Friday was a quiet night in with Mrs. Backhouse – we just chilled in front of the telly and had a good catch up – it’s the backbone of our relationship – these quiet times – and it is an amazing thing that we still get to have them. I love my wife with all of my heart. She is someone very special to me – if I put in a bit more work she may reciprocate the sentiment 😉
Saturday night and Allan’s studio, Creao, stank of Allan’s, Watson’s and my creative juices. We had everything flowing from premium lager to Dub Mixing. We are investigating getting Bitwig Studio for the band (Guerrilla Dub System) and we were trying to get that sorted. Then we had a live dub and a DJ sesh.
Sunday was spent getting ready for the evening. We met Karen & Stewart at the train station and were Leeds bound within minutes. The first stop was the restaurant Little Tokyo – the fun-size Japanese restaurant complete with Geisha dog – Bork Bork!
Me and Stewart had a pint of Asahi Beer and Kat went for a smaller lager – both were really palatable but what stole the show was Karen’s Plum Wine – it was like nectar! The main courses: we all ordered Bento Boxes on the advice of Stewart & Karen – I had Mackerel in Teriyaki sauce with Tempura veg – It was amazing! The highlight of the meal was the Japanese style profiteroles – Ice-cream deep-fried in batter on a skewer; although I think my wife won the pudding tournament with her marshmallow spring rolls – she claimed they were ‘genius’.
We then hot-footed it up to the Belgrave Music Hall & Canteen to see the world famous Sun Ra’s Arkestra!
I had been waiting around eight years to see this band live – whilst they did not have the man himself (he orbits a different star now) they were led by the spritely Marshall Allen, at 92 years young.
– Image first appeared in JazzIz Magazine
There seemed to be four surviving musicians from the Arkestra under Sun Ra in the early days of Space Jazz. Dozens of musicians—perhaps hundreds—passed through Sun Ra’s bands over the years. Some stayed with him for decades, while others played on only a few recordings or performances.
Sun Ra was personally responsible for the vast majority of the constant changes in the Arkestra’s lineup. According to contra-bassist Jiunie Booth, a member of the Arkestra, Sun Ra did not confront any musician whose performance he was unsatisfied with. Instead, he would simply gather the entire Arkestra minus the offending musician, and skip town—leaving the fired musician stranded. After repeated instances of U.S. jazz musicians becoming stranded in foreign countries, Sun Ra’s unique method of dismissal became a diplomatic liability for the United States. The U.S. State Department was compelled to tell Sun Ra to bring any fired musicians stateside rather than leave them stranded.
But, what was the experience of seeing Sun Ra’s Arkestra like for a fan-boy like myself? Well, it surpassed expectation. Hands down the best gig I have been to in years. Whilst I did not recognise all of the tracks that they played – seeing ninety year old’s dressed as Space Pharaohs lucidly conducting an Afro-Futurist ensemble was worth a trip out in anyone’s books.
Sun Ra (born Herman Poole Blount, 1914-1993) was an American jazz composer, bandleader, pianist, synthesizer player, poet, and philosopher known for his “cosmic philosophy,” prolific musical output, and energetic experimental big-band performances. He widely claimed (and legitimately believed) he was born on Saturn and was over 5,000 years old.
Ra released over 200 albums, many of which were home recorded to tapes that he copied himself or cut to vinyl in small batches and sold at shows. He pioneered a lot of experimentation with technology in jazz and free jazz starting as early as the 1950s in Chicago. A funny tidbit about Sun Ra is that as he was experimenting with early synthesizer keyboards, electronics, and tape delay, he was given one of the first prototypes of the Minimoog by Robert Moog to play around with before it even went on the market.
In the early 1950s, Ra formed the immensely influential Arkestra, which would become his outlet for experimentation and exploration into “space jazz” for the rest of his life. He led the Arkestra like no other bandleader in history, as a musical director but also a spiritual and philosophical leader. The band still performs today and is named after him and dedicated to him. When Ra died in 1993, saxophonist John Gilmore inherited the band until his own untimely death two years later at 63 years old. Directorship of the Arkestra was then taken over by the next in command, saxophonist and composer Marshall Allen, who still leads the group today. Allen has made a lifelong effort to continue the legacy of Sun Ra in his inherited role, bringing the group around the world and teaching audiences about the gifts that Sun Ra has brought the people of Earth.
Here are 10 things Sun Ra can teach us about band leading.
1. Find a language that only your band speaks, and master it
Sun Ra invented a new way of interacting between conductor and players, a new language of conduction that is still in practice in some free jazz communities. His conduction methods were more influenced by interpretive dance and tai chi than traditional conducting; he did not have to wave his hands necessarily to get you to perform a musical task. In fact, in a James Brown kind of way, often he might wave his hands to have the entire horn section hit at the same time, but there wouldn’t be a written note. So what you’d get is the interpretive amalgamation of 15 notes that would all be somehow perfect in that moment.
2. Learn the rule book from others, then throw out the rule book
Yup, play in people’s bands, see what they do right and wrong, then customize your approach. Simple enough.
