Friday, May 30, 2008

Okayplayer's Space Is The Place shirt benefits the Sun Ra Arkestra

Space Is The Place, Posted on 05/08/2008

In Okayplayer's Spring/Summer line for 2008 we have one very special shirt. Entitled "Space Is The Place," named after a famous Sun Ra song and Sun Ra feature film, this shirt is intended to raise money for the Sun Ra Arkestra who are in a time of need. Why did we decide to make this shirt to help the Sun Ra Arkestra? Before you can understand the "why" let us explain the "who."

Who was Sun Ra? What is The Sun Ra Arkestra?

Born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama on May 22, 1914, he was nicknamed Sonny from his youth. He later abandoned his birth name and took on the name and persona of Sun Ra ("Ra" being the name of the ancient Egyptian god of the Sun). He did not consider himself "born"; rather, he "arrived" on the planet, entering via Birmingham. From the 50's to the 90's Sun Ra led a large ensemble with a fluid lineup under a variety of names: The Solar Myth Arkestra, The Intergalactic Space Research Arkestra, and many others. Sun Ra departed on Memorial Day of May 30, 1993.

Sun Ra's prolific achievements on Planet Earth have been widely acclaimed and recorded in documentaries, books, and a feature film titled "Space is The Place." A child prodigy, he was immersed in the rich musical culture of early 20th century Birmingham. As a student, he toured with various ensembles throughout the south before eventually landing in Chicago, where he worked in dancehalls and secured an engagement arranging for floorshows at the famed Club DeLisa. It was here that he formed a strong bond with Fletcher Henderson, one of the kings of Swing, arranging and playing piano in the late 1940s. In Henderson's orchestra he also worked with Coleman Hawkins. Gradually developing his own small groups, he founded his record label, El Saturn Records, in the 1950s, and proceeded to unleash nearly 200 fiercely individualistic and extremely diverse albums on an unsuspecting and largely unprepared public. He also recorded for a handful of major labels, and attained widespread notoriety from his legendary concerts, radio, and television appearances. His interstellar musical, poetic, linguistic, and spiritual explorations are unparalleled in modern civilization.

Claiming that he was of the "Angel Race" and not from Earth - more likely from Saturn - Sun Ra developed complex cosmic philosophies voiced in lyrical poetry. He was a fierce advocate of humanity's higher aspects, continually expressing his disgust with war, hatred, and ignorance. He and his band enacted elaborate "cosmo-dramas" in which Sun Ra, as ambassador, channeled the voice of The Creator of the Omniverse.

Sun Ra's vision of a sustainable cosmo-immortality exposes the wisdom and beauty of our fragile existence. Over the course of four decades, Sun Ra's success in expressing his enormous musical gift epitomizes a flourishing of the spirit from which we can all draw inspiration.

With The Arkestra, Sun Ra gave astonishing performances around the world for decades. He was always accompanied by stellar musicians in fantastic costumes, and a joyful atmosphere of mischievous space camaraderie was ever present. His music is most often regarded as 'Jazz,' though it spans the full spectrum from Swing to Space, with ballads, show tunes, hard- and post-bop, exoticism, funk, energy music, and electronic hyperdrive.

In 2008 - 15 years following the departure of the master - Marshall Allen is going stonger than ever, directing the Sun Ra Arkestra with a brightly lit torch. A handful of current Arkestra members joined the group since the 1950's. The group today is among the last living links to the big band tradition, catapulting from yesteryear into tomorrow, beyond the 22nd century - as Sun Ra always did.

- Written by Charles Blass

Sun Ra's mission, much like Stevie Wonder, was always about uniting the people (earthlings and spacemen alike) through powerful music. Okayplayer, The Roots, and all of the musicians we support share this goal, and we thank Sun Ra for everything he did to open the doors for future artists.

Pathways to Unknown Worlds: Sun Ra, El Saturn & Chicago's Afro-Futurist Underground, 1954-68

October 1 — January 14, 2007, Gallery 4

Curated by John Corbett, Anthony Elms, and Terri Kapsalis

This unique exhibition will showcase a diverse, brilliant, provocative and by-and-large never seen range of materials related to pianist, bandleader, mystic, philosopher and Afro-Futurist Sun Ra. Most of these materials come from Ra’s tenure in Chicago (and the period directly thereafter, where from New York he maintained close contact with his Chicago colleagues), especially during mid-50s when he and his business partner and fellow mystic Alton Abraham - together with a small secret fraternal organization that has remained heretofore but a shadowy part of Ra’s early years - built a network of cryptic associations, amassed a huge library of books on the occult, magic, Egyptology, race studies, Theosophy, philosophy and religion, and began constructing the mythology and public persona that was presented to a crossover audience later in the ’60s in the form of Sun Ra’s Myth-Science Arkestra. In the same period, Ra and Abraham began assembling an increasingly large jazz ensemble (first called 8 Rays of Jazz, later known as the Arkestra), and in 1957 they began releasing LPs and singles on their own label, Saturn Records, which was, along with Charles Mingus and Max Roach’s Debut label and Harry Partch’s Gate 5 label, one of the very first and most active artist-owned record labels.

