra exotica, then we must discuss “batman and robin: the sensational guitars of dan and dale,” a quickie cash-in on the success of the batman tv show that featured ra on organ!

              p.s. as long as we’re really talking sun ra exotica, of course you know that governor deval patrick is the son of one of ra’s long-time saxophonists, pat patrick.

              • My personal favorite is Purple Night.

                • i have to admit, i don’t know that one (it’s pretty hard to keep up with the entire ra catalog!), but i’ll have to track it down, especially given that i see upon looking it up that don cherry is also on it.

              • Also my interest in a Deval Patrick presidency has just gone up significantly, given the possibility of having the survivors of the Arkestra play at the inauguration.

                • fwiw, they were estranged, but still: father and son.

                • hit submit too soon: how are you surviving “snowstorm hitler” erik?

          • Western Dave

            And we have a very nice mural for Sun Ra in Vernon park here in G-town. The communal house is still around, btw.

            • howard

              i thought i’d seen an interview with marshall allen several years ago that suggested that he and other still occupied the house.

    • BobS

      Sun Ra played briefly with Fletcher Henderson in the ’40s, who my dad listened to a lot, along with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Artie Shaw, … he loved big band music.
      I saw Sun Ra once, at the Michigan State Fairgrounds in 1969, at one of the festivals that were popular at the time. Also on the bill were the MC5 (who cited him as an influence), Chuck Berry, Dr. John the Night Tripper, the Stooges, the Bonzo Dog Band, Johnny Winter, Joe Walsh and the James Gang, as well as the Amboy Dukes with Ted Nugent and a ton of other local Detroit and Michigan acts. Awesome 2 days of sights and sounds for my 15 year old ears and eyes.

      • howard

        bobs, as you probably know, not only did mc5 think of the ra as an influence, but their one-time polemicist/manager, john sinclair, was a big admirer/supporter, which led to the band appearing 1972=74 at the ann arbor jazz and blues festival, which is a long lead up to the fact that you can relive your youthful memories by checking this recent release of those live performances out.

  • duckbilledplacelot


    • Vance Maverick

      I’m sorry, your words were digitally encoded (UTF-8, according to my browser), and they only reached me after a disastrous loss of fidelity. Could you try again in analog?

  • Dr Paisley

    Kansas City band BCR (Black Crack Review) played with Ra, among many others, in their 30+ year continuing existence. They are definitely worth a listen.


  • “Art means new art.” – Arnold Schoenberg

    • efgoldman

      Yeah, but now that his music is old art, not that many people listen to it, do they?
      [I studied that stuff in college. Had to mark the toerows with colored pencils. In the dark ages. No computers, all the manuscripts done by hand in pencil or India ink. Before a wise ass gets in, yes there was electric light to work by.]

      • efgoldman

        toerows = tone rows.

        • Vance Maverick

          Is it a popularity contest? Schoenberg at his best (Piano Trio, Five Pieces for Orchestra) was pretty great. And his opinions, like that one, are trenchant.

          • efgoldman

            As a guy who spent 20 years in classical music radio, let me tell you it certainly is. Play Schoenberg (even innocuous Schoenberg) during the day, and the program director (and listeners) would get right up in your grill.
            Hell, this was the 70s through the early 90s, and you took a real chance playing “Rite of Spring” in daytime. I used to introduce it by placing it in chronological context: “this was written only 20 years after the New World Symphony…” Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.

            • Vance Maverick

              I’m sorry the experience scarred you so. Classical radio is not the right frame of reference, if we’re beginning with Sun Ra.

              I remember vividly my first encounter with that music. I was a teenage classical music snob and aspiring composer who admired the avant-garde as one might see it through that lens: a progression leading to Stockhausen and Boulez. But visiting my hippyish cousin in Portland, in a crumbling house in a “bad” part of town, I saw a videotape of the Arkestra. I remember my emotion as simple fear — could comparable extremes be reached along such different paths? (It would take me a while to follow this idea toward its consequences.)

              • c u n d gulag

                Great card!

                Back in the early 80’s, a buddy of mine from work, and a Jazz drummer, played me a reel-to-reel tape recording of a Sun Ra & His Arkestra performance he had somehow or other gotten a hold of.

                Part of me didn’t like it, since I was a classically trained pianist when I was a kid, who loved Bach, Mozart, Chopin, and pre mid-20th Century “Classical” music.

                Part of me loved it.
                I asked to hear it again, so I guess I liked it more than it annoyed me.
                But, then, I was about as high as a kite, so what do I know?
                I didn’t forget it, so you can say that for Sun Ra.

            • Decrease Mather

              A “real chance” on Rite of Spring? Safe for Disney in the 1930s, not safe for radio half a century later?

              • Davis X. Machina

                The playlist on commercial classical radio is, more accurately was, always extremely narrow.

                After midnight, you might hear a non-warhorse, but for variety, you are dependent on whatever the orchestras, chamber music festivals, etc, whose concerts the station (re)-broadcast(s) has programmed.

                • Richard

                  The playlist reflected the tastes of the audience. The fact is that very few people have ever enjoyed listening to Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Varese,Messaien, etc. Twentieth century cutting edge classical music has never found an audience. I’ve given much of it a listen. Would never listen to any of it again and would never consider paying money to hear it

                • Davis X. Machina

                  It’s not just ‘modern’ modern music.

