Reign of Toads #3
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Herman "Sun Ra" Blount Returns to Saturn

"This is the theme of the stargazers/
Stargazers in the sky.
This is the song of tomorrow's world/
In cosmic paradise."

Sun Ra took flight Sunday past; no previous Memorial Day ever meant as much to me. Our loss of this flamboyant veteran of cosmic wars and Holy Fool should have occasioned a national day of mourning, respect, and remembrance. As befit the cat's expert sense of timing and oblique influence on the course of American life, there was one anyway.

In the rarely seen half-hour documentary on his life and music, A Joyful Noise, Sun Ra paces imperiously in his customary alien warlock regalia, expounding on the failures of democracy/theocracy/ technocracy, et al. His solution? Resolution into the mystery, terror and collective consciousness of mythocracy. As committeepersons weighed the micropolitical cost of carrying more than one petition and finally recognized the macropolitical proposition that is the haircut for what it is, there strode (or, towards the end, wheeled) Sun Ra, our exemplii gratiis, our heir apparent, our Founding Father to a State we didn't get on the stick and create while he was more readily available to us.

To discuss Sun Ra, the avowed five-millennia old expatriate from Saturn who assured us "Space is the Place", in patriotic terms may seem a reach. But if the personal is political, so too, then, the cosmic. Certainly it made perfect sense to go see Sun Ra and his Arkestra let freedom ring in NYC last July 4th on a bill with fellow revolutionaries Sonic Youth. Debilitated by repeated strokes (yet recovering from them with a speed that amazed his physicians), the cheers that greeted his entrance in a wheelchair pushed by an assistant had a Pride of the Yankees quality to them. Unable to shimmy his Buddhagirth to the keyboard as in overtures, he was nevertheless in full digital command, rhapsodizing in ultraviolet on his synth over one of the most demanding and voluminous songbooks a "jazz band" ever had. The sound support was terrible yet queerly appropriate--like mere electronics couldn't get a bead on those mercurial lines, solos effulgent like time-lapse photographed blooms, now faraway, now inyerface like the screams of mother/ child at birth. As an apparent impromptu postscript, the last sounds from the band that broiling Independence Day were those of Sunny pounding out a wide array of electronic percussion samples from his keyboard in a benediction to an audience who wouldn't have many more chances to see him. Boom boom boom, we out.

The fact is, we separate the Sun musician/magician from the Sun philospher-king at our peril. And it's virtually impossible to conceive of Herman "Sonny" Blount, onetime arranger for Fletcher Henderson and second order pianist (this last would change and, with the advent of the synthesizer, change utterly) "realizing" his true persona as Sun Ra and all the implications thereonwards anywhere else than right here in the U.S. of the New Adam.

Practicalities were promptly finessed with an acumen that's positively prescient--you won't release this out shit? Welcome Saturn, his own label, committing literally thousands of hours of his genius to tape, much of which remains unreleased; Sun Ra, the original Amerindie. The collectivist nature of the Arkestra was a logical outgrowth of the demands of the post-bop improvisational impetus for which Sunny was in no small way responsible for. Beginning in Chicago, then for years in Philadelphia, the Arkestra was a communal experience of strict discipline--arduous practice, no drugs (this last, I can relate from personal experience, was not nearly so successful)--that began from a recognition of the ritualistic in all group-work. Thus, the costumes; the dancers (Arrested Development, kindly give it up); the spiritualized frenzy of titans like Marshall Allen and the once (and futuristic) Jazz Messenger John Gilmore, both of whom stayed with Sunny for almost all four decades of his "professional career"; the extraterrestrial invocations which were equal parts sci-fi buffoonery, mystery school syllabi and, to be sure, savvy marketing: all crying, leaping, laughing, signifyin' in a movement aimed at opening the hearts and minds of anyone who saw and/or heard to the ever-expanding universe beyond and a part of us. Notice the man said "Space is the place." Call it back to the future. Call it participatory mythocracy.

And call me proud to be an American. This is the theme of the Stargazer, the Stargazer in the sky: boom boom boom, we out.

--James Keepnews, Memorial Day 1993

last update 9/21/99
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