The Use Of Percussion In Sun Ra's Arkestra
By John Bacon, Jr.
© 1998 John Bacon, Jr.
The use of percussion in Sun Ra's Arkestra is rich and varied, encompassing Afro-Caribbean, African, Middle Eastern, Oriental, European and American instruments and their applications. Percussion instruments including timpani, keyboard percussion, tuned bongos and multiple percussion set-ups are used as solo instruments in both traditional jazz forms and experimental works unique to Sun Ra. The Arkestra also functions as a percussion ensemble, creating complex rhythmic and timbral textures as a back-drop for solo improvisations by other instrumentalists. Sometimes Sun Ra employs multiple drummers and other percussionists in an attempt to elevate the music to a higher energy level or to create a pastiche of cultural representations.
Percussion in the large jazz ensemble seems familiar, if not common place, today. Sun Ra's dedication to percussive sounds has had a major impact on this perception. Throughout the life of the Arkestra he nurtured an expanding universe of percussion activity. Photos as early as 1955 show Jim Herndon, a timpanist, as a member of the Arkestra. In 1990, near the end of Sun Ra's life, the Arkestra can be seen with two drumset drummers, a congero, a timbalero, marching snare drummer, surdo player, djembe player, clave player, gongs, cymbals and "Ancient Infinity Lightning Wood Drum". Sun Ra traveled the globe spreading his musical and philosophical message while continuously absorbing the world of percussion, integrating those elements in a myriad of ways and expanding our galaxy of jazz percussion.
I. Arkestral Percusssion
The first appearance of kettledrummers in Western Europe was in 1457 as part of the entourage of the King of Hungary. Since that time the drums and drummers have enjoyed an exalted place in Western culture. In the courts or on the battlefield, Kettledrummers and their instrument were prized. The distinction of Kettledrummer was bestowed as a special rank within the military service and with it greater remuneration and special privileges were gained. The loss or gain in war of a pair of timpani was of great consequence. Frequently the timpani, a pair of kettledrums, were combined with trumpeters to form an ensemble used exclusively in the presence of royalty (Blades pp.226-30).
Since their introduction into the orchestra in the 17th century, followed by wide use in Classical, Romantic and Modern Orchestral literature, through their current maturity as a solo and ensemble instrument; the timpani have become the most prominent of orchestral percussion instruments. Our modern orchestral drums are similar to the small Arabian kettledrums, called nakers, that were brought to Europe by the returning crusaders. In Egypt, timpani like drums, baz, are attached to the saddle of a camel and used in religious processions (Blades pp.226-30).
Jazz music has had less familiarity with the timpani. In big band music we know that Duke Ellington's drummer/ percussionist Sonny Greer employed a huge set-up of percussion including timpani. Other Jazz percussionists, including Roy Haynes in his work with Chick Corea and Max Roach with Booker Little, have employed the timpani as a solo instrument with excellent results. It is difficult to document over a substantial period of time the use of the timpani as an integral ensemble member outside of Max Roach's M'Boom percussion ensemble and Sun Ra's Arkestra. Sun Ra may have been influenced by Duke's use of the great tuned drums since we know that he held high respect for Ellington and called him a "creator" of Jazz music along with Fats Waller and Fletcher Henderson (Rusch p.67). Additional sources as to the root of Sun Ra's use of timpani in the Arkestra can be traced to important ideas that are foundations in the overall spectacle and sound of his ensemble.Sun Ra's years of research in Egyptology, numerology, astrology, spirituality, mathematics, sciences, and the occult combined with performances at southern social clubs, urban dance hall floor shows and strip clubs combine to produce a dramatic multi-media effect that demands the pomposity of Hollywood movie music as an element in his sonic vocabulary. The timpani with its allusions to eastern warriors riding on the backs of great beasts and beating on mounted kettledrums are a vivid metaphor that would have appealed to Sun Ra's sense of the drama.
The earliest use of non-standard jazz percussion in the Arkestra is the timpani. By 1955 the Arkestra had taken shape. Using four to six horns and a rhythm section the music was "...partially based on the blues, but much of it also intensely percussive." (Szwed p.94) Jim Herndon, a member of the Chicago Civic Symphony, is the timpanist on many early recordings of the Arkestra. The timpani were used to play melodic lines, bass vamps and as a solo instrument. A unique adaptation of the timpani occurs on Supersonic Jazz (1956), originally issued as a single. This swinging horn chart features a Herndon timpani solo side-by-side with solos from the horns and piano. Sun Ra's attempt to realize the timpani as a voice equal in its expressive soloistic qualities with the other instruments, is somewhat successful. Usually during this period of Jazz when drums are heard as a solo instrument there is a rhythmically weak accompaniment necessitated by the drums switching roles and abandoning the rhythm section. Also, when the acoustic bass solos, we generally hear a weaker rhythmic accompaniment necessitated by the low volume of the soloing instrument. An interesting result of Sun Ra's experiment is the sound result of a rhythmically strong and low pitched instrument, the timpani, soloing over a strong rhythmic accompaniment from a full rhythm section.
