The Chicago link between Sun Ra and the Governor of Massachusetts
March 24, 1:19 AM, Chicago Jazz Music Examiner, Neil Tesser
Later today, the Governor of Massachusetts will officially present a collection of memorabilia – hundreds of musical scores, photos, recordings, and other items – to the Berklee College of Music’s Africana Studies Archive. They’re making a full day of it, too, with performances by students and faculty at Berklee (the leading jazz school in America), along with speeches by the Governor, school officials, and the celebrated poet and activist Amiri Baraka.
What follows is a simple little tale of how that collection of memorabilia made its way to Boston via New York, Chicago -- and the planet Saturn.
It starts, however, in East Moline, 150 miles west of Chicago – the birthplace of Laurdine Kenneth Patrick in 1929. Along the way to becoming a jazz saxophonist, Laurdine (quite understandably) acquired the more manageable nickname “Pat." And that's the name you find on all of the early recordings by the cosmo-musical explorer Sun Ra.
In fact, as award-winning author John Szwed points out in his much admired biography of Sun Ra, Patrick played an extremely important role in the career of the young bandleader, back when Ra was the Chicago pianist still known as Herman “Sonny” Blount. This was before he created his personal philosophy, a mystic hodgepodge hybridized from science fiction and Egyptian mythology, which became one of Sun Ra’s trademarks -- along with the visionary, rollicking music that accompanied it.
Patrick, who specialized in baritone sax but also excelled at alto (and occasionally played electric bass), had moved to Chicago primarily to study at DuSable High School with the legendary bandleader Walter Dyett. Even then, Dyett enjoyed a reputation for developing disciplined and motivated musicians. And Patrick stands out among the most impressive DuSable alumni, who have included saxophone great Von Freeman, bass icon Wilbur Ware, and the peerless vocalist Dinah Washington).
In 1952, Patrick joined Blount/Ra in a new trio on Chicago's south side; it would eventually blossom into one of the most unusual and influential orchestras in jazz, the Sun Ra Arkestra (as it was most often called). The band was known as much for their metallic capes and headgear -- trust me, Gene Simmons had nothing on these guys -- as for their innovative, other-worldly music. Over the decades, Patrick would come and go, a testament to the high regard in which Sun Ra held him: other key members of the Arkestra lived communally under the watchful eye of the leader (in part so that “Sunny” could ensure their abstinence from vices of all kinds).
In 1963, the versatile Patrick hired on as musical director of Mongo Santamaria’s Latin-jazz group – the one that had the giant hit “Watermelon Man.” Everyone knows that tune. Not so many recall another Santamaria hit called “Yeh! Yeh!” Patrick wrote that one; eventually it gained lyrics and climbed the pop charts, thanks to British rock-&-roller Georgie Fame’s hit recording of 1965.
Patrick also recorded with John Coltrane and performed in Duke Ellington’s band. He worked with Thelonious Monk and Clark Terry and co-founded a group called Baritone Retinue. All along the way, he was collecting musical experiences – and memorabilia. And he often returned to Sun Ra, as he did for the 1970 performance in Berlin documented below.
By then, his son Deval Patrick– born in 1956, but estranged from his father for years – had turned 14. Having moved with his mother to Massachusetts, he graduated from the prestigious Milton Academy in 1974. Then he went to Harvard. Then Harvard Law, in 1979. Fifteen years later, he was named Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights under President Clinton. And in 2006, Deval Patrick became the first African-American Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
It is in that capacity that he dedicates to Berklee the collection of his father’s memorabilia and writings. He also does this in the capacity of a respectful son: Pat Patrick died in 1991, but not before he and Deval could reconcile. Although the father did not approve of his son’s entry into mainstream politics, they nonetheless found common ground in the music.
On Tuesday, the Governor told the Boston Herald: “What’s satisfying is having his material appreciated. Frankly, even for my sisters and me, we weren’t quite sure what we were sitting on . . . It seemed to have value because my father had paid attention to accumulating and preserving it during his life. So it’s great to have the folks at Berklee, who seem so excited about this material, take custody of it and share it with students.”
Today, the son of a man who played with the Sun of Saturn honors his father with a trove of history – and at least a bit of stardust, emanating from his Chicago roots.
Caption: Saxophonist Pat Patrick with his son, circa 1959.