Pathways to Unknown Worlds will include a great number of previously unknown ephemeral items, including a dictionary of terms that the secret society had created, which has on its back page the names of the members of the secret society (led, at the top, by Herman Poole Blount, later known as Le Sony’ra, Sun Ra, or Sunny to his friends). A huge array of artifacts from the earliest days of Ra’s record production is a highlight of the exhibition, including his original drawings for the mid-60s albums Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow and Other Planes of There and the original artwork for numerous other LPs. These consist not only of the sketches and final versions of the art (including the painting from the Saturn debut, Jazz in Silhouette , and four Hans Arp-like amoeboid cut-out images for covers, including Angels and Demons at Play), but also all steps along the way to printing the covers. Among the most beautiful industrial objects in the exhibition are linoleum block plates (and a few rubber stamps) used for this purpose, as well as hand-painted color separations for silkscreen images; the exhibition will include several complete sets of transparencies designed for album covers. Along with these materials are a stunning collection of cover designs that were never used, including a number of colored charcoal drawings by an artist named Claude Dangerfield. Dangerfield was a classmate of many of the musicians in the Arkestra at Du Sable High School, and he conducted early experiments with glow-in-the-dark paints, reputedly painting luminous designs on the walls of saxophonist John Gilmore’s apartment.

As well as this large group of original artworks, the exhibition will include a range of different related ephemera, most of it never seen by anyone but a few business associates in the ’50s. Graphically brilliant, with a charming array of space and futuristic themes, these include: stationery, business cards, press kits, and other PR material. An assortment of previously unseen photographs of Ra will also be part of the exhibition, including an astonishing portrait from the late ’40s (autographed “H. Sonne Blount”), some of the only known color photos of him from the ’50s, and a selection of dazzling live performance shots from the south side club the Wonder Inn, where Ra had a long engagement in ‘59. One-of-a-kind posters, programs, ticket stubs, and other paper ephemera will augment this incredible, previously entombed representation of Sun Ra’s Chicago period. In two annexed rooms, the exhibition presents multi-media montages consisting of films, slide shows, clips of some of Ra’s influences (Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers), music, and spoken word, much of it previously unknown.

In the period before Ra launched his extraterrestrial jazz into the broader public imagination, he spent virtually all of his time and energy on Chicago’s south side, performing regularly in black-owned and black-frequented clubs, selling his records to small black-owned record stores, teaching youngsters from his neighborhood the basics of a capella singing, and spreading his singular philosophical message via streetcorner lectures modelled on Christian and Nation of Islam preaching. To facilitate the latter, Ra sometimes composed scripts or even roadside/broadsheet hand-outs. Until recently, only one such mimeographed sheet was known to exist - the one that Ra gave saxophonist John Coltrane in 1956. Coltrane was so enthralled by the page’s numerological and philosphical insights that he xeroxed it and gave it to friends and associates. As part of this exhibition, we will unveil a group of newly discovered broadsheets from the mid-50s, typewritten and many of them hand annotated by Sun Ra. Along with this, a manuscript of a planned, but never published, collection of Ra’s poetry titled The Magic Lie will be exhibited. This set of writings - the startling, often harrowingly provocative content of which, by many accounts, was extremely influential on the nascent Black Islamic movement - will represent a gigantic addition to the scholarly and popular understanding of Ra’s achievement.

Along with enriching our understanding of Sun Ra, his work and vision, this exhibition will demonstrate a number of more fundamental things about Sun Ra and the incipient grass-roots Afro-Futurist movement in Chicago. These ideas will be of immediate interest and quite accessible to the Ra scholar and the layperson alike. The materials are playful and vibrant, with themes that include flying saucers, pyramids, time-travel and Chicago’s elevated trains. But the fun aspect of the images and sounds belies something profound. The exhibition reframes the development of Sun Ra as a much more substantive proposition than the mere creation of a colorful eccentric cult celebrity and his costumed band. Instead, it puts the development of the Ra persona and the Arkestra back into its originary context of black independent business, and there it configures Ra’s activities as being part of a broad scheme for disseminating his radical ideas about race, culture, ethics, futurity, alterity, humanity and beauty. It’s essential that this be understood in a black context, on the south-side, aimed at a black audience, drawing on a semi-professional design community working in a way that might be described as “outsider design.” There was an air of unrelenting independence about what Ra did with Saturn Records in the late ’50s, a sense of defiance, a quality of stark separatism and harrowingly singular vision. Indeed, as the exhibition will demonstrate, Ra and Abraham were actively looking for expanses of land to annex via federal programs, and a lovely little collage titled El Saturn Treasure Map shows the manner in they sought to spread their philosophy - pencilled musical notes emanate from radio stations, sweeping Africa, India, and a no-man’s region of 10,000 acres of unclaimed land - but also how immersed they were, at least initially, in a separatist ideology, how drawn they were to the notion of establishing a new space for black people to live, work and create. Thus, the do-it-yourself aspect of south-side creative life is brought vividly to light in the form of a matrix of artists, musicians, business people, writers and thinkers - a genuine organic intellectual community in the heart of black postwar Chicago.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

John Gilmore as Pharaoh from Space Is The Place

Photo ©1972 Kim Hinojosa

An Interview with Sun Ra by Francis Davis, 1990

Sun Ra Meets Napoleon
Exhibit Duration: November 20 - January 31, 2005 Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Reception: Saturday, November 20, 2004 Exhibition Openings Series | Curated by Mark Christman

Slought Foundation, a non-profit organization rethinking contemporary art, presents "Sun Ra Meets Napoleon," an exhibition from November 20, 2004-January 31, 2005. This previously unreleased full recording (from 1990) of Sun Ra in conversation with Jazz critic Francis Davis has been made available in conjunction with the exhibition as well as online.

On Monday, January 29, 1990, jazz critic Francis Davis interviewed Sun Ra at the Sun Ra house on Morton Street in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. Davis recalls that while several resident Arkestra members were present, the mailman arrived at the door at almost the exact moment that he did, handed him the mail without knowing who he was, and said "good luck." One item in the mail that day was an Ed McMahon millionaire sweepstakes letter, addressed to Arkestra saxophonist John Gilmore. "JOHN GILMORE MAY ALREADY BE A WINNER," it read, and the Arkestra made quite a deal about that--as if it were an omen of some sort. Subsequent to Davis' visit, Sun Ra performed at the Philadelphia's African American Museum, and City Council honored him with a miniature Liberty Bell generally given to visiting celebrities and dignataries.

