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Of all the early jazz musicians, Sun Ra had to be one of the most “far out”. He claimed that he was from Saturn, not from earth, and used cosmic philosophies and lyrical poetry to preach awareness and peace. The notion that he came from Saturn seems to be connected to a profound altered state of consciousness experience he had while in college. Here is how he chose to describe it:
my whole body changed into something else. I could see through myself. And I went up … I wasn’t in human form … I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn … they teleported me and I was down on [a] stage with them. They wanted to talk with me……..They told me to stop [attending college] because there was going to be great trouble in schools … the world was going into complete chaos … I would speak [through music], and the world would listen. That’s what they told me. Szwed, John F. (August 21, 1998). Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0-306-80855-5
He abandoned his birth name and took on the name and persona of Sun Ra (Ra is the Egyptian God of the Sun) and formed his “Arkestra” to help him spread his message through his music. The band members wore colorful outfits that were a combination of African garb and space suits and Sun Ra usually wore an outfit, with a headdress and flowing cloak.
The music they played was very complex and often atonal. . But being in the Arkestra
was a difficult way of life. The band members never made much money, and Ra demanded discipline and hard work. He banned drugs, alcohol, and women, and band members had to be available for practice around-the-clock. This monastic atmosphere seemed to have been something close to what one might find in a Zen monastery.
One band member who had studied Zen before joining Sun Ra said that the leader’s use of non sequiturs and absurd replies to questions seemed to resemble the use of Koans and other responses observed among Zen Masters. According to John Szwed, Ra’s biographer, the drummer Art Jenkins admitted that Sun Ra’s “nonsense” sometimes troubled his thoughts for days until inspiring a profound change in outlook. Drummer Andrew Cyrille said Sun Ra’s comments were;
”very interesting stuff … whether you believed it or not. And a lot of times it was humorous, and a lot of times it was ridiculous, and a lot of times it was right on the money.” ( Szwed, John F. , 1998). Space Is the Place.)
In addition, I’ve found numerous quotes from Sun Ra, like the one below, that could have just as easily come from the mouth of a Zen master.
“I’ve been to a zone where there is no air, no light, no sound, no life, no death, nothing. There’s five billion people on this planet, all out of tune. I’ve got to raise their consciousness, tell them about the wonderful potential to bypass death.”
I’ve never been a big fan of Sun Ra’s music but was prompted to write about him for
several reasons. One is to reiterate an observation I made in an earlier post (Waikiki, Dylan, Zen and the Spanking Monk) about the thin line that exists between madness creative genius and spirituality. In that post I pointed out the problems in using such terms when talking about creative people, whether ourselves or others.
Secondly, his case seems to nicely illustrate what I have been writing about in the past few posts; namely “aliens”. While I don’t believe Sun Ra came from Saturn or was teleported by aliens, he does seem to be someone who has consciously and adopted the position of an extreme “alien” in society to support his creativity and spirituality.
Finally, I recently found myself influenced by a “close encounter” that I had with Sun Ra back in the mid 1980s, when he and I both lived in the Philadelphia area. A friend and I attended a Sun Ra concert where I witnessed something that became the inspirational seed for one of my music videos. I’ll tell the story and show the video in the next post. Peace!