Thursday, August 02, 2012

A Sun Ra Story

A Joyful Noise.
A documentary directed by Robert Mugge in 1980. I am continuously inspired and uplifted by the creative energy of a man who was born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama on May 22, 1914, but decided that he did not choose to be a mere earthling and he could be what ever he wanted. Herman, who was self taught pianist and orchestral arranger, self evolved into a being called Sun Ra. He even convinced the United States Government to issue him a passport as Sun Ra, who, as we all know was born on the planet Saturn. He traveled the Earth for decades and still travels the Spaceways as Sun Ra. He wrote and performed music that transcended the past, the present and encompassed a future we will probably never know. Money? Record labels? Heck, he pressed his own records and sold them out of the back of car. He invented his own mythology and made it real by recycling the cast offs of your affluence. He invented his own systems of logic and knowledge. He basically kept the same group of musicians who ranged from musical illiterates to absolute genius together for almost 35 years. He was first jazz pianist to use electric keyboards, one of the first artists to use Moog synthesizers and yet was able to integrate the big band feel of Fletcher Henderson, african tribal chants and beats and egyptian solar mythology into the same performance, creating some of the most original and brilliant music I have ever heard. He made an absolutely brilliant record in the 1960's by acquiring a collection of Asian stringed instruments and giving them to his band, who had no idea as to how they were tuned or how they were supposed to be played and then recorded a guided improvised musical journey...He made movies unlike anything you have ever seen with no budget, he published books of poetry and philosophy. He left the planet physically in 1993.
So, last night, I had dinner with my friend Brian who is a musician and record producer. Brian was a friend in NYC, but has a house outside of a forested valley above the Grotte de Rouffignac with his wife, Melinda  and son, Harry. Interesting, we lived a few blocks from each other in New York but now see each other more here in the Dordogne. Brian wanted to lend me a book, Space Is The Place...the biography of Sun Ra witten by John F. Zwed. I thanked him, but I have owned the book since the 1990s, when it was published...we started to talk about Sun Ra and Brian told me this story about a musician he had produced that wrote songs that reminded him of the work of Stephen Foster. He was so intrigued by the Steophen Foster references in the mans work that he decided that he wanted to do a project of completely "outside" artists performing the works of Stephen Foster. He spoke to Ornette Coleman, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and a few other artists and they were enthusiastic. Then he approached Sun Ra. Sun Ra was enthusiastic and was going to record his version of The Camp Town Races, but Sun Ra had a reservation...he demanded to see a sample of Stephen Fosters hand writing. He said he had to see his penmanship to determine if Mr. Foster was a racist. This was before the internet as we know it now, so Brian wrote to the Library of Congress to request xeroxed sample of Stephen Fosters hand writing. He gave it to Sun Ra, who looked at it and then smiled and said, "I can clearly see that the man was a product of his time, but not in the least racially disinclined."
Unfortunately due to the malicious meddling of Carly Simon, the project got derailed, but Sun Ra was inspired to record entire suite of Disney music called Second Star To The Right. Here's the Intergalactic Arkestras version of Pink Elephants on Parade from the Disney classic, Dumbo...


Graham Dawson said...

Sun Ra! Saw him at the Grande. Saw him in Rotterdam. Still see him in my head!

yotte said...

What a great story! I don't remember ever reading of the Stephen Foster project - interesting that it is what spawned Ra's interest in the Disney tunes. THANK YOU!