Sun Ra, among the most unusual composers in the history of jazz, was born Herman "Sonny" Blount in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914. Though he began recording in the late '40s, Ra's career didn't take off until the early '50s, when Blount adopted his now-famous moniker ("Le Sony'ra") and began claiming he came from Saturn. Infatuated with ancient Egypt, outer space and New Age mysticism, Ra formed a Chicago-based group called the Arkestra, which played an intriguing mix of bop, free jazz, and proto-electronic music. In 1956 he founded his own label, Saturn Records, and five years later relocated to New York, where he established himself as one of the more eccentric performers, releasing bizarre recordings which foreshadowed jazz fusion and ambient music by blending traditional jazz instruments with electric keyboard and unconventional song structures. In 1970 Sun Ra moved to Philadelphia, where he continued recording and performing for a small but loyal jazz and rock audience until his death in May 1993. In recent years an orchestrated effort by music historians to catalogue Ra's sidemen and recording sessions has been undertaken, resulting in the release of the discography The Earthly Recordings Of Sun Ra. The Sun Ra Arkestra continues to tour and record under the directon of the Arkestra's longtime alto player, Marshall Allen.

Philadelphian Francis Davis is the author of several books, including The History of the Blues, Bebop and Nothingness, a forthcoming biography of John Coltrane, and, most recently, Jazz and Its Discontents: A Francis Davis Reader (Da Capo Press, 2004). Davis is a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly, and also writes regularly about music for the New York Times and the Village Voice. He received a 1994 PEW grant for literature and a 1993 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship.

Tomorrow Knocking at Your Door: Sun Ra Chicago is the Place for a new exhibit on the jazz great, 2006

Pathways to Unknown Worlds: Sun Ra, El Saturn and Chicago's Afro-Futurist Underground, 1954-68

Hyde Park Art Center October 1 — January 14, 2007

By Patrick Sisson, Thursday, November 16, 2006

If you were booking jazz shows in Chicago in the late ’50s, a press release with the following exhortation might have crossed your desk: “Be good to your mind’s mind/eye Earthlings… Give is a chance to do what all Earthlings must do before they cross the River Styx… be bombarded with the living-cosmic-soul-force-vibrations of Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Infinity Arkestra!!!!!” It’s a bold and wildly eccentric pitch for a band to make during the Eisenhower era, or any era. But it also boldly proclaims the unapologetically deep philosophical and musical forces ushered in by one Herman Poole “Sunny” Blount, better known by the name he later chose for himself, Le Sony’r Ra, or Sun Ra.

Many fans and curious cultural onlookers first encountered the fringe figure and jazz experimenter as he presented himself: a robed mystic from Saturn. The remarkable thing about Pathways to Unknown Worlds, a new exhibit of Sun Ra ephemera at Chicago's Hyde Park Art Center, is the way it gradually reveals the intense dedication and rigorous reflection that coalesced into Ra's main theories, many of which influenced artists from Parliament to hip-hop producer Madlib and beyond. Space is certainly the place, but Ra’s path to the cosmos intrigues not only because of the ultimate destination but because of the singular way he achieved liftoff.

The main portion of the exhibit is a collection recovered from the home of the late Alton Abraham, who John Corbett, one of the exhibit’s curators, had previously interviewed for his 1994 book Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage to Dr. Funkenstein.

“When I first met Alton at a restaurant in my neighborhood, he told me he would show me something that proved he was who he said he was,” said Corbett. “He then produced the forms documenting Sun Ra’s name change. My heart stopped for about 10 minutes.”

A fellow mystic, Abraham managed Sun Ra’s business affairs under the corporate banner Saturn Research and also was part of Thmei Research, a secret society that the bandleader formed on the South Side of Chicago to study everything from African history and numerology to future technology and the paranormal. The rare art and artifacts, almost all from Abraham’s home, document the period Sun Ra spent in Chicago, when he grew from a composer and arranger to a visionary bandleader of a forward-thinking jazz ensemble.

Sketches and album covers dominate, all containing a mix of elemental and futuristic motifs like crashing waves, Egyptian symbols and dime novel sci-fi images. But there’s a lot of philosophical heft behind the images, some of which recall B-movie posters. Strewn between the visuals are scores of press releases, record catalogs and wood printing blocks for decorating record sleeves, all evidence of the revolutionary independent business Abraham and Sun Ra were running. According to Corbett, the duo would strike deals with labels to print small runs of records and would make their own covers, all in an effort to spread their beliefs through music.

During his Chicago years, Sun Ra also literally spread the word through broadsides and leaflets, which he read from and handed out at local parks. Ra’s written work and poetry, collected in The Wisdom of Sun Ra, a book available for purchase at the Hyde Park Art Center, is a vital part of this history. Pivoting and playing with words like Muhammad Ali taunting an opponent, Ra opined on the dire truth about race relations and personal freedom for black Americans. He often used jovial language and homonyms — one of the only instruments on display is a cymbal covered in symbols — but they don’t mask his strong feelings. As Ra said in his 1976 film Space is the Place, “The negro in America is a myth.”

Sun Ra wanted to take his listeners to the space age, but he didn’t mean Sputnik and space stations. As the text and images of this exhibit demonstrate, his seemingly outlandish personal image and artwork were in large part an extension of his belief in self-determination — that we could build our own myths through force of will and inhabit our own space. Sun Ra traveled the spaceways, but Pathways to Unknown Worlds makes it clear more earthly concerns and conceits led to his exodus.

