Sunday, May 22, 2016

Sun Ra, Black Arts Movement co-founder, Mystic, Philosopher: Hapi b Day, Sun Ra, May 22, 1914

"America, the Devil don't even want you--you not even suitable for hell!"--Sun Ra

Happy Birthday Sun Ra

Herman Poole Blount was born on May 22, 1914 in Birmingham, Alabama, Planet Earth. Sun Ra was interested in music from an early age and by the time he was eleven he was able to sight read and compose music on piano. Growing up in Birmingham allowed him to catch famous Jazz musicians traveling through including Flecther Henderson, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller.

In his teens Sun Ra was able to listen to a big band perform and go home and write full transcriptions of the performance by ear and also began playing professionally as a teen. At the age of ten Sun Ra joined the Knights of Pythias and would remain with the group through high school.

This Masonic Lodge provided him to unlimited access to books and their books on Freemasonry and other subjects of the like influenced him heavily. In high school Ra studied with music teacher John T "Fess" Whatley who had a reputation for producing many great musicians. In 1934 Sun Ra began playing professionally full time with a former teacher named Ethel Harper and after she left the group Sun took over and called it the Sonny Blount Orchestra.

In 1936 Ra was awarded a scholarship to attend Alabama Agriculture and Mechanical University and studied music for one year before having an experience that would change the course of his life.

In 1937 during deep meditation Sun Ra briefly left this planet and traveled to Saturn and received important information about his path. In his own words, "… my whole body changed into something else. I could see through myself. And I went up … I wasn't in human form … I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn … they teleported me and I was down on [a] stage with them.

They wanted to talk with me. They had one little antenna on each ear. A little antenna over each eye. They talked to me. They told me to stop [attending college] because there was going to be great trouble in schools … the world was going into complete chaos … I would speak [through music], and the world would listen. That's what they told me." Following this experience Sun Ra returned to Birmingham and worked frantically within music and reformed the Sonny Blount Orchestra which was well received in the area.

In the early 1940s Sun Ra was drafted in U.S. Military but was very much against war and killing which led to him being placed in jail for his beliefs. After being released in 1943 Ra returned home before moving north to Chicago.

In Chicago Ra began working with singer Wynonie Harris and made his recording debut in 1946 on the singles 'Dig This Boogie/Lightning Struck the Poorhouse' and 'My Baby's Barrelhouse/Drinking By Myself'. In 1946 Ra was hired by Fletcher Henderson to play piano and arrange music for the band and in 1948 performed in a trio with Coleman Hawkins and Stuff Smith.

Living in Chicago also influenced Ra and he was very interested in the city's many Egyptian style buildings and continued educating himself with books like "Stolen Legacy" written by George G.M. James. In 1952 Sun Ra formed the Space Trio with Tommy Hunter and Pat Patrick and also legally changed him name to Le Sony'r Ra. Soon John Gilmore and Marshall Allen would join the band and some other members during this period in Chicago would include James Spaulding, Von Freeman and Julian Priester.

Also in the 1950s Ra met Alton Abraham who would become his good friend, business manager and shared similar interests and beliefs as Ra. Sun Ra and Abraham also printed pamphlets and would hand them on the street about their beliefs and many of these can be read in the book "The Wisdom of Sun Ra: Sun Ra's Polemical Broadsheets and Streetcorner Leaflets" published in 2006.

Some of the Arkestra's recordings from the 1950s include 'Sound Sun Pleasure', 'Sun Song', 'Sound of Joy', 'Angels and Demons at Play' and 'We Travel the Spaceways'.

In 1961 the Arkestra moved to New York City and was able to find a regular gig at Slug's Saloon. This helped spread Sun Ra's popularity and for the most part he was well received. Though Ra would still experience hecklers from time but did receive support and encouragement from some very notable Jazz musicians including Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. The building the band lived in New York was sold in 1968 and a result they relocated to the Germantown section of Philadelphia and that would be their home base till the end and were known as very good neighbors due to their friendliness and drug free living. Sun Ra was a major influence on the Black Arts Movement and worked with Amiri Baraka's Black Arts Repertory Theatre in Harlem.

Marvin X performed with him in Harlem and later in Philly. Marvin became a disciple after interviewing Sun Ra for five hours at his Morton Street home.

Also in '68 Sun Ra toured the West Coast for the first time and even followers of the Greatful Dead would have altering experiences listening to Sun Ra. This tour led to Ra being featured on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine in 1969. The Arkestra began touring Europe in 1970 and was very well received and in 1971 Ra fulfilled one of his dreams by performing with his band at the pyramids in Egypt.

Also in 1971 Sun Ra was became the artist-in-residence at University of California, Berkeley and taught a course called "The Black Man In the Cosmos." Some of the required reading for this course included the Book of the Dead, Alexander Hislop's The Two Babylons and The Book of Oahspe and the works of Madame Blavatsky and Henry Dumas.

