The man who fell to earth

OK, so he wasn't really born on Saturn. But, when it came to jazz, Sun Ra was definitely on another planet. By Phil Johnson
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Indy Lifestyle Online
He came from Saturn, so he said, and his music was from outer space. But when the tubby old gent mounted the platform for his performance at the Brecon jazz festival in 1990, three years before he died, he seemed as earthbound as you or I, despite the baco-foil breastplate and the thrift- shop issue cosmic hat. And when his orchestra (or Arkestra, as he styled them) began to play, he seemed even less extra-terrestrial. Classic jazz arrangements in the vein of Fletcher Henderson, the great jazz bandleader of the Twenties and Thirties (with whom Ra had played in the Chicago of the 1940s), were interweaved with weird percussion interludes, sci-fi solos by Ra himself on piano and synthesisers, and strange, Isadora Duncan- like interpretative dances by a hefty female chorus. It was impressively odd, and even high camp, but it still spoke of this world rather than the other.

The career of Ra - celebrated in Songs from Saturn, a four-part Radio 3 series now starting next Saturday (not tonight, as originally scheduled), and the subject of Space Is the Place, a marvellous new biography by the American academic John Szved (to be published by Canongate Press later this month) - has been obfuscated by the outer-space stuff ever since his recordings on ESP-Disk began to appear in Britain in the late Sixties. Then, he seemed to have beamed down fully-formed as a completely off-the- wall eccentric with roots in the free-jazz movement of the time. As it happens, even ESP-Disk wasn't what it appeared, the title coming from an abbreviation of Esperanto (and the label's profits being based on a series of language-tutor records) rather than referring to psychic experiences, while Ra had a history going right back to his home-town of Birmingham, Alabama, where he was born in 1914.

One of the many virtues of Szved's biography is that it succeeds in putting Ra back into culture, rather than continuing to consign him to a happy- clappy cult of fans of weird music. As is quite proper, however, the truth is stranger than any fiction. "He's not from no Mars!" his sister - who had observed his birth - was recorded as saying, and, indeed, his nephews and nieces knew him as Uncle Snookums. Named Herman Poole Blount - after a famous black stage magician, Black Herman - Ra grew up in a city weirder than any science-fiction fantasy. Coming from Birmingham in the Jim Crow years, one feels after reading Szved's book, was more than enough reason to go inter-planetary. The 10,000 lights of the sign on the city's railway station proudly proclaimed Birmingham as "The Magic City", and Ra grew up in a world where there was little commerce with the ruling white caste, and where a network of black theatres, nightclubs and quasi-mystical guilds and social clubs (which would later serve as the seedbeds of the Civil Rights movement) provided a complete galaxy. As a child, Ra joined the secret society of the Woodmen scout troop, and, after he had learnt to play the piano, he would perform at the extravagant annual balls of the Knights of Pythias.

A studious, quiet boy with a voracious appetite for books of all kinds, especially those dealing with religion, he trained as a schoolteacher at the Jim Crow Agricultural and Mechanics Institute, and hung around the Communist Party-backed Modern Bookshop in downtown Birmingham. In the evenings he played in various local venues, with bands like the Society Troubadors, who wore Eton jackets. Later, he led bands of his own and began to develop a private book of compositions, such as Thermodynamics and Fusion, influenced by articles in Popular Mechanics and science fiction magazines.

During the war, Ra registered as a conscientious objector and was briefly imprisoned and later sent to a work camp in Pennsylvania. Szved includes in his text a series of quite heart-breaking letters from Ra to the officials of the National Service Board, pleading to be let loose to continue with his music. After a psychiatric examination, he was deemed "a psychopathic personality" (a common label for black jazz artists of the time, also given to Lester Young), and categorised as a "well-educated coloured intellectual ... subject to neurotic depression and sexual perversion". His sexuality was, however - as far as can be judged - largely dormant, as he suffered from a particularly painful hernia condition and had no record of affairs or relationships.

Like many fellow Southerners, he moved to Chicago after the war, and was employed as a rehearsal pianist at the swanky DeLisa club, where he met and played with his hero Fletcher Henderson, his career then on the slide. Ra's reading continued to take an Afrocentric, Gnostic slant - according to Szved he had over 15,000 volumes in his library - and while he was forced by poverty to accompany strippers in mob-run nightclubs, he was beginning to group around him the musicians who would eventually become his Arkestra. His musical influences were also very earthbound, following his reverence for Henderson with an enthusiasm for the kitsch sounds of Les Baxter's Saturday Night on Saturn, and Music Out of the Moon, inspired by the Sputnik craze of the Fifties. When the first records on his own Saturn label began to appear, with hand-drawn cover art and occasional mishaps whereby the same music was recorded on both sides of the disc, or different albums were given the same titles, his legend began to catch on.

The move to New York in the free-jazz years, and then to Philadelphia, the extraordinary story of how he was employed as a lecturer at Berkeley (special subject: "The Black Man in the Cosmos"); how black porn star Johnny Keyes came to appear in an abortive feature film about him; his relationship with the Black Panthers, the White Panthers and, of course, those pesky Gnostics; and the truth of his visits to Egypt, Russia and the set of Saturday Night Live, can be gleaned from Szved's biography. It is, all in all, a quite extraordinary story that anyone with an interest in black music and culture will want to hear. And after you've heard about the life of Sun Ra, Saturn sounds almost cosily domestic.

`Songs from Saturn' begins next Saturday at 6pm on Radio 3