Other Plains of There, circa 1965 / Colored pencil and ballpoint pen on tracing paper, 12 x 1

Third Annual URB ALT Festival Shines in Sun Ra Celebration on First Day of Summer, 2008

Third Annual URB ALT Festival Shines in Sun Ra Celebration on First Day of Summer


V. Jeffrey Smith, Tay Zonday, Melvin Gibbs, MuthaWit and eclectic artists perform 14 Hours of Alternative Music Over 3 Days at Harlem Stage Gatehouse and BAMcafe

“URB ALT Festival features artists that are exemplars of boundary crossing, synthesis and unification." - The Village Voice

NEW YORK, NY (May 27, 2008) - The third annual URB ALT Festival brings the bleeding edge of multi-cultural music/film artists to New York City's Harlem Stage Gatehouse and BAMcafe. On the first day of summer June 21st in conjunction with the city-wide Make Music NY, the three day URB ALT Festival launches from the Harlem Stage Gatehouse terrace with a 7 hour outdoor concert event. The festival, hosted by co-founder Shena Verrett, celebrates the legacy of Sun Ra as fused through the musical and visual creativity of internationally recognized and underground artists. Events are free with a $10 suggested donation for adults going towards registration for URB ALT gift raffles and voter registration initiatives through Rock the Vote. For more information contact Michelle at 917.328.0367 or

The opening day at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse features the avant-garde bass mastery of Melvin Gibbs (Rollins Band, Harriet Tubman); the soulful alternative hip hop/funk of Atlantan, Stacy Epps; the “Chocolate Rain" afforded musical ubiquity of Tay Zonday; the cosmic jazz vocal stylings of Los Angelino, Waberi Jordan; the soul laced protorock melodicism of Tenderhead; the electronica infused funk/rock of OMG; the funky blues rock of Devi; the folk/soul of honey voiced crooner Kendal; the Latin rock/punk experimentalism of Millsted; and the futuristic big band exploratory missions of the MuthaWit Orchestra (URB ALT Festival house band). Artists will be performing their original material as well as a composition from Sun Ra's songbook.

URB ALT founder Boston Fielder, says “Sun Ra is a beacon for creators of all mediums who want to explore the connection between the spirit, entertainment and commerce. The Sun Ra Arkestra was/is a functioning politico-economic-social system that I was exposed to early in life as my cousin was a mainstay drummer for the group. It's an honor to present some of Sun Ra's compositions to our audience."

June 27th and 28th finds the URB ALT Festival crossing the river into Brooklyn where the events dock at the popular BAMcafe. These two special nights of the URB ALT Festival close out the BAMcafe Live season by featuring the soul/rock gypsy sound of Brig Feltus with members of Pillow Theory; the polyphonic harp virtuosity of Brandee Younger (Ravi Coltrane); the LES reggae/rock/soul power of Faith; the rock/soul/pop songcraft mastery of V. Jeffrey Smith (Family Stand); the punk/pop/rock runway histrionics of Tenderhead; and a special collaboration between the MuthaWit Orchestra and two very special guests. Both nights will feature the computer generated projections of Italy based visual artist Roy Lagrone, The Matrix film series animation director Lyndon Barrois and “Harbinger" feature film director Tim Fielder.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Wayne Kramer on joining THE SUN RA ARKESTRA, 2006

Wayne Kramer on joining THE SUN RA ARKESTRA at Arthur Nights last Saturday

Posted by arthur magazine staff
from, 10/26/2006


In the half-between world,
Dwell they: The Tone Scientists
In notes and tone
They speak of many things…
The tone scientists:
Architects of planes of discipline
Mathematically precise are they:
The tone-scientists
(Sun Ra)

Brazilian percussionist Elson Nascimento called last week and invited me to sit in with The Sun Ra Arkestra under the direction of Marshall Allen. They were Saturday night’s ArthurFest headliners, a four-day music festival held here in Los Angeles and curated by Arthur Magazine.

Was I thrilled? That’s putting it mildly. I have had a long-time admiration for the work of Sun Ra and his merry band of intergalactic explorers. Still do today.

I was first exposed to them in the 1960s with their ESP Disc, The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra and others. Those records - and the fact that John Sinclair booked us on a concert co-headlining with them at the Community Arts Auditorium at Wayne State University in Detroit - changed the way I would think about music for the rest of my life.

We continued to perform on concerts with The Arkestra over the next few years and I came to spend some time with Sun Ra himself. His ideas about Art, Music and culture helped form my own. In the Modern Age, with the resurgence of interest in the MC5, we have been able to reconnect with The Arkestra for concerts in London, New York and Los Angeles.

Although Sun Ra and some of the other founding members have gone on to Saturn, the band continues to travel the space ways under the able leadership of alto genius Marshall Allen. Many of the players on the band have long-time membership and the spirit remains completely intact.

So when I got the call, it was as if I was at once being asked to enter into a fifth dimension of my own past and future.

When I arrived at the gig, I took some good-natured kidding from the musicians about the traditional black suit and tie I was wearing. (I had just come directly from a TV studio where my current project, The Lexington Artists Workshop Ensemble, had performed a couple of numbers for the Hep C Awareness Telethon.)

I was informed that, in order to perform with The Arkestra, I would need to be outfitted with the appropriate space uniform. No problem. I put on the dark blue sequined robe and matching headwear with joy.

When I asked Marshall what numbers I should play on he said, “Play it all. Just be ready, because there is no way to know what might happen.” This has been my personal attitude for years and here it was being conferred on me by one of the masters. Was I ready? Yes, brother! I have been waiting for this night all my life.

I was talking in the dressing room with trumpeter Fred Adams about the music Sun Ra composed and left to them. He told me they have just scratched the surface on the mother load of unrecorded material. Marshall talked with me about the dilemma of having so much music and so little time to perform it.

