SUN RA was one of the more convincing jazz nutters who also managed to make a serious contribution to the music. He would not be shifted from the claim that he came here from Saturn and that he was not born of woman. However his avowal that he would live for ever, now seen to be fatally flawed, may cast doubt on some of his more unlikely assertions.
He invariably dressed like a Saturnian, his jacket covered with planets and his hat awash with sequins. His concert presentations were full-blown celebrations of camp, tolerated by the free-thinking musicians who formed the nucleus of his 'Arkestra'. They were the saxophonists John Gilmore, Pat Patrick and Marshall Allen and the bassist Ronnie Boykins.
Ra began his life in the more mundane manifestation of Herman 'Sonny' Blount. His first professional work was in the band of Fletcher Henderson - very much in decline in 1946-47. Ra wrote arrangements and played piano for him, at the same time forming his own trio to play experimental music. The trio grew into a full-sized rehearsal band and, eventually, the Arkestra. Although he earned his living from desultory jobs with people like the blues singer Wynonie Harris or the jazz violinist Stuff Smith, Ra was by now committed to his Arkestra and 'the music of the cosmos' which it played.
Ra was an early exponent of 'free' playing - without predetermined key, tempo or ensembles - and his series of albums which began on his Saturn label in the Fifties stand up surprisingly well when replayed four decades later. His own piano playing was potent, and there were similarities between him and another jazz maverick, Thelonious Monk.
The use of piccolo, bass clarinet and exotic percussive effects combined with the more usual instruments of the orchestra gave pungent character to his music and, while it may not have been a strong influence within the jazz movement, it was highly original and stimulating.
In later years the Arkestra, with Ra's eccentric piano style, began to re- create Henderson, Ellington and Lunceford jazz classics of the Thirties amongst its more contemporary works. The spirit of the originals was there, but the orchestra, unused to discipline, usually sounded ragged.
The rotund Ra and his men suffered penury for their music and trips like his 1990 visit to the Edinburgh Festival had to fund them in the long spells of financial inactivity. But they had a devoted following and, despite the fact that on the face of it they appeared to be a group of serious old men, the Arkestra was able to generate an exhilarating and exciting atmosphere at concerts which resulted in entire audiences suspending their disbelief.
Perhaps Ra only had one joke, but it was a good one and he stuck to it.Reuse content