The timpani are used in a different manner on Adventure In Space (1959) which is essentially a piano solo with percussive accompaniment. The string bass is eliminated altogether leaving the timpani to provide a bass vamp over which rhythmic drumset and a-rhythmic bells and scrapers are overlayed by members of the Arkestra as an accompaniment to Sun Ra's piano solo.
B. Heliocentric Worlds
The timpani remained an important element in the Arkestra through the recording of The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra in 1965. Although album credits are somewhat deceiving on many Sun Ra recordings, three separate timpanists are listed on The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra Vol. I . Here timpani act as a low register ensemble color with occasional brief solo passages. Their use highlights Sun Ra's taste for the bottom sounds of an orchestra. Passages during Of Heavanly Things feature a rumbling trio of bass, bass marimba and timpani with drumset accompaniment that are particularly characteristic of this flavor.
The music on this recording uses a vocabulary closer to 20th century classical music than to any jazz recordings up to that time (Gridley p. 270). There is a noticeable lack of any repetitive rhythmic structures, no thematic melodic material and no harmonic basis for any of the compositions. There is however a strong use of ensemble color juxtapositions, use of a variety of instrumental ensembles and soloists and a myriad of densities with regard to timbre and ensemble size. The fact that percussion figure prominently in all of the pieces on these recordings may be credited to the ease with which percussion lends itself to these type of musical treatments and that Sun Ra assigned virtually everyone in the ensemble the role of percussionist. With an extremely creative group of musicians assembled into a finely tuned ensemble but lacking in the technical norms of the average drummer/percussionist Sun Ra had at his disposal a responsive group of improvisers whom he could guide through a series of orchestral passages based on reaction time and inquisitive investigation of a variety of percussive colors.
The Cosmos , highlights an engaging amount of contrast and similarity among bowed bass, piano, timpani , cymbals, and drums with brushes. The registral range of the three percussion instruments is comparable to that covered by the piano and bass. But the percussion instruments are much less pitch specific than the piano and bass and give off a more complex harmonic spectrum. The quick attack of the timpani is in direct contrast to the slow sounding of bowed bass. Ringing sustain of cymbals contrast drier piano sounds. Scratching drum brushes mirror friction of bow hairs against strings. All of this in free rhythm and with no distinct melodic or harmonic theme. This passage investigates the sound of a group of instruments colliding and melding to produce an aural episode. Sun Ra was in control of these episodes, cueing the beginnings, pacing durations, rotating players to alternate instruments, clarifying roles, and thereby composing the improvisation (Szwed p.216). The strongest use of mallet percussion in the Arkestra appears on Heliocentric Worlds also. Sun Ra seems to have neglected the vibraphone, the standard jazz mallet instrument, in favor of electronic celeste, and vibe like sounds on most occasions. The percussive woodiness of the pitched Bass Marimba, a tone color absent from any of the otherinstruments in his ensemble, takes center stage during many passages on this album.
The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra highlight another interesting fact about Sun Ra's use of percussion that may have had a profound effect on the Free Jazz movement. Sun Ra's use of space, the amount of silence in his music and his willingness to allow non-virtouso passages on peculiar instruments seems to have had an effect on musicians in the AACM of Chicago. Groups such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago have become very skilled at improvising on a perplexing array of instruments many of which are percussion. Sun Ra's influence in Chicago prior to his NYC move likely coincided with this development.
II. The Arkestra as a Percussion Ensemble
A. Pop Rhythm Approach
By the 1970's the Arkestra had been making music for almost 20 years. The electric sounds and rock rhythms that infused jazz music during this decade had been incorporated into the Arkestra's sound for nearly all of those 20 years. Recording credits show the use of electric bass and electric piano during 1956. 1958 recordings credit electric guitar. From 1967-9 he incorporated the clavioline, the Solar Sound Instrument (Hohner Clavinet), electronic celeste and Moog Synthesizer. These instruments were used along with the Hammond Organ and the piano. Throughout these first 20 years Sun Ra was recording doo-wop, rhythm and blues and pop vocal music in addition to jump blues, swing, bop influenced jazz, rock inspired rhythms and his unique brand of space music. The search for new sounds was forever imminent and the field of percussion provided fertile ground.