I’m not someone who goes for the ritual of a group hug or prayer before a performance, but when I was told to “join-up” right before time to play I was honored to be included. This wasn’t a religious rite, but an invocation to recognize together who we were and what we were doing right then and there. That we were about to “create music for a better world. On this planet and all other planets!” And that we were all, “Sun Ra”.

I took the stage with the players and never felt more proud to be an artist punching in on the job.

The music was expansive. We played inside and outside the forms. Some tunes I could grasp the basic 16-bar II-V-I structure and others were way too difficult to attempt. I was standing next to bassist Juini Booth and could read some changes from his charts but often they came just too fast and furious for me. Other tunes were deep, deep space grooves that I locked into and worked as relentlessly as I could.

This kind of playing takes a great deal of concentration and my sore wrists reminded me of it later. Marshall was so gracious in granting me a few solo passages. For me, this was Heaven. Of course there were interludes of music that some might call “free music,” although this is a misnomer. When and how you play in this context is anything but free. This is about discipline, not freedom, which was one of the principles at the core of Sun Ra’s philosophy.

Marshall was a consummate bandleader in directing us through these sections. He was very clear and confident about what he wanted and when he wanted it. The Arkestra played, danced and sang and the audience enjoyed every minute of it.

Arkestra guitarist, David Hotep is a master chordist and I was trying to keep up, but it was like trying to catch a comet.

Dave Davis on trombone showed his great enthusiasm for music throughout the set, along with baritone saxophonist Rey Scott. As usual, drummer Luquman Ali drove the band with cosmic precision. The final notes played were a joyful exchange between Marshall Allen and tenor saxophonist Yahya Abdul-Majid.

Before I realized it, we had played for an hour and 30 minutes and it was time to go. We had traveled the space ways from planet to planet and returned to earth, all the better for it.
Sometimes it just doesn’t get any better.

Check it out:

Wayne Kramer, Los Angeles. 10.23.06

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Uncle Marshall

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Family reunions remind us how connected we are

STAN WEST, Wednesday Journal of Oak Park and River Forest

Reunions bring together friends and relatives in unique ways. Here's our story:

My mom's brother, Marshall Allen, leader of the avant-garde jazz group, the Sun Ra Arkestra, came to Oak Park in early January for the first time since the late '90s when he played at Unity Temple. Uncle Marshall and his girlfriend, Swiss-born Cornelia Mueller, promoter of the Uncool Jazz Festival there, stayed with us for three days.

Marshall is an 82-year-old, pony-tailed saxman who plays Egyptian model forms and Indian ragas in clever jazz arrangements. Growing up as a kid, I recall him telling stories about how he and his band played "healing music" in Egypt in the Valley of the Kings. He told us that African-American musicians get more attention abroad than they do here.

His stories inspired me to become a foreign correspondent and report on culture and politics abroad as well as back here. My wife, Earlene Strayhorn-West, also has connections with the tradition of international jazz. Earlene's distant relative, Billy Strayhorn, was the composer of "Take the A Train," made famous by Duke Ellington. Marshall mentioned that he met Billy in Paris. Marshall has played in France every decade since his days in the U.S. Army Band during World War II. He takes pride in the fact that in the late '40s, he and Charlie Parker and other African-American jazz greats introduced bebop to Europeans.

On this visit, he introduced improvisational jazz to our teen twin sons, Amman, who plays drums and piano, and Jordan, who sings at Brooks Middle School. He showed the boys how to compose songs on the piano.

"By humming melodies and harmonies all the time, he taught me new ways of hearing songs," Jordan said.

Aside from our immediate family reunion, Marshall also reconnected with his 61-year-old son, Rodney Sr., and his grandson, Rodney Jr., 38, whom he had never met. It happened at Philander's Restaurant during a jazz concert where Marshall played alto sax with the John Wright Trio.

"I'd like to introduce my old friend Marshall Allen, who leads the Sun Ra Arkestra, who is here with his piano-playing son, Rodney Sr. and grandson, Rodney Jr.," Wright told a crowded room that included Bette Wilson, former director of District 97's multicultural ed department.

"Your Uncle Marshall is a charming man with a rich history," she noted.

Wright added, "To play before your son, grandson and other relatives is a real blessing. Let's give Marshall Allen a hearty Oak Park welcome."

With that, Marshall started to blow an original up-tempo composition he called, "Song Searching for a Name." Wright played piano, Buggs Cochran played drums, and Nick Tountas played bass. The next song, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," showcased Marshall's whole repertoire of lilting melodies and screeching upper-register harmonics. He received a standing ovation. "We're the last men standing," Wright said, referring to a now-dwindled group of Chicago jazz players who reinvented the art form. Wright mentioned the Sun Ra exhibit at the Hyde Park Art Center. The next day, Marshall, Cornelia and my sons visited it. The three-room exhibit was filled with Sun Ra albums, video projections, and celestial jazz sounds.

The following day, Marshall was honored by the Ernest Dawkins Band at Chicago's Red Velvet Lounge. "I picked up a sax because of how inspired I was by him as a kid. This composition is dedicated to the great Marshall Allen," Dawkins told the packed crowd before launching a 30-minute free jazz romp. Red Velvet Lounge owner Fred Anderson once played with the Sun Ra Arkestra. "We're titans," he said.

Marshall's visit reminded me of our creative similarities. We all use art to help record and express our impressions of the world in which we live. Family reunions are a reminder that all families have a unique place in local and international history.

That's our Black History Month story.

Terry Adams and Marshall Allen 1996 New York Times Brooklyn Museum Review

Two Linked by Humor and Lapped by Rock

By BEN RATLIFF, New York Times

Published: August 20, 1996

There was an agreeable lesson on Sunday afternoon in the fine distinctions between rock and jazz esthetics at the Brooklyn Museum's sculpture garden. The teachers were Terry Adams, shaggy-haired keyboardist from the peripatetic American roots-music band NRBQ, and Marshall Allen, the alto saxophonist and flutist who leads the Sun Ra Arkestra and wears the Arkestra's trademark gold-and-red sequined skullcap even on side projects like this one.

