SUN RA- SPACE IS THE PLACE
INTERVIEW WITH JOHN F. SZWED
by Jason Gross (August 1997)
Though he's a legendary figure inside and outside of jazz, there's still a lot of mystery about the late Sun Ra. His career spanned decades and included hundreds of albums. He's not heard on jazz stations as much as Bird or Trane or Miles though and a lot of the 'facts' of his life as well as his teachings and speeches still seem obscure even when they're readily available.
John F. Szwed, noted writer and educator, took the time to piece together Ra's life going back to his upbrining in Birmingham, Alabama through the 40 years of his career in a superb biography SPACE IS THE PLACE (Pantheon). It would be a mistake to say that all the questions have been answered (Ra would have never wanted it that way) but at least we can try to piece together some details and think more about what we do know about this extraordinary musician/bandleader/philosopher.
PSF: What got you to write a book about Sun Ra?
The easy thing to say is the fact that I didn't think that anyone else was going to do it. Also, I ended up by a fluke living near him. I was born in Birmingham Alabama and lived in Philadelphia very close to him. I got into him early. First time I ever heard of him was a reprint of something that Norman Mailer wrote originally around 1956. He saw him rehearsing in Chicago. I saw Sun Ra live in the East Village at Slug's. I was in college and I trecked down to see him. It was a bizarre neighborhood, bizarre place. It was the real underground- no one knew about that. I lost track of him for a while and then I started seeing him at certain colleges like Swarthmore and Temple. Suddenly, he was becoming kind of phenomenon. Then I lost track again, the years went by and I realized that he'd been going on for 40 years with all these records coming out. I hadn't any idea that there were that many records. I guess what really tipped it over is when I found out that he had hundreds of records out. I thought 'God, even if he's not interesting, this is interesting.' I always thought that symphony conductors lasted longer than anybody in their jobs. I think Sun Ra has had a longer career than anybody in music. He'd done this longer than Ellington and he himself had done it for a long time.
PSF: Ra often talked about his own philosophy. What do you think about his speeches and teachings?
It's tough to talk about. He once said 'I leave space open as the term should be, to fill what you want to fill it with.' That openness (that was partly appealing in a time like the sixties) drew a lot of people into it. You would find people like Amira Baraka and some of the people in his band who would say 'it came as a shock to you that when you knew more about him, your aspirations and visions were not his but he gave you a way to come up with those things.' He was very open and these things were ambiguous enough that you could plug into it. If you were a young black nationalist, you could plug in there. If you were a white, freaky kid trying to break out of your neighborhood, he was a thing you could connect with on another level. He would have light shows that he would hook up and be seen by Timothy Leary and on and on it goes. Everyone would get some little corner of what he was doing and typically ignore the parts that they didn't understand or were embarassed by.
PSF: So were there any underlying themes to his philosophy or was it always changing?
They were not the themes that people who followed him realized. You get a group of people like the MC5 and John Sinclair. Sinclair now says that they gravitated to him because they were so alienated from whites and they couldn't relate to either the Muslims or Martin Luther King because they were tied to religions. They thought that Sun Ra was beyond religion and beyond civil authority. There's almost no connection that you can make directly between the MC5 and Sun Ra.
For instance, here was the MC5 chanting 'leaders suck' and one of the important themes of Sun Ra was the importance of leaders. He said it was really awful that leaders were treated bad even when these leaders were bad themselves. This is one of the things that people didn't want to hear. He thought that for people like George Bush and Richard Nixon, as bad as they were, they shouldn't have been treated badly. It was an obsession of his. This is the 'reactionary' side of Sun Ra- the fact that he voted for George Bush and Nixon and was going to vote for Ross Perot. He voted for Bush, I believe, was because he was a Gemini and he thought he was duplicitous enough to deal with world problems. The reason he was voting for Peurot was because 'you always vote for the man who has the most money.'
Typical of that is when he said to me, 'all the problems started when they took the Bible out of the classroom.' I said 'if you put the Bible back in, would it solve all the problems?' He said 'it would help.' 'Do you think reading the Bible is that important?' I asked. He answered 'I didn't say anything about READING it. It should be in there.' That's what people always said, that you should put the Bible there but they never said anything about reading it so he was saying the same thing!