Great Balls Of Fire (1958) is an excellent example of Sun Ra's use of pop rhythms and added percussion. The tune chugs along in a rock rhumba rhythm indicative of the current pop music with an accompaniment of drumset, timpani and other percussion behind the three horns, electric piano and electric guitar. His use of pop music percussion trends continued with Disco 2100 (1978), a song employing an electronic drum box along with a live drummer to create a repetitive dance beat.
B. Afro-Latin Rhythm Ensemble
Sun Ra had been using African string and percussion instruments at his performances at Slugs in New York City during the1960's (Rudd). In 1967 he met Olatunji, the master drummer from Africa who first exposed the American public to a wide variety of music from the African continent. Olatunji's performances were entire media spectacles that encompassed singing, dancing, and music from many cultures and styles. In many ways he and Sun Ra were interested in a similar mode of performance (Szwed p. 202). With a greater focus on African and Latin percussion instruments came a stronger rhythmic quality in the use of percussion in the Arkestra. The Arkestra began to explore musical passages where the entire ensemble played percussion instruments. Although the Arkestra used very little pure African rhythm or structure, the group was able to emulate the sound and timbral variation of an African drum choir without using the specifics of the genre. They were successful because individuals understood that their simple repetitive part juxtaposed against other percussion instruments playing similarly would create an intricate rhythmic counterpoint. Also the Arkestra began to employ multiple drummers functioning in similar if not identical roles or performing different layered rhythms on various size drums both of which are uniquely African drum concepts.
Spontaneous Simplicity (1968) features a simple bass vamp and a modal piano comp with a bossa nova rhythm. The flute solo completes a very typical sound world. As the ensemble adds small and large afro-latin sounding drums, struck metal plate and shaken bells the group sound transforms. We move from a jazz quartet sound to a percussion ensemble with
jazz rhythm section.
Exotic Forest (1966) highlights another development of this idea. A bass vamp is again the building block for an improvisation, on Oboe this time. The drumset set plays a much less predictable pattern that becomes more experimental as the tune progresses. As the wind chimes, bells, log drum, shakers, metal plate, other drums, shells and rims of drums are added the rhythms, become less and less metered. Eventually the oboe departs and the percussion are left to sustain the tune. The sound is that of a free rhythm percussion ensemble until some staggered groove playing begins to emerge.
III. Sound Complexities Through the Use of Multiple Percussion
A. Energy Music
One facet of the avant garde Jazz vocabulary with which Sun Ra's music is aligned has as its' predominant features the use of fast moving phrases, distorted instrumental sounds, loud ensemble passages, extended solo lengths and non-metered rhythm section playing. Some of the difficulties that arise with performance of this type of music are grounded in achieving and maintaining the proper intensity level. Musicians often need a warming up period to reach the appropriate heights. Sustaining this level once you are there can also prove to be a challenge. The Free Jazz big band format that Sun Ra was working with gave him a collection of soloists to draw upon for high intensity playing. If one soloist was played out another could come to his relief. The use of more than one drummer can be thought of in a similar way. By using more than one drummer, Sun Ra was able to achieve and maintain the high intensity level needed to propel the avant garde jazz sound he desired. In the Robert Mugge Film Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise (1979) we can witness film footage from a performance by the Arkestra at the Famous Ballroom in Baltimore, MD. Across the back of the ensemble are three drumset drummers and a conga drummer. All of these percussionists are involved in a free-rhythm intensity style improv with Marshall Allen playing the alto saxophone solo. There are relatively few other jazz ensembles that used more than one drummer in live performances to quite this same effect.
Another model for multiple drummers can be found in the musical groups of James Brown who often employed two or three drummers not only to provide a continuous level of intensity but also to capitalize on the strengths of a particular drummer. Sun Ra was noted for using whatever instrumentalists were at hand to assemble his group. He also knew how to utilize a musician to achieve unique results. Sounds, textures and rhythms that others would never have imagined were born of the fact that musicians were asked to play beyond their perceived level of competence on an instrument and that Sun Ra could conceive of a way to utilize the result. Roswell Rudd calls Sun Ra "A genius of getting quality out of those with modest abilities." An excellent example of this is John Gilmore's drumset performances. Gilmore is an outstanding tenor saxophonist whose accomplishments and influence on other musicians is well documented. He was used as THE drummer in the Arkestra on occasion. Initially the absence of the groups drummer forced him into that role.
