by Peter McElhinney
Sun Ra was born on Saturn. Or at least that was his unshakable claim over his long and extraordinary career as a keyboardist, bandleader, poet and cosmic philosopher. In the mid-1950s until his death in 1993, he formed the Arkestra, a kaleidoscopic big band encompassing both the traditional and the avant-garde. Its idiosyncratic mythos and flamboyant Afro-futurist apparel inspired bands as varied as the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Parliament-Funkadelic.
Sun Ra died in 1993, but the world-touring Arkestra lives on with remarkable consistency. Unlike ghost bands, or ensembles that continue performing, often with shifting personnel after their leader’s death, the Arkestra members have remarkable longevity. The group performing at the Folk Festival is led by 60-year member, 30-year leader and 91-year-old dynamo Marshall Allen.
Saxophonist and flutist Danny Ray Thompson was introduced into Sun Ra’s orbit in 1967 by Allen, after one of John Coltrane’s last concerts.
“I was scared to go over,” Thompson says. “He had a different vibe than I had ever seen before. But then everyone was smiling, and it all seemed just right.”
He went to the next Arkestra performance and was captivated. “There were three drummers on the stage, three bassists, Sun Ra on the piano and the rest of the band on the floor,” he says. “They want on stage at 9 p.m. and were still playing at 2 a.m. without a break. I never seen nothing like that. I was hooked then.”
But it took a while to find his place in the band. “He told me alto players were a dime a dozen,” Thompson recalls of Sun Ra. “But I was coming every day and taking lessons from Allen.” He also became the band’s driver, took up the bassoon, and then the baritone sax. Little by little, he earned his way into the arrangements. “Sun Ra would write music for you the way a tailor would make a suit,” he says. “We might have 57 arrangements on just one song, depending on who was there to play it.”
“He was so far ahead of his time,” Thompson says. “He knew all styles of music from the past to the future. He knew how to play what the people needed to hear. And what he played was always swinging, even the outer-space stuff. I have been so fortunate to be around this music. It is just good for the health.”
The band traveled the world, including trips to Tuva, the homeland of the throat singers who’ve been popular in past festivals. Its first trip there required a long flight from Moscow to a provincial airport on a plane whose air conditioning came from a cracked window. It took 22 hours across mountainous roads to reach the remote capital of Kyzyl, in the exact center of Asia. They were greeted by a band playing Russian military marches, a big bonfire, and sleeping accommodations in a yurt, a round, felt-covered tent. “The people were very poor,” Thompson says. “But they were warm and wonderful.”
Touring with the Arkestra was a journey of mind, body and spirit. At the end of its first European tour in 1971, Sun Ra detoured the band to Egypt. The Egyptian minister of culture got the members a rare tour inside the Great Pyramid at Giza.
“There were lights, so you could sort of see. We had to climb up inside about 150 feet, and then crawl on hands and knees into the kings chamber,” Thompson recalls. “Sun Ra said that the name ‘Ra’ hadn’t been in this space for thousands of years. We chanted it nine times and suddenly all the lights went out. It was absolutely dark. We had to go back down backwards. I thought we were going to leave but the guide said, ‘Oh no, you must see the queen’s chamber.’ We chanted Ra in there nine times again, and all the lights came back on.”
When they returned to their hotel and told the story to their bandmates, re-enacting the chant, the electricity went off again. Thompson says that the power failed a third time when he told the story during an interview.
Sun Ra was born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1914. In an era of institutional racism, he claimed to be an extraterrestrial of “the angel race.” He combined his nickname “Sonny” with the Egyptian sun god Ra. His work intertwined the history of music, from J.S. Bach and Sergei Rachmaninoff to electronic-driven free jazz with a classical and science fiction mythos to create one of the most eclectic artistic personas of the 20th century.
But asked if behind the scenes, Sun Ra was something other than the mystical being he was in performance, Thompson responds with surprised immediacy: “Sun Ra was from Saturn. That wasn’t no joke.”
Sun Ra Arkestra performs on Saturday from 8:30 to 9:30 at the Community Foundation Stage. and on Sunday from 2 to 3 p.m. at the Community Foundation Stage.