The duo wasn't a concert producer's off-the-wall notion. They have recorded together, on Mr. Adams's most recent album. They've both traveled for decades with indefinable pan-stylistic bands. They're both humorists, and this was their common ground and their point of departure. Mr. Adams, who is used to being heard over a rock group, cannot approach a piano without wanting to bang it. His sensibility is hammy flamboyance with jazz-canon knowledge: Erroll Garner as filtered through Jerry Lee Lewis. Mr. Allen's approach is slier and more nuanced, taking in the smooth glissandos of Johnny Hodges, as well as the hard-driving, self-contained Chicago R-&-B style and the squeal of free jazz.

Their set included ''Thinking of You,'' a Thelonious Monk-like ballad by Mr. Adams; Sun Ra's ''Interstellar Low Ways'' and a raft of standards. Duke Ellington's ''Prelude to a Kiss,'' a song Mr. Allen has probably played thousands of times, succinctly conveyed the pair's humor and disparate musical attitudes. After a comically florid and impertinent piano introduction, Mr. Allen stated the creamy melody outright, then both men spent lavish care on microscopic corners of the song.

Back into the melody, just before the resolution, Mr. Allen took his time with a deliciously shrill shriek -- serious stuff now, not mere jokery -- and had to catch up by cramming the end into one claustrophobic bar of music. Mr. Adams feigned boredom with the finale, his left elbow leaning on the top of the piano, his right hand picking out the final chords in a desultory anticlimax.

The museum's jazz-duet series concludes on Sunday at 3 P.M. with a collaboration between Jackie McLean, the alto saxophonist, and Michael Carvin, the drummer.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Jerry Dammers Spatial AKA Orchestra

Jerry Dammers: A ghost from the past

Jerry Dammers created The Specials, stormed the charts, then suddenly stopped recording. Nick Hasted tries to find out why

By Warren Howard

Friday, 20 April 2007

The man who created 2-Tone, Coventry's own Motown, and wrote Britain's most perfect fusing of politics and pop, the single "Ghost Town" by his great band The Specials, has been away a long time. To some, he has seemed like a ghost himself: there and not there, often appearing on various bills as a DJ, but not writing a song that anybody has heard since 1984, and not playing live since 1994.

This vanishing is one of pop's great mysteries. Perhaps only Joe Strummer's late-Eighties disappearance from the scene for a decade compares. Dammers is certainly an equivalent figure: like Strummer, he was a middle-class rebel (Dammers is a clergyman's son) who became the leader of a revolutionary musical movement, but lost his way, and was left behind by the world he helped change.

So when Dammers enters a south London pub to discuss his first new band since The Specials, for a moment it feels unreal, as if some historical character, or long-lost explorer, has suddenly walked into the room. He looks healthy, even comfortable, his trademark missing middle teeth offset by a neatly trimmed beard. His new project, a big band called The Spatial AKA Orchestra (a pun on his old band's final formation, The Special AKA) play their second ever gig, in Devon at the South West Sound festival, next week. As we sit in the pub's back room talking a slow, hot afternoon away, Dammers is clearly nervous at being back in the fray; desperate, too, to stop being defined by The Specials' achievements. If the question of why his songwriting stopped won't go away, his new band, who play tunes by Sun Ra, is his first tentative step back towards such creativity.

Sun Ra, the prolific space-jazz explorer who famously claimed to have gained his musical purpose on a trip to Saturn, seems an unlikely new touchstone for the man who revived ska's simple energy. But, explains Dammers: "When the US government was going to the moon, Sun Ra was saying that, for black people in America, they could still travel through space mentally, without all the expense of rockets. So his ideas were political. We're playing versions of the funkier, groove-based, African end of Sun Ra from the Seventies; hip-hop-influenced, modern versions, very much my arrangements. It's visual and theatrical on stage, too - there are mannequins and masks and helmets. Half the band aren't jazz musicians, they're more reggae or rock. They're the best young musicians in Britain. It's a new kind of jazz band. I don't want them to be compared to Jerry Dammers or The Specials. They're so special themselves."

But the shadows of Dammers' past will always loom large. From 1979 to 1981, his 2-Tone label offered a vision of pop as an inclusive social and racial ideal that has yet to be matched. The seven-piece Specials, with Dammers as keyboardist, main songwriter and mastermind, and Terry Hall and Neville Staple on vocals, were a racially mixed Coventry band who took The Clash's fusion of rock and reggae a step further. They revived Sixties Jamaican ska with an injection of punk energy, and lyrics of current urgency. Their first single, "Gangsters", hit No 6 in the charts in the summer of 1979.

Just as important as the record was its label, 2-Tone. A deal struck by the band's manager Rick Rogers with major label Chrysalis bargained away financial perks in return for total creative control. When 2-Tone's next four singles, by bands including The Beat, Madness and The Selecter, also cracked the Top 10, Dammers' dream of the label as the Midlands' Motown seemed realised. But the other hit bands quickly left 2-Tone, uninterested in Dammers' grand plans for them. His perfectionism, meanwhile, wore down The Specials and himself, as two hit albums and a diverse series of brilliant seven-inch singles, including "A Message to You Rudy" and "Stereotypes", took them through 1980.

Their greatest moment was their last. "Ghost Town" was a spectral, insidiously melodic vision of an urban wasteland, recorded as unemployment and black resentment at police harassment soared. "When it was finished, we knew," Dammers remembers. "It was like, 'How did we do that?' The sound was a very important part of it: the Yamaha home organ, those weird Japanese fake clarinet sounds. I love anything in music that's fake and wrong and weird. I think that's what gave it that haunting feeling."

