Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Part 116 - Sun Ra at the Smiling Dog
Story filed October 25, 2007
It was the last week of January 1975. Sun Ra and his unusual group of entertainers came to Cleveland for the first time to play a six-day engagement at the Smiling Dog Saloon. From Tuesday night, January 28th, through Sunday, February 2nd, the iconoclastic band that didn’t fit any of the usual categories of jazz, played twice a night, plus a matinee on Saturday. The Thursday night show was recorded and broadcast on radio.
The announcer opened the broadcast, saying simply, "Now, the WMMS Sound broadcasts Sun Ra and the Intergactic Myth-Science Arkestra."
The scene was the Smiling Dog Saloon, a former bowling alley at West 25th and Woodbridge, just off Interstate 71. It had been Cleveland’s almost exclusive venue for jazz since 1971, the club that had presented Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Art Blakey and many others. But, this night, it was Sun Ra and his almost cult-like big band that he called an "Arkestra." Members of the band, dressed in sparkling, colorful costumes and playing almost every kind of rhythm instrument you can imagine, marched out and began parading around the stage.
Bernard Lairet, writing in The Plain Dealer, called the Sun Ra Arkestra "a drastic alternative to lovers of the stereotyped big band." By comparison, the writer said, "Maynard Ferguson might be considered dull and boring" and Stan Kenton "might be likened to a ridiculous musical dinosaur."
Who was this musician who called himself "Sun Ra?" He was born as Herman Blount in 1914 in Birmingham, Alabama, and nicknamed "Sonny." He quickly learned to play the piano and went to Alabama A&M College where he led the student band. While still in college in the 1930s, he claimed he had been transported in a spaceship by aliens who told him he had a higher calling. He dropped out of college and formed a band that played in Birmingham.
After the war he went to Chicago. Under the name "Sonny Lee" he played piano with one of Fletcher Henderson’s last bands. He even toured the U.S. as a pianist with B.B. King. But, Erskine Hawkins recalled Sonny, even then, frequently spoke with "spacey lingo" and liked to play far-out music.
By the early 1950s he was leading his own small groups, playing mostly bebop standards with young musicians. Among them were saxophonists John Gilmore, Marshall Allen and Pat Patrick, who would later play with his bands for four decades. As early as 1953 he invented one of the first electric pianos. By the mid-50s, he began calling himself "Sun Ra" and leading a 12-piece band. He was constantly writing new material for the band which could both swing and play exotic mood pieces. He was using odd instruments such as a zither, chimes, bells and gongs. He was a pioneer in using African rhythms with multiple percussionists.
Sun Ra had his Arkestra members wear space costumes, including colorful robes, and space helmets with flashing lights and propellers. He was using flashing lights and glitter long before rock ‘n rollers began trying to spice up their sounds.
In the early 1960s he took his band briefly to Montreal, and then to New York where some of the musicians worked studio jobs. But he continued his band and it became part of the "free jazz" movement of the period which included Cleveland native Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and others.
By the mid-60s his band had become an other-worldly mix of atonal sounds and effects. He had transformed his eccentric big band of hard bop soloists into an experimental, open-improvisation ensemble. For six years, the Arkestra had a regular gig at Slug’s Saloon in New York. One writer said Sun Ra was the "King of Afro-psychedelia."
At various times he called his band "The Solar Myth Arkestra," "The Cosmo Jet Set Arkestra," "The Myth-Science Arkestra," "The Intergalactic Research Arkestra" and "The Astro-Intergalactic Infinity Arkestra."
While attracting the attention of the far-out crowd, Sun Ra and his musicians were not making much money. They were evicted from the house they rented on the Lower East Side of New York and moved to a row-house in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. Saxophonist John Gilmore recalled, "We didn’t have anywhere else to go."
In 1971 Sun Ra taught a course at Berkeley called "The Black Man in the Cosmos." Few students took the course. But, at about the same time, Impulse Records released some of his recordings, giving the band international exposure for the first time. Sun Ra and his Arkestra toured Europe and even performed a concert in front of the pyramids in Egypt. Throughout the 1970s Sun Ra and his Arkestra toured the U.S., including the 1975 gig at the Smiling Dog Saloon in Cleveland. Most of the music was his free jazz space music, but occasionally, as he did at the Smiling Dog. he would play a standard, like Duke Ellington’s "Sophisticated Lady, which featured John Gilmore on saxophone." While he could play in a fairly traditional style, Sun Ra preferred to create new things. Once, during an outdoor concert, he conducted a thunderstorm as if it were an integral part of his jazz arrangement.
Despite their low pay, many of his band members remained loyal to his unusual discipline – no drugs, no alcohol, no women, and be available around the clock for rehearsals. Asked why he stayed with Sun Ran for 40 years, Gilmore said, "He was the first one to introduce me to the higher forms of music, past what Bird (Charlie Parker) and Monk (Thelonious Monk) were doing," Sun Ra confused and confounded the mainstream jazz world. Some purists considered him an eccentric kook, but he refused to compromise, and continued to present his music as something of a cult figure outside the jazz establishment.
In December of 1981 Sun Ra and his Arkestra returned to Cleveland to play a Northeast Ohio Jazz Society concert. By the late 1980s he finally began getting some national recognition. His Arkestra played a gig on Saturday Night Live and jammed in New York’s Central Park. There was a movie documentary about him and his space age theology, and his Arkestra was even voted the top big band in a Downbeat magazine critics’ poll.
In April of 1988 Sun Ra and his band played an unusual concert at the Tri-C Jazz Fest in Cleveland. Instead of his outer-space free jazz, the band played a roaring and swinging program of old Fletcher Henderson arrangements.
Sun Ra’s last appearance in Greater Cleveland was August 4, 1990 when the Jazz Society presented a well-attended and fun-filled concert at the Cain Park amphitheater in Cleveland Heights. Despite a heavy rain, about 500 people were in the audience for Sun Ra’s visual and musical extravaganza. By the end of the three-hour concert, most of them were standing in the aisles, clapping, dancing and cheering.
Two years later Sun Ra suffered a stroke. When he was admitted to a hospital, he listed his address as "the planet Saturn."
Sun Ra, who once said, "I paint pictures of infinity with my music and that’s why a lot of people can’t understand it," died May 30th, 1993 at the age of 80.
Say what you will about his unusual music, philosophies, costumes and life style – Sun Ra and his Arkestra were always challenging and entertaining -- as they were when they broadcast from Cleveland’s Smiling Dog Saloon in January of 1975.
Copyright 2007, Joe Mosbrook.