3. Work with tight frameworks for your players, and they’ll find limitless expressionistic possibilities within them
Ra was completely obsessed with precision and discipline, in the thinking that the ancient Egyptians perfectly balanced a creatively fulfilled life cycle, a spiritual quest, through precision and discipline. Over the years, he filled his Arkestra ensembles with players that he knew could handle being molded and sculpted, but would also pop out the other end a truer version of themselves. Channeling creative freedom through “Arkestration” is something every bandleader mediates, but a more focused approach could completely change the band’s dynamic.
4. Sometimes it’s best to show and tell at the same time
Ra somehow was able to simultaneously conduct his band and play at the same time. In fact, he often played two synthesizers at once, and conducted the band as well as dancers and singers through changes. Not everyone can do this – most can’t, and no one can like he did – but think about alternative ways to keep the players’ focus on the leader at times, or to grab back their attention after periods of free playing.
5. Leaders find the right sound for every note
Yes, it’s the musician’s job to know his or her instrument; we should all be able to identify the perfect timbres for each note we play. But it’s the leader who says, “Well, maybe we should have this trumpet melody played on the snare drum; let’s hear how that sounds,” or, “Is this progression right for the synth, or the piano, or the harpsichord? And when the other instruments come in, should their tones mimic the properties of the harpsichord?” etc. When Sun Ra enlisted instrument inventor Bill Sebastian into the Arkestra to play his OVC (Outerspace Visual Communicator), which produced images rather than sounds, it was a way to experiment with playing images as if they were notes, so it was treated like a keyboard.
6. Create the space for capturing spontaneous experimentation
Ra had most of his band-mates living in his house in Philadelphia, and that house is still where most of the Arkestra lives today. Okay, that’s definitely not a tip for bandleaders per-se, but the idea is that creativity can strike at any minute. You might be sitting around playing a lick on the guitar in the living room and someone walks in with his horn and starts playing around it – there’s a tune right there. How, as a bandleader, can you create that type of spontaneous environment for creation in your rehearsals, or soundchecks, or in the tour van?
7. You are responsible for finding the frontiers
You didn’t become a leader to sit around and do things like everyone else. It’s your job to lead your group into the unknown, to find new places that you didn’t even know you were looking for. It’s a journey, and sometimes there is no map. For Sun Ra, the band was his spiritual spaceship, his “ark.” What vessel is your band, and where will it take you?
8. The voice of the band should reflect the voices of many
The Arkestra mixed gospel, jazz, bop, boogie woogie, free improvisation, funk, black spirituals, afro-beat, salsa, blues, spoken word, and performance art. Create the identity of your band around your influences. The ability to take the voices of many and filter it through one’s musical project in a fluid, powerful way is one quality that a bandleader may strive to achieve.
9. Create ownership amongst band-mates over your vision
The Arkestra’s members didn’t just play someone else’s music. The path from composition to performance was a fluid journey of creation, implementation, and cyclic evolution. Ra might be influenced by his bandmates to create a work that lent itself to their talents, their explorations in sound and technique, and also their weak spots. Yet, as soon as a piece is written, it is embellished by the very performers who contributed to its genesis. They were able to see themselves in his writing, so they could feel at home in his music.
10. It should be hard work, and the bandleader shouldn’t always make it easy
Musicians need to practice. Their skills need to be stretched, sometimes uncomfortably, but what, then, is the payoff? The harder you work, the bigger the payoff in the music, and in the ascension the music brings to your life. Sun Ra’s Arkestra finds an eternal pool of joy every time they perform, but they’ve put in the work, and also the hardship, to get there.
“They say history repeats itself, but history is only his story. You haven’t heard my story yet. What’s your story?” – Sun Ra
A people without wisdom will surely perish. How very careless has America been with its willful neglect of true art and beauty.
— Sun Ra, from liner notes to Jazz In Silhouette
MUSIC, LIGHTS, ACTION!!!!
Atonal reality and blended rhythms. . . .
Imagination . . . . . .!
With wings unhampered
Like a bird
Through the threads and fringes of space and time
Into a better To-morrow. . . . . . . .
Loosening the chains that bind. . .
— Le Sun-Ra (excerpt from the poem “Tone Pictures”)
“It’s more than just music. It’s interpretation.”
One of the least well-known aspects of Sun Ra’s tenure in Chicago was his activity as a writer and street-corner lecturer. Recently, a cache of his early writings was discovered, including previously unknown broadsides and manuscripts, written by Ra and proclaimed aloud — often in Washington Park — or handed out as mimeographed sheets. Before these works were discovered in 2000, only one such document had been circulated, a sheet titled “Solaristic Precepts” that Ra gave saxophonist John Coltrane in 1956. Ra’s investigations, undertaken as part of the secretive Thmei Research group, was related to broader cultural trends of the 1950s, including a fascination with outerspace — leading up to Sputnik and the moon-landing — but Ra’s alignment of the notion of African-American alienation with a utopian vision of interplanetary transplantation qualifies him as a visionary proponent of Afro-Futurism. These early manuscripts also show Ra’s