"Ghost Town" sat at No 1 for three weeks in the hot summer of 1981, soundtracking the major, countrywide urban riots that its atmosphere eerily predicted. "I'd planned a band from the age of 10 that was going to cause a revolution," Dammers recalls. "And when it actually happened, I suppose you're entitled to think, 'Oh my God. Maybe I actually had something to do with it.' It was scary, because I'm not a person who likes violence in any way. But I put the blame on Margaret Thatcher and the Tories. The riots didn't happen because of The Specials, they happened because of the way that Thatcher was treating people. That's the way it's always worked in this country. People are pushed until they snap. And then things change, a little tiny bit."

At their moment of triumph, Hall, Staple and guitarist Lynval Golding split off from the band to form the Fun Boy Three. "We could' have done more after 'Ghost Town', I think, in that way," Dammers believes now. "I don't think we even realised ourselves the extent to which we were popular. How much it meant to people. But it was really difficult by the end to get certain people in the band to cooperate with me. And the Special AKA was worse!" He cackles. "The Special AKA was a nightmare."

Carrying on the band under that name, Dammers began a series of political singles with a harrowing monologue by a rape victim, "The Boiler". It grazed the Top 40, the sort of radical record that could never be released now. "The possibility had already gone when we put it out," Dammers believes. "We paid a price for that, career-wise. But I thought that track was important. I never really considered the career implications of anything. It was a total fluke that The Specials ever got as famous as they did."

Dammers' perfectionism was finally his undoing when The Special AKA's sole album, the aptly named In the Studio (1984), took two ruinously expensive years to complete. "After that, I was what they call 'imprisoned' to the record company for four years," he explains, "because we had such a big debt. So I couldn't get any new musicians involved, because any money would have gone straight to the company. That's when I got involved in Artists Against Apartheid."

The Special AKA's 1984 No 9 smash hit "Nelson Mandela" - Dammers' pop farewell - had paved the way for arguably his greatest achievement. For three years, he went from pop star to full-time, unpaid charity worker, putting together the Artists Against Apartheid concert on Clapham Common in 1986, then helping to organise 1988's globally televised birthday tribute to Mandela at Wembley Stadium. "Before those gigs, Margaret Thatcher was saying Mandela was a terrorist," he says. "Afterwards, she was saying it was her that set him free."

Today, Dammers supports the Love Music Hate Racism charity, but finds the environment depressingly changed. "Most bands nowadays aren't really political," he says. "They're looking after their careers, and for some reason they think getting involved will affect that. God knows why. I was disappointed with Live 8, too. Saying we're just going to raise awareness - that's all right if it's in the music, if the artists are actually committed politically and are putting it in their lyrics. But just having someone on the stage singing about something that's got nothing to do with it, how that's going to raise political awareness I don't know."

Four years of being blocked from recording made something change in Dammers, too. "That's when I stopped making music," he says. "I didn't even play piano during that time, and when I came back and sat down at the keyboard, the way I played before had gone. I'd turned into this abstract noisemaker. You lose the flow of what you're doing if you stop completely. Doing Artists Against Apartheid took its toll."

Tinnitus also put him off further gigging. DJing became his outlet instead. "My DJ stuff has always been ignored," he grumbles. "It's funny. Once, a rock journalist came up to me while I was actually DJing, and said, 'When are you going to do something, Jerry?' 'I'm doing it, as you actually speak to me,'" he recalls replying, teeth clenched.

It seems almost inconceivable, though, that a man once so utterly committed to his own music could have found satisfaction for the last 20 years in playing other people's. In all the time since In the Studio, has he written any songs? "I have tried to write a couple, yes. But I got more into instrumental music. I hate to say it, but I don't really like songs anymore. I might be able to again one day. But the whole idea of a song, I just went off it."

But it only takes a few minutes in Dammers' company for his old political passions to fire up. Does he really no longer need to get such things out in a public way? "There are still things I need to say," he considers. "But it's much, much harder to say 'em now. If you're talking about political stuff, I think there's a real problem with making those statements that we made at that time, without it sounding like a cliché from that era. I think it's one of the surrealists who said, revolutionary art has to be revolutionary in form. Unless you can shock people with the way you say it, they're not going to take any notice. And it just seemed anyway that music had changed. All the best music till recently was instrumental black hip-hop, dancehall and jungle, that I could only play on vinyl."

But is Dammers still trying to find a new pop language he can speak? "You really want me to write some more songs, don't you?" he says, laughing. "I do try. But that punk era created a whole group of people working together, throwing their two-pence worth in to a much larger movement. That's gone. I still try and write songs. It's not all over yet. Probably. Hopefully. But I have to find new ways to say it."

Dammers seems so genuinely enthused about the Spatial AKA Orchestra, and so nervous about the thrill of new creativity at last, might there not be a new record there? "A record? Good grief!" he jokes. "There's always plans of a record. I have made some recordings over the years. Hopefully at some point I can put them in order."

As we sit back, interview over, there still seems to be something missing in Dammers' account of his retirement from the music frontline, 23 years ago: a failure of nerve, perhaps, or a deep exhaustion that he's only now moving past. Or perhaps it's something simpler.

"It's hard to follow 'Ghost Town'," he says, almost to himself. "I won't ever make a record for the sake of it."

The Spatial AKA Orchestra play the South West Sound festival on 27 April (


Herman Poole Blount, named after the vaudeville stage magician Black Herman, later became the jazz legend Sun Ra (right). He was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914; by the time he was 11, he was playing the piano and writing songs, soaking up performances by musicians such as Duke Ellington and Fats Waller before going home to transcribe whole songs from memory. By his mid-teens, Blount had carved his own reputation on the circuit.

