Christopher Eddy from Sun Ra Arkive: Irwin, thanks for taking time to speak with us—we’re honored.
As many Sun Ra fans know by now, you and Michael Anderson, in cooperation with Sun Ra LLC (Sun Ra’s heirs), recently released the first batch of over 20 Sun Ra “Mastered for iTunes” reissues.
On behalf of Arkestra fans everywhere, I’d like to thank you and the team for your excellent preservation work; not only giving long-time fans what are in my opinion, the best sonic versions of these releases to date, but working to raise Sun Ra’s public visibility and expose the next generation to his band’s great legacy of music.
You have a long career as landmark preservationist, broadcaster, and champion of Outsider and lesser-known artists, such as Jim Flora, Raymond Scott, Esquivel, R. Stevie Moore, The Langley Schools Music Project, and Shooby Taylor ("The Human Horn"). In the case of Esquivel, your reissues were primarily responsible for exposing a new generation to his music in a high-profile way. I’m thankful and excited that you’re on the Sun Ra case now!
How did you come to Sun Ra’s music and partner with Michael D. Anderson and Sun Ra LLC?
Irwin Chusid, Administrator for Sun Ra LLC: I had a casual familiarity with Sun Ra, but had never taken time to fathom his variety and vastness. Like many latecomers, my awareness increased with the ground-breaking Evidence reissues of the 1990s. I was struck by the stylistic disconnect between accessible, if idiosyncratic finger-snapping jazz and experimental works that could fracture granite. Sometimes on the same album!
Michael and I have been buds for over 20 years, but besides having him occasionally appear as a guest on my WFMU radio show, I barely scratched the surface of his Sun Ra archiving. In fall 2013 he lamented that he needed professional management—well, he wanted me to manage—so I agreed, with little idea where it would lead or what I was getting myself into. He put me in touch with Thomas Jenkins, Jr., managing director of Sun Ra LLC—he’s the son of Herman Poole Blount’s (now deceased) sister Mary, who lawfully inherited the estate. Jenkins has fed me a steady stream of documents going back 23 years. The more I studied the business around Ra’s music—specifically the commercial exploitation and legal squabbles—the more it seemed a lawless frontier in need of a sheriff. We’re talking bootleggers, con artists, bogus claimants, releases of dubious legitimacy, unpaid royalties, expired or missing licenses, conflicting claims of ownership, and legal chicanery. In some cases, one man seemed guilty on four counts, another on three. Some of these disputes were settled in the 1990s, others remain unresolved. Turf wars around the monuments of a genius.
Had I known this when I first offered to help Michael, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I’m not by nature drawn to chaos. Anarchy applied to music can yield interesting art. Applied to the music business, you get infringement, theft, bad faith, legal bills, and lost sleep. Of course, there were fans, scholars, honest merchants, preservationists, reputable indie labels, and collectors, all immersed in one man’s glorious creative expression. But most did not know the full extent of the unscrupulousness infecting the business side.
Eventually Jenkins and I came to terms and he appointed me exclusive administrator to oversee the business. So—new sheriff in town. My task list grows daily. With a legacy as sprawling as Sun Ra’s, there are new complications at every turn. But there are benefits: part of my job is to listen to Sun Ra music.