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).
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