During his tenure at UC Berkeley, Sun Ra worked at Marvin X's Your Black Educational Theatre in San Francisco's Fillmore District. Sun Ra arranged music for Marvin X's Take Care of Business, the musical version of his first play Flowers for the Trashman.  Marvin was in disbelief when Sun Ra told him he would be lecturing in Black Studies at UC Berkeley, especially since Gov. Ronald Reagan had banned him from teaching at Fresno State University in 1969, the same year he banned Angela Davis from teaching at UCLA. Marvin X was hired to teach journalism and theatre, producing a myth-ritual dance drama entitled Resurrection of the Dead.

In the mid and late '70s the Arkestra would perform locally in Philadelphia giving free concerts in a local park on the weekends and also had a stint as the house band at the Squat Theater in New York City in 1979.

Sun Ra and his Arkestra continued playing and recording in the 1980s and 1990s and Ra was well known as a part of Philadelphia by this time. He would often be a guest on local radio and give lectures locally as well. In 1990 Ra suffered a stroke but still continued to compose and perform until leaving this planet in 1993. Sun Ra leaves a legacy on this planet as a visionary artist dedicated beyond all else to convince mankind to face the fact they need to change their destructive and greedy ways as well as repair the self worth of African-Americans after the unimaginable abuse they have been through. Musically, Ra pushed any boundaries into oblivion as his musical imagination could not fit into any type of category or box. Sun Ra was one of the first in Jazz to use electronics and introduce the idea of collective free form improvisation. Ra's music and mythology has inspired so many people to not only develop themselves mentally and physically, but to explore the unknown and evolve spiritually.

"It's better to deal with the people who have intuition now. You see, they don't know what they're doing. The ones who do know what they're doing, haven't proven anything."
"Because everything that's unknown is part of the myth. And I'm sure that the myth can do more for humanity than anything they ever dreamed possible." - Sun Ra

The Differences

Sometimes in the amazing ignorance
I hear things and see things
I never knew I saw and heard before
Sometimes in the ignorance
I feel the meaning
Invincible invisible wisdom,
And I commune with intuitive instinct
With the force that made life be
And since it made life be
It is greater than life
And since it let extinction be
It is greater than extinction.
I commune with feelings more than
For there is nothing else to ask for
That companionship is
And it is superior to any other is.
Sometimes in my amazing ignorance
Others see me only as they care to see
I am to them as they think
According the standard I should not be
And that is the difference between I and them
Because I see them as they are to is
And not the seeming isness of the was.
--Sun Ra

Marvin X on Sun Ra

Happy earth day, Sun Ra, no matter where you are in the spirit world of the universe.You are the Supreme Prophet of First Poet's Church. RA! RA! RA! We forever love you and praise you for teaching us how to submit to leadership or what is also known as discipline. This is the most crucial lesson for North American Africans, learning to submit and thus respect leadership. But of course the leader must be highly disciplined himself, above his carnal nature and focused on his/her spiritual mission, in service of the Creator God.

All artists, poets, writers, musicians, theatre persons, must learn the Sun Ra method of creative discipline, a holistic approach to life in the arts, how to bring all the genres together into a whole mythological order through creative ritual. And this includes a melting of art and audience, what we called Ritual Theatre. Sun Ra taught us all how to ritualize theatre by breaking down that wall and destroying the comfort of the audience, yet making them one with the myth/ritual moment in time and space.

Sun Ra demonstrated the eternity of time, beyond the finite into the everlastingness of it all. And so we are indeed the Latter Day Egyptian Revisionists, updating our ancestors for the present time and eternity.
--Marvin X

Marvin X and Sun Ra outside Marvin's Black Educational Theatre, O'farrel St., between Fillmore and Webster, San Francisco, 1972. The Sun Ra/Marvin X artistic relationship began when Marvin X arrived in Harlem, NY, 1968. Sun Ra is one of the Black Arts Movement founders. He was a member of Amiri Baraka's Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School, Harlem, 1968. Young scholars consider Sun Ra the father of Afro-futurism or Black Si-Fi, Octavia Butler, the mother.

Sun Ra and Marvin X were teaching in the Black Studies Department, University of California, Berkeley. Sun Ra's UCB lectures are on youtube in four parts, audio only. Sun Ra arranged the musical version of Marvin's first and best known one-act plsy Flowers for the Trashman,(see anthology Black Fire and/or SOS: Black Arts Movement Reader, musical version entitled Take Care of Business (see TDR The Drama Review, 1968). 

Sun Ra and Marvin produced a five hour concert (without intermission) at San Francisco's Harding Theatre on Divisadero Street, including a cast of 50: BET actors, Sun Ra Arkestra, choreographer Raymond Sawyer's dancers and choreographer Ellendar Barnes's dancers. See San Francisco  Sun Reporter Newspaper review, 1972.

On May 21-22, 2015, Marvin X participated in the Sun Ra Conference, University of Chicago. He was on the Symposium (see youtube, Sun Ra Conference Symposium). He also participated in the concert with surviving members of the Arkestra and Chicago musicians. The conference was produced by Chicago musician, David Boykin. See Sun Ra's film Space is the Place (filmed in Oakland, CA).

Left to right: Marshal Allen (band leader, 91 years old, says he's  19 and plays like it),  Danny Thompson of the Sun Ra Arkestra, Marvin X. Back row, author Greg Tate and Professor Ytasha Womack, University of Chicago Sun Ra Conference, May 21-22, 2015.

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