On the recording of Love In Outer Space (1970), from The Singles (ECD 22164), we hear him interpret a waltz rhythm in an engagingly polyrhythmic manner as he superimposes 6/8 over the 3/4 in Sun Ra's piano bass line. The elusiveness of the downbeat in Gilmore's drum pattern and the clumsiness of his rolls give a unique quality to the groove of this recording that would have been lost with a technically advanced drummer. Obviously Sun Ra appreciated the feel that Gilmore could create since he continued to utilize him even when he had three additional drumsets as in the film Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise (1979).
B. Cultural Adaptations
Sun Ra often spoke of assembling a very large ensemble of musicians from all over the globe. He imagined a mixture of musicians from Asia, India, The Middle East, Europe, Africa and the Americas under his leadership and producing sounds that only he had previously imagined. When confronted with the impossibility of such a feat he would retort that of course no one else would think it possible that is why Sun Ra would be needed to pull it off. In some ways He was able to achieve this impossibility although not on as grand a scale as he might have imagined.
It has already been mentioned that Sun Ra was an avid student of Egyptian culture. He integrated his interests and philosophies with regard to African peoples not only in the spectacle of their concert performances and the musical textures of their percussion ensembles but also in his selection of members for the ensemble.
During Make A joyful Noise, James Jac(k)son describes his interest in percussion and how Sun Ra directed him to make a drum. Jacson was unsure of what Sun Ra meant since he was not an instrument builder. Shortly thereafter a tree was downed by lightning in their Philadelphia neighborhood and a large section of the trunk of the tree was cut and left by the clean-up crew. Jacson took this large trunk and fashioned it into an African style drum that he proceeded to play with the Arkestra from thereafter. His method of alternate hand drumming with accentuation of every second or every third strike of the curved sticks produced an African derived drum color that became a signature of the groups sound. The "Ancient Infinity Lightning Wood Drum" was a much beloved part of the ensemble. Further incorporation of Brazilian drummers Elson Nascimento on surdo, a large Brazilian bass drum played with both the stick and the hand to create alternate open and muffled tones, and Jorge Silva on the repinique, a smaller drum also played with one hand and one stick, add to the cultural mix. There is also a collection of gongs and cymbals in Sun Ra's music that help to conjure the Orient. All of these distinctly cultural percussion instruments are used less in specifically derivative musical selections and more as colors in the ensemble blended with the free jazz, swing, pop, electronic and 20th century avant garde elements. Purple Nights (1989), a recording from Sun Ra's final years and one of the few recordings the Arkestra released on a major label (A&M), contains passages where all of these styles are intermingled with excellent results. Friendly Galaxy uses the African/Brazilian drum collection along with three drumset drummers to accentuate the strolling moderato rhythm of this selection, long a part of the groups repertoire. This passage is unique to the Arkestra and could only have existed in the environment that Sun Ra created. Rather than attempt to duplicate some type of Brazilian or African musical material in the horns and highlight a corresponding drum sound Sun Ra chooses to transplant these drums into a typically Arkestral arrangement and thereby create a new blend of musical styles and sounds.
As we have seen this blending, melding, intermingling, fusing, accepting, sympathetic, patient, lenient way of constructing music is a trademark of the Arkestra. Because of the variety of sounds, cultural representations and ease of performance of the instruments, percussion illustrates this idea better than any single instrumental group or musical style embodied within the Arkestra. Sun Ra realized this truism early on in the creative and practical development of his group. He developed the idea in many interesting and unique ways. His legacy, the
music and accomplishments of the Arkestra, provide a passageway through which we can explore the galaxy of jazz percussion.
Blades, James. Percussion Instruments and Their History. Connecticut:The
Bold Strummer, Ltd., 1972.
Jost, Ekkehard. Free Jazz. New York: Da Capo Press, 1974.
Mugge, Robert, director. Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise. with Sun Ra and the Arkestra. Rhapsody Films, 1979.
Rudd, Roswell. Personal Interview, November 21-23, 1997.
Rusch, Robert D. Jazztalk. New Jersey: Lyle Stuart Inc., 1984.
Scott, Reynold. Personal Interview, November 16, 1997.
Spellman, A.B. Four Lives in the Bebop Business. London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1967.
Sun Ra. Heliocentric Worlds Vol. 2. ESP Disk 1017-2, 1965.
Sun Ra. Nothing Is... ESP Disk 1045, 1966.
Sun Ra. The Singles. Evidence, ECD 22164-2, 1996.
Sun Ra. Purple Night. A&M, 75021 5324 2, 1989.
Szwed, John F. Space Is The Place : The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. New York: Pantheon Books, 1997.