He did put people on, he did tease them. He enjoyed getting journalists to say wild things. One day he got a big kick out of a journalist saying that he had green blood in his veins. I told this to Graham Lock, a music writer, and he said 'it was me- it was a parody issue of the Wire.' But Sun Ra didn't think of it- he thought it was great.
There was a complex set of (he wouldn't call it philosophies) thinking going on there that more often that not, was dealing with the Bible. He considered that a very dangerous and misunderstood book. I guess I didn't go very far with this in the book but I think William Blake is the conneciton here. Likewise, a lot of sixties rockers gravitated to Blake. Someone once told me that Blake was once confronted by someone who was asking him about the reality of everyday objects. He asked 'you see a ball burning hot up there and you don't see the Sun?' Blake said that he saw the angels and went on to describe these celestial patterns. That's exactly what Sun Ra would have said- he would not give you the easy interpretation. He forced you to have to wrestle with him verbally. It's a complex thing to say what he believed in but it did pivot around the Bible and that the Bible had been distorted and we were suffering for it.
PSF: Ra was a very unique character. Where you think he fit in with the course of jazz?
He lived and played a long time, which means something. Most of us who have musical careers find that they're very short lived and get eclipsed by somebody. He stretched back all the way from the pre-swing era in the late '20s. A lot of his pieces that he later recreated were from that era but they weren't the great pop hits, they were the ones that come out before pop music, like Jelly Roll Morton. This was pre-swing, before the popularization of that kind of music. He also crosses into rhythm and blues in the forties, accompanying Wyonnie Harris, which was hardcore urban blues for that time. He used to be a gospel accompanist for some important singers and also played some pre-rhythm and blues as the kid. Later, he got into doo-wop. So he's spanning all that stuff. He seems to have arrived at several kinds of jazz before anyone else did,even if he didn't make a big deal about it. One example would be modal applications in music, which was slightly ahead of George Russell, Miles Davis and even Charlie Mingus. He was doing free jazz about the same time as the other people who were doing that kind of stuff. Noise music for its own sake was being done by him at various points in there.
The punks got on this pretty quickly- that he was a prototype of what they were doing. But Sun Ra began to lag a bit though. When he got into disco, the disco thing was already well under way. When he recorded Languidity, SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER was also out. He was really lagging. I really love that record though. It's sort of rare because people threw it away. It's a kind of disco where you say 'I know what this is' but it's kind of gnawing at you like warrior ants. He had the band listen to Donna Summer. One of the band members said 'Sonny, this is some corny shit.' He said 'this corny shit is somebody's dreams and hopes and aspirations. Don't be so hip.' He would be quick to move to these things. 'UFO' has drum machines and the band softly chanting 'UFO, take me where you want to go' over and over. It's disco but it's so perverted that you'd feel foolish dancing to it. He was ahead of things up to that point and then he went into other modes, one of which was to go backwards.
He never did anything in the 'right' chronology. He started with jazz, went to rhythm and blues and then to doo-wop. That's not the way it's supposed to go. He'd go back to pre-jazz and then back to early swing and then disco.
PSF: Why do think he hasn't gotten the same amout of respect as jazz giants like Parker or Coltrane or Davis?
You start with the fact that, particularly in the sixties, if you wanted to be taken seriously by the press, you didn't put anything up in front of the music. Even with the mildest politics, except maybe civil rights, if you were too heavy into it like Archie Shepp, you would be categorized in a particular way. There was an attempt to make free jazz a very political music. Ads used to run in Rolling Stone about 'fire music.' Coltrane hated that- he said it wasn't about fire, it was about peace. People like Shepp got classified that way and then dismissed as politics shifted. Part of it that was that Ra was embarassing to the degree that the things he did looked crazy or like they were a put-on. Also, the fact that many of his best records weren't available to many people. I'm one of the few people alive who's listened to all of his things. It's just overwhelming. A teacher once said of Thomas Hardy as to why he didn't get any credit 'anyone who writes over a thousand poems is asking to be ignored.' When I see people turning out multi-CD sets, they're asking for trouble. Prince is planning to flood the market with all of his out-takes.
PSF: Neil Young has been threatening to do the same thing for a while now... Ra put out a lot of his material on his own label (Saturn) with his own covers. You think he saw these as very personal statements then?
