Ken-Schaphorst

ay 22 will be the 100th Anniversary of Sun Ra’s birthday or as Ra would likely have called it, his “arrival day.” Who was Sun Ra? Born Herman Blount, in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1914, he came in to Fletcher Henderson’s big band as a pianist and arranger just after World War II and became known for his innovative arraignments. By the 1950s, he became known as Sun Ra, leading a big band of his own - the Arkestra - and was claiming to have come from Saturn, with connections to the Egyptian gods.

This reinvention of himself as person and artist, along with his fascinating music, stage presence and costumes made him a one-of- a- kind figure in the world of jazz. His persona represented the ultimate liberation from space and time, and gave Sun Ra the freedom to create an immersive experience that built on classic big band chops to go deep into collective improvisation and multimedia performance. All of this was rooted in a communal living situation where his band could focus on their sound, look, and ideas with a minimum of interference from mundane associations. Punk rock pioneers like the MC5 and diverse rock bands like NRBQ ran to play with him, and George Clinton, the founder of Parliament/Funkadelic credits his costumes and stage antics as brain food for Clinton’s own brand of crazy.

Two concerts in the Boston area will honor Sun Ra on his centennial. Ken Schaphorst, the chair of Jazz Studies at the New England Conservatory will lead the NEC Jazz Orchestra on April 17 at 8:00 pm in a free concert at NEC’s Jordan Hall. A month later Ken will lead a 10-piece ensemble performing Sun Ra’s compositions and arrangements at  the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, accompanied by stories and projected imagery depicting his fascination with space and ancient civilizations led by Egypt expert Larry Berman. Tickets for the latter event, Sun Ra’s Centenary: Space Is Still The Most Colorful Place are available at the MFA.

I spoke with ken at length about Sun Ra’s position in the history of jazz, and how he plans to interpret his music for the performance. Podcast 420 features that conversation along with the music of the late, great Sun Ra, some of which Ken says will be played at the concerts, including:

Fletcher Henderson Orchestra - “Sugar Foot Stomp” from Sun Ra - The Eternal Myth Revealed Volume 1.

Sun Ra - “Saturn” from Jazz in Silhouette.

Sun Ra - “Call for All Demons” from Jazz by Sun Ra

Sun Ra - Title Track from Space is the Place (edit).

Program Note: On Half-Mast Inhibition by Ken Schaphorst

At NEC Wind Ensemble concerts on February 13 and March 6, audiences will hear the premiere live concert performances of the original arrangement of Charles Mingus's Half-Mast Inhibition, conducted by Charles Peltz. The group will be using a score and parts prepared by NEC jazz studies chair Ken Schaphorst with the help of Larry Appelbaum, Maria Jane Loizou, Sue Mingus, and former NEC president Gunther Schuller—the conductor of the original recording on the Pre Bird LP. Here, Ken Schaphorst outlines the history of Half-Mast Inhibition.

Early Mingus

The score for Charles Mingus’s Half-Mast Inhibition is dated 1939, meaning that Mingus composed the piece when he was 17 or 18. In the summer of 1939, Mingus was staying with painter Farwell Taylor and his wife in Mill Valley, across the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County. Taylor introduced Mingus to Karma Yoga. In his autobiography, Mingus writes:

I learned how to meditate into a trance and leave my body and it became more and more difficult to return. So I left San Francisco and came back to Watts to my father’s house to leave earth, to die of divine self-will … I achieved a level of meditation where my heartbeat slowed and stopped.
Beneath the Underdog, p. 119–120

In his 1960 interview with Ira Gitler, Mingus recounts the inspiration for Half-Mast Inhibition:

I learned through meditation the will to control and actually feel calmness. I found a thing that made me think I could die if I wanted to. And I used to work at it. Not death and destruction but just to will yourself to death.
Downbeat, July 21, 1960

According to Ira Gitler’s account, Mingus composed Half-Mast Inhibition during the years 1940–41, even though Mingus inscribed the year 1939 into the score. After completing Half-Mast Inhibition, Mingus told Ira Gitler that he lay down to die.

I had a little thing in there like “jingle bells, jingle bells” … not funny style, but because it represented Christmas and Christ. While I was laying there, I got to such a point that it scared me and I decided I wasn’t ready. And ever since, actually, I’ve been running because I saw something I didn’t want to see. I felt I was too young to reach this point. Then I found something else, a little girl named Jean who I fell in love with. I started to write again and write out of that.
Downbeat, July 21, 1960

The title, Half-Mast Inhibition, refers to Mingus’s fear of death, or inhibition towards a flag at half-mast. He writes the following into his score:

Out of energy, a plan is formed which may be to will one’s self to the state of death. Meantime reading, prayer, meditation to be sure of no mistake. Love is reborn within.

Half-Mast Inhibition wasn’t performed until twenty years after it was composed, when Mingus recorded it for Mercury records on May 24, 1960, with Gunther Schuller conducting. According to Ted Curson, producer Leonard Feather wanted to record Mingus’s quartet. And when Feather showed up at the studio, Curson said:

He had twenty-seven [sic] pieces there, which ended up getting Leonard Feather fired from his new position at Mercury records … He said he had this music [Mingus] did when he was seventeen and nobody would record it. He brought a box in and the music was yellow, crumbling in your hands. He had told Leonard Feather I just want you to hear it, but he forced it on Leonard.
—interview with Gary Giddins and Robert Rusch, Cadence, July, 1976