In addition to The Universal Mind of Bill Evans, I also recently rediscovered the BBC documentary, Sun Ra, Brother from Another Planet. I have enjoyed his music since I discovered his ESP-Disk lp’s while in high school. My surfing club–Chickens of the Sea–even had local artist Chris Gordon design silk screen tee shirts with the words “Sun Ra Solar Arkestra”. I also loved the graphics on the ESP-Disk LP’s–one of them, pictured here, shows him alongside Copernicus, Kepler, Tycho Brahe, Galileo and other early cosmologists. And don’t  forget that ESP-Disk had liner notes in Esperanto.

I saw him twice in the 1980s: once at Myron’s Ballroom in downtown LA, the other time at Club Lingerie in Hollywood. At Myron’s he had his musicians suspended on ceiling lighting tracks, floating around like astronauts in space. Punks were there, jazz fans were there. It was an unforgettable evening, a mixture of Kansas City big band jazz and sounds from outer space.  Not to mention the elegant extraterrestrial clothing the band wore.  The lithe and tall June Tyson sang, “We Travel the Spaceways, from Planet to Planet” while Marshall Allen riffed on alto sax, and John Gilmore delivered Coltrane-like sermons on tenor.

I interviewed Sun Ra at the time. I didn’t know how to address him: Mr. Ra? Sun? Sonny? He told me about shopping for iridescent socks on Uranus (or was it Neptune?) He also told me that when you see someone with eyebrows that turn up at the sides, those upturns were actually antenna, and that person was extraterrestrial.

I know Sun Ra’s biography pretty well. It is a sad story, one of growing up in racist Birmingham, Alabama in the 1920s, being a conscientious objector during World War II and being in prison, his psychic isolation from jazz musicians–he didn’t drink, smoke, do drugs, chase women. He was asexual. Music was everything for him.

I prefer to celebrate his unique music and personality. We see him in George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, even Cee-Lo Green.  Sun Ra liberated a lot of subsequent artists who could do their own thing and not be afraid. And he even did a concert with John Cage in Coney Island, New York!

God bless Sun Ra. His star burns brightly. His planet (Saturn) will always shine on him.

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  • Don Snowden

    Remember that Myron gig well, Tom, much as you described it but Sun Ra's musicians were…ahem… earth-bound during the performance that night. But they did get one of the bar backs there to get into a silver space suit, hooked it up to the disco glitter ball track and sent him out with blasts of dry ice around the U-shaped track that went from the stage wings out over the audience while doing some simulated slo-mo zero-gravity free form space moves. Meanwhile the Arkestra was down onstage and maybe marching in the audience chanting "Space is the Place." One-of-a-kind stuff, no matter how you cut it.

  • Jonas Thaler

    I was a student at UCBerkeley in the 70s. Sun Ra performed with his Arkestra at a commune-run vegetarian restaurant on Telegraph Ave called the One World Family Cafe. The owner was a friend of Sun Ra's, a guy named Michael who hid in an airstream trailer and monitored extra-terrestrial messages from there with tinfoil antennae.

    My friends and I went whenever SR was in town and watched them play while we ate our brown rice. The Arkestra were ladies in leopard bodysuits. There was a lot of tinfoil. Sun Ra was a legit bigger than life bandleader. He kept the whole proceedings going while playing two or three keyboards at the same time and singing. Very tight and enjoyable music, though, and cheap. Free if you ordered some food.

    Space is the Place. I miss him!

  • Mia Brouckaert

    Hi, as you seem to love music and words, could you be a relative of Elvira Bauters Schnabel? I’doing genealogie of the Bauters family in Belgium. I live in Bruges.