However, it was during the mid-1930s, as a student, that Blount etched out his musical destiny. Blount claimed that, in the throes of deep meditation, a bright light had engulfed him and that he was "teleported" to an interplanetary audience on Saturn. "They had one little antenna on each ear," said Blount. "They talked to me. I would speak [through music] and the world would listen."

It was not until reaching Chicago in the 1950s, however, and renaming himself Le Sony'r Ra, that his otherworldly experiences began to stamp their mark on his music. This period spurned the outer-space-themed "cosmic" jazz for which he is best known; post-swing styles such as bebop and modal jazz were fused with an experimentation that became deeper, more pronounced and less decipherable, as Sun Ra and his "Arkestra" moved to New York and then Philadelphia during the 1960s and 1970s.

Ra cemented his reputation as an innovator by being one of the first musicians to employ the electric synthesiser and tape delay systems to achieve his cosmic landscape. His Arkestra continued touring after his death in 1993.

youtube links:

I'll wait for you Sun Ra (Version 1)

I'll wait for you Sun Ra (Version 1)


Where The Pathways Meet

The Big Chill

Journey in Satchidananda

Chicago's Club deLisa

Located at State Street near Garfield Boulevard on the South Side, the Club DeLisa was the largest and most important nightclub in the African American community from the 1930s through the 1950s. At the Club DeLisa, Chicagoans could hear performers such as Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, Joe Williams, Red Saunders.

Red Saunders and Herman "Sunny" Blount at Club DeLisa.

For more information, go to the invaluable resource, The Red Saunders Research Foundation:

Extraordinary Sun Ra Arkestra youtube Links

Sun Ra in Egypt and Italy

Sun Ra, "Spaceways" part 1

Sun Ra, "Spaceways" part 2

Sun Ra Arkestra Live in Berlin

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Sun Ra giclée by Pedro Bell, 2006

Terry Adams New Release: Love Letter To Andromeda

NRBQ keyboardist and honorary Arkestran Terry Adams has a new release, "Love Letter To Andromeda."

The recording features Terry on the prepared piano and celeste. Recorded live at The Stone in New York City, January 15, 2008.

Available now at:

Track Listing:
1. Enter Lewd
2. grav-a-minor
3. Out Of The Cage
4. Every Thing I Do
5. Duet For Cousins
6. If I Had A Dream
7. Pannonica
8. Love Letter To Andromeda
9. Yes, Yes, Yes

Walt Dickerson has left the planet

To all concerned:

I was asked to inform you of the regrettable death of vibraphonist, Walt Dickerson, by his beloved wife, Elizabeth. Walt passed away on May 15 from cardiac arrest. He was 80 years of age and lived in Willow Grove, PA.

In sympathy,

Andrew Cyrille

Walt Dickerson Quartet
Impressions of a Patch of Blue
MGM SE 4358 (1966)

Side A:
A Patch of Blue part 1
A Patch of Blue part 2
Bacon And Eggs
High Hopes

Side B:
Alone in the Park part 1
Alone in the Park part 2
Selina's Fantasy

Walt Dickerson-vib; Sun Ra-p, celeste; Bob Cunningham-b; Roger Blank- d. Recorded in New York City, 1965. [Info from Stahl and Raben]

Sun Ra and Walt Dickerson
Steeplechase SCS 1126
Steeplechase SCCD 31126 (CD)

Side A:
Astro (Dickerson)
Utopia (Dickerson)
Visions (Dickerson)

Side B:
Constructive Neutrons (Dickerson)
Space Dance (Dickerson)

added on SCCD 31126:
Light Years (Dickerson)
Prophecy (Dickerson)

Ra-p; Dickerson-vib. Recorded 7/11/1978. [Album jacket]

Sun Ra Radio: MAY 25th 2 pm - 7 pm WKCR-FM New York 89.9

May 25th, from 2–7 pm, Marshall Allen and members of the Sun Ra Arkestra will appear live on the air for WKCR-FM New York 89.9's Sun Radio, hosted by Charles Blass.

I have compiled highlights from the unreleased compositions of Marshall Allen that will be broadcast on this celebration of the Arrival Days of Sun Ra and Marshall Allen.

Here are the songs selected for consideration:

Out Of The Rain - A Tribute To The World Trade Center [20011031 The Main Room @ Knitting Factory; New York, NY.] 10:16 2001

Sunshine [20011031 The Main Room @ Knitting Factory; New York, NY.] 10:15 2001

Swirling [20021030 Faculty House @ Columbia University; New York, NY.] 10:51 2002

In-B-Tween > The Blue Sun > In-B-Tween [20031013 Birdland North Madison] 12:42 2003

African Sunset [20031031 Faculty House @ Columbia University; New York, NY.] 16:44 2003

Space Lullabye [20041029 Faculty House @ Columbia University; New York, NY.] 12:35 2004

Differ [20051210 Van Der Mehden Recital Hall; Storrs, CT.] 11:43 2005

You'll Find Me, composed 20060228 [20060522 ADC @ HOR, 89.9 WKCR; New York NY.] 15:28 2006

In Spite Of Everything [20060525 Toad's Place; New Haven, CT.] 5:17 2006

Unidentified Title [20060525 Toad's Place; New Haven, CT.] 3:30 2006

Happy Birthday To You, Marshall [20060525 Toad's Place; New Haven, CT.] 4:30 2006

You'll Find Me [20060525 Toad's Place; New Haven, CT.] 8:17 2006

Greetings from the 21st Century!

In honor of Sun Ra and Marshall Allen's upcoming 2008 Arrival Days (i.e. Birthdays), I've created this blog.

The intention is to share and preserve the legacy of master musicians Sun Ra and the Arkestra, as well as related subjects of interest.