Only once or twice do I know that he spoke about these records. He thought the Saturn records were the avant-garde records, the ones that were commerical weren't. He didn't think people would be ready for these. He said that there's some that even Saturn's not ready for. In a way, he was saying that there weren't contracts to put this stuff out so the stuff that they wouldn't buy, he would put out those records. Yet at times, some of that stuff wasn't so avant-garde. He tried to sell 'Nuclear War' to Columbia as a single and when they didn't buy it, he sold it to a British company. He really perceived this as a commercial seller.
PSF: Do you think the communal nature of the Arkestra made them unique?
Yeah but it's often exaggerated. They never often lived together as more than 5 or 6 at once. It was his idea to have a place big enough to have all these musicians ready to go at the drop of a hat. He was never quite able to do that but a kind of mystique developed. That kind of mystique in the sixties was very militant in tone. It was assumed that if a group of black men were retreating into that kind of situation, then they were preparing for apocolypse or a violent showdown. The model was the Panthers and other groups like it. By the '90s, this takes on a whole other tact. But at least the hard core of the band was always there more or less. Ellington and Basie did manage the same thing without the living arrangements. But they paid well too. Some of the people could never make it outside of the band that they could in it in Ellington's and Basie's groups. I've heard that from Sun Ra's people as well- that they could never play as well outside of the setting.
There was something that he could draw out of them that he could and no one else could. He worked very hard to draw out people. You could put it in religious and spiritual terms. He would try to draw on this. He opposed the spirit to intelligence and body. What the body wanted and what the mind wanted is not what the spirit wanted. He would explain to skilled musician that their skill and knowledge was standing in their way of being great musicians. They had to abandon that. If you spend your life building towards something and someone comes along and says 'forget that shit, play without thinking' this is very threatening. It was a rare person that could do it. Even when they did it, he would go further- he would distract you by shaking something in your face or make a sound on the synthesizer that was so distracting that you couldn't do what you were doing. You'd be forced to go to some other place. He explained that once he drove you out and once you had tasted that kind of creativity, it was like an addiction, you couldn't do without. You would find that in you.
PSF: He was using lights, dancers and performers in his shows before this kind of thing caught on. Do you think he was a pioneer with these presentations he made?
It worked out that way. You could also say that he was drawing on old black carabet traditions. I saw Ornette Coleman a few weeks ago and that had a Sun Ra feeling to it with the performers that they had with the band. It had an anything-can-happen feel to it. I keep thinking that this was really like the old cabaret and tent shows where they used exotic dancers and jugglers and where there was no logic to it- you just keep bringing them out. I know what Coleman says about that stuff and maybe it applies to Sun Ra as well. Ornette told Prime Time (his band) that he really admired the way that sword swallowers, body piercers and contortionists stretched the body and moved it to places which people can't move them. They redefine the body. He said 'if we could only get the music to be that redefined and get the sound as flexible as the body is.' It's not the way people usually think of it- the body's (supposed to be) rigid and the music's flexible. He views it differently. The band thinks he's trying to get a visual equivalent of what he wants the music to sound like. Most people see it as freaky, silly stuff.
PSF: Another tradition that he kept reviving was the big band. You think all of this was part of his idea to revive old traditions in his own way?
Some people stopped going to his shows in the '80s and '90s because they'd seen him before a number of times and weren't excited by the pop tunes and Disney songs that the band was doing. I said, and the band agreed with me, that it was all true but in the middle of a set, something bizarre might still happen. For example, one guy told me he was going to walk out because of all the Disney stuff they were doing. Suddenly all of the Disney stuff just started going out, wilder and wilder. One of the pieces was 'Forest of No Return' and you can imagine what he did with that. On another night, it might be junky stuff. I was watching them fall aslep as they did 'Autumn In New York' then Marshall Allen stood up and the other saxophones gathered around him and he made bird sounds. Then all of them made bird sounds. The trumpet playing was this song from the '30s as the bird calls came from five different keys. You never heard anything like that before.
It's wrong to say that he got more conservative. At any night, anything could happen. One night when they played at the Knitting Factory, they played like they were possessed, going into another state of being. You had the feeling that if you went up and hit them, they wouldn't feel anything. The music was coming out of that playing as well.
PSF: What do you see as Sun Ra's legacy other than the fact that the Arkestra still do gigs?
Leaving aside Phish, Spiritualized and George Clinton? It was interesting who went to go see him, like the B-52's, who saw him every night when they first came to New York. One of the things that came out of this was that music can project a kind of myth and personal vision that's bigger than just the sound of the notes or the words. You can dress and construct all of this. Who was the French group with their own language?
Right. I'm not saying that it's directly derived from Sun Ra but there was a place made for these groups. There were a lot of other groups out there with their own myths like Hawkwind. It was usually a theme for a tour but some people built whole careers out of this. It was a whole way of being. I think he opened up that space for people. He redefined what you could do with just instruments. In that sense, he's reaching back to the Romantic composers who thought that instrumental music was more powerful than vocal music and wanted to find a way for instruments to sing directly to people and change them in the process. He really thought that you could change people with music, which I think too. I just think that most musicians don't aspire to that. You could create riots with music. You could put people to sleep with it but you could do a lot of other stuff. There were a lot of younger musicians who had the same feeling and tried to pull it off. He just raised the level of the game.
PSF: Are there any personal favorites of Sun Ra's albums that you love to hear?
Of the earlier ones, Jazz in Silhouette would be my favorite just because if you put it in context, you realize how strange it is. Today, it doesn't sound strange though. 'Ancient Ethiopia' is built on one chord and shifting rhythms that they sustain for four or five minutes. It's not that nobody did it before- Ravel did it with 'Bolero' but that's kind of boring. This stuff really sounds like you're hearing more than one chord. Why is it that the Ramones sound more boring that this one chord stuff? There's something bizarre going on there.
From later on, I mentioned Languidity, the disco-ized one that uses all kinds of electronic keyboards and tape loops and drum machines. I like it because it's subversive stuff. It undercuts what you expect disco to be and what you'd expect Sun Ra to be. He would sit with the two guitar players with their wah-wah and just work the organ with those two guys in a way that was really complex at that time.
From the same period, I also like Strange Strings which is a very hard-to-find record. It's a 40 minute piece with guys playing on Asian stringed instruments, none of which they ever played before, boosted their amplification to a crazy point along with a huge piece of sheet metal struck. That sounds like a recipe for disaster. It doesn't go like that. He directed by just pointing at people and they would play. They would say 'what do we do, we've never played these things before.' He said 'that's the point. You're playing from ignorance- it's an exercise in ignorance. We're going to play what you don't know and what you don't know is huge.' I find it an astonishing record that I've listened to over the years. It can't hold your attention for 40 minutes but you know you're hearing something that nobody else would try to do.
Of the later ones, I'd pick Mayan Temples just because it's well produced. I'm also drawn to two songs from Reflections in Blue. One is 'Say It Isn't So' which is a '30s tune that they play sounding like a '30s band. You can hear that Marshall Allen, which is one of the most wild saxophonists who ever lived, can play a perfectly straight forward sax. For anyone who said 'these guys can't play,' you have this. Another one is a Jerome Kern tune from a '30s movie called 'I Dream Too Much.' It's a really strange tune with 80 bars and it doesn't repeat once. It's full of chromatic tones. With Sun Ra, whenever he reached a half-tone, he holds it on the quarter tones not as it's written because he was sure that Kern wanted quarter tones. The engineer was going crazy saying 'Jesus Christ- every time he hits one of those notes, he's out of the key.' I remember Paul Bley talking about Ornette and Don Cherry when he first heard them where everyone was fleeing the club they were in. Carla Bley said to him 'those guys are playing precisely one quarter note sharp.' He said 'I know.' She said 'we gotta hire them.' 'Why!' he asked. 'We gotta learn how to do that,' she said.
Going back to your question about the hertiage of this, I really think that Sun Ra made it possible for people like Johnny Lydon to standardize this. I'm thinking of Metal Box with 'Swan Lake' where that sound is almost entirely one quarter note sharp. I think we hear that stuff differently now. In a previous time, someone would say 'these guys are out of tune.' Someone else would disagree and you'd go back and forth. You no longer say that. It's just an aesthetic choice. You say 'I like it' or 'I don't like it.' You could still say 'these guys are out of tune' but who's going to believe you? The lesson that I took from Thelonious Monk was from a title he had called 'Ugly Beauty.' He was telling you that you couldn't use those two words anymore with a straight face.
For more on Sun Ra, see Scott McFarland's tribute
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