It was a half-century ago, but 70-year old trumpeter Michael Ray still vividly recalls his first encounter with the Sun Ra Arkestra, as a teenager attending an outdoor music festival in suburban Philadelphia. “The first thing I noticed was all the musicians had suitcases filled with sheet music.”
Along with some jazz standards, the suitcases held some of the roughly 1,000 compositions recorded by Ra, the eccentric, trailblazing keyboardist and bandleader whose dozens of singles and more than 100 albums made him one of the most prolific musicians in history.
Ray is one of the longest-tenured members of Sun Ra’s Arkestra, which comes to Santa Cruz on Sunday, September 17 for an 8pm concert at the Rio Theatre.
It’s been 30 years since the visionary, Afro-futurist bandleader/pianist/composer/ poet/philosopher/mystic/trickster self-described space traveler left planet earth, but the band bearing his name continues to make new music and tour internationally, in the tradition of jazz “ghost” bands that keep going long after their leaders have passed.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama — or Saturn, according to his version — Herman “Sonny” Blount started his career back in the swing era as a pretty conventional pianist and dance band leader in his hometown.
In 1946 Ra moved to Chicago and worked as a pianist and arranger for the highly-under sung bandleader Fletcher Henderson. Ra spent less then a year in that role, but it had a major impact on him. He still played Henderson’s music for the rest of his career but focused mainly on creating music that mixed beauty and chaos.
In 1954 Ra became a bandleader with his own growing ensemble, the Arkestra, moving his base of operations to New York City in 1961 and then settling permanently in Philadelphia in the fall of 1968.
Somewhere around that time Ra decided that “space is the Place” – also the name of his best known composition – and started rewriting his backstory to fit a glitter- covered, future-focused stage show that put a galactic spin on the old dance band tradition of jazz as entertainment.
Ra’s career was a testimony to his resilience and ingenuity. He started the Arkestra during a period when touring big bands confronted extinction due to a tsunami of converging trends – the birth of rock n roll, the rise of television and the fast-rising cost of touring, among them.
The Arkestra became a 24-7 way of life not only for Ra but also for many of his sidemen, Ra set up a commune of musicians in Philadelphia, requiring some of his acolytes to live with him, drug- and alcohol-free at the band’s longtime headquarters, a building at 5626 Morton St. in Philly (now listed as a historic landmark).
Ra dealt with the dicey musical economy of the fading big band era by going DIY, starting his own Saturn record label, with hand-decorated album issued 100 or so at a time, today prized by collectors worldwide. It added up to dozens of singles and over one hundred full-length albums (some on major jazz labels), making him one of the most prolific recording artists of the 20th century.
The concert Michael Ray saw in his hometown set the course for the rest of his life. “I remember there were singers and dancers, and two drummers…..” Weeks later he encountered Ra again, riding the municipal trolley.
“I told him I really enjoyed the concert. He invited me to a rehearsal but I couldn’t make it because I had a Delfonics gig at the Academy of Music.” When he finally got to a rehearsal at Arkestra headquarters, “I saw Egyptian art everywhere, keyboards.. milk cases filled with cassette tapes and even music in the refrigerator,” Ray remembers.
“One of the first things he told me was ‘I know everything you need to know about music.’”
Described by the leader as “tone scientists dwelling in the half-between world,” Ra’s bands play music that might suddenly veer from Duke Ellington-style formality to nursery rhymes set to music, to abstract, electronic and acoustic cacophony. The sage who defined jazz as “the sound of surprise” could have been talking about Sun Ra and his evolving bands.
Listening to Sun Ra’s early records from the 1950s reveals that Ra was ahead of his time, anticipating developments like free jazz and electronics. Nobody could mix the past and the future like Sun Ra’s groups, with concerts full of aural and visual exotica.
After the leader, the Arkestra’s two best known soloists were longtime saxophonists Marshall Allen and John Gilmore. When they took the music “outside,” Allen and Gilmore’s double sax improvisations could sound like two howling wolves engaged in a game of primal tag.
Gilmore, also a respected mainstream tenor man, died in 1997. Multi-instrumentalist Allen succeeded Ra as the bandleader, but his age (99) has limited him to playing concerts in the Philadelphia area, where he still lives.
Although his cosmic public persona didn’t show it, Ra was a taskmaster, according to Ray, who retains some nostalgia for marathon Arkestra rehearsals that might last for 12 or 14 hours, “Until you fall asleep or try to sneak out of the room. He would tell us to go back and put some okra in the moon stew, But he didn’t want to leave the room ’til the food was ready.”
“It was ‘old school meets young kid,” Ray says. From the start, Ra tried to discourage Ray from listening to “Earth music,” like the Nancy Wilson cassette he had in his tape player. Ray grew accustomed to middle-of-the night visits from Ra, bearing freshly-written compositions for the band to learn.
“When you’re with Sun Ra, you’re in his world. He had a strange way of doing things, but after a while you get adapted.“
“He never got mad but he was a very strict bandleader, it was intense training all the time, always rehearsing. He’d say, ‘Always play with alacrity, or you can be replaced by a button.’ You always gotta be swingin’ on that horn.’ I guess that came from his time in the Fletcher Henderson group,” says Ray, who is writing a thesis on “vibrational music.”
The parts Sun Ra wrote for each band member could be pretty complicated, requiring those long rehearsals. “He would expect us to ‘Emulate what you hear, at the same time you hear it,” Ray says.
Still, few bandleaders in history inspired dedication and deep loyalty like Sun Ra. Ray attributes that to the leader’s exhaustive knowledge of music.“Sun Ra studied all forms of music, from country western to Brahms. He would mix all the genres together, but always have that ‘gutbucket’ thing; he was always connected to the blues.”
Ray estimates Ra’s blend of abstraction, complexity and down-home earthiness produced somewhere around 5,000-6,000 pieces of music, much of it still unheard by earthlings.
With around 13 members, including vocalist and violinist Tara Middleton – who took the place of the late, memorably regal June Tyson – the 2023 version of the Arkestra continues to tour the U.S. and abroad. Ray laments the current Arkestra’s very un-Ra like lack of rehearsals, which limits the performing repertoire somewhat.
He’s not always happy with current bandleader Noell Scott’s choice of material. “With 5,000 or 6,000 tunes, why are we limited to always playing the same songs on tour, his favorites?” Fortunately, this being jazz, the Arkestra can reshape them every night. And those tunes can take a lot of bending and twisting, like the metal skin of a spacecraft.
In his fifth decade with the band, Michael Ray is durable, too, still committed to the sky-gazing mantra “Space is the place.”