                  You don’t hear, from the US, say, Persichetti, or Hohvaness, from the UK, Peter Maxwell Davies or Malcom Arnold, and and they’re far from being ear-assaulting academic moderns.

                • scepticus

                  What Richard said. For the duration of my life, and long before, the “classical” music audience in the U.S. has been dominated by blue-haired little old ladies who hated rock and roll. And jazz. And just about any music from the african-american sphere. Now that I think about it, here may be a racist element to conservative musical tastes.

                  I once complained to my local non-commercial station that DJ X never played anything even as daring as a Bartok string quartet, and got a note from the program director that it wasn’t the DJ’s fault — even Bartok was too challenging for their donor base.

                • howard

                  davis x machina, that used to be true (with the proviso that college radio could offer you 20th-century-focussed programming), but with our friend, mr. internet, we can hear, for example, bbc radio programming that is much more adventurous.

                  that said, it’s true that there is about as big an audience for modern classical music as there is for modern jazz: i myself was lucky at an impressionable age to have my family living in london while pierre boulez was conducting the bbc symphony, and when i would visit in the summers off between college years, i could very cheaply, at the proms concerts, get a terrific education in 20-th century classical music, from mahler and debussy at the beginning of the century to new work by birtwistle, maxwell-davies, berio, and boulez himself that had all been composed less than 5 years before i was hearing it.

                • Anonymous

                  You don’t hear, from the US, say, Persichetti, or Hohvaness, from the UK, Peter Maxwell Davies or Malcom Arnold, and and they’re far from being ear-assaulting academic moderns.

                  A lot of this isn’t about how the music sounds, although that’s a related issue. It’s about only wanting to hear the same old works. Heck, there are lots of “lost treasures” from the Romantic Era that are fun to hear for a change of pace.

                  But for orchestras, there are other issues. It’s less work to play something you played two seasons ago than to learn a new work from scratch. And there are many modern works that require different instruments, which can be a hassle.

            • I don’t think there’s anything new in saying that fans of a specific genre – any genre – are generally boring and conservative. But you know, the classical music section of the record store always had a high ratio of shoplifters.

              • The Dark Avenger

                There was a fair bit of classical music available via the old ‘free’ Napster.

                I’d leave the computer connected to it overnight so I could download a Beethoven Symphony or something a bit more exotic like Bartok.

            • Hogan

              “[The Head of Radio Three] had been ensnared by the Music Director of the college and a Professor of Philosophy. These two were busy explaining to the harassed man that the phrase “too much Mozart” was, given any reasonable definition of those three words, an inherently self-contradictory expression, and that any sentence which contained such a phrase would be thereby rendered meaningless and could not, consequently, be advanced as part of an argument in favour of any given programme-scheduling strategy.”

              • Davis X. Machina

                Much music from 1750 to 1810 can best be described as ‘audible wallpaper’ — and some of that is Mozart’s.

                • Much music from 1750 to 1810 can best be described as ‘audible wallpaper’ — and some of that is Mozart’s.

                  Fixed that for ya.

                • Rhino

                  Mozart was about as far from wallpaper as you could get. do not mistake precision and mathematical development for ennui. I will grant you that Mozart lacks anarchy and fire, but we cannot all be the New York Dolls or Beethoven.

  • Cool Bev

    I got to see the ArkestRa a few times in the 70s/80s. One of the things I liked best was the way they’d go from totally demented out-there free-blowing to an arrangement of Ellington that would have been at home in an old-time roller skating rink.

    But even the most conventional “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” would have an edgy undercurrent, a slightly off tonality, the feeling that everything could crumble into chaos in an instant. And it usually did.

    I also liked the dancers who swung model planetary systems over their heads.

  • Peter VE

    The Arkestra might take you on the A train, but you were more likely to end up on Mars than in Harlem….

    • at risk of being a pedant, the arkestra would take you to saturn (where mr. blount was from) or to venus (“rocket number nine take off for the planet, to the planet, venus”), but never mars!

  • J. R. in W. Va.

    I’ve heard SunRa in the past, never saw them live, so I searched Youtube. Amazing. Speechless. A mixture of bebop, rocknroll Jazz and space SciFi with a big dose of Africa. Everybody has a drum, even the bassoon player.

    The drummer starts playing the drum set with a stand and cymbal, then everything comes apart and he plays the pieces with a chair. And the costumes!

    A large part has to be grift, but the music is good too. I guess Madonna and Lady Gaga learned from Mr. Ra. Certainly, the more things change, the more they remain the same…

  • Loud Liberal

    Sun Ra, “Ambassador to the Emperor of the Omniverse.”

  • Dave C.

    I saw the Arkestra the night of the 1988 Presidential election. The nuclear war song featured prominently (you can kiss your a** goodbye/if they push that button). Unforgettable.

    “Reflections in Blue” is a nice intro for the less adventurous. Fletcher Henderson and Ellington tunes, slightly (and delightfully) askew…

    • you la tengo do a nice cover of “nuclear war.”

  • bartkid

    “It’s after the end of the world. Don’t you know that yet?”
    – Sun Ra.

  • bartkid

    Kinda appropriate given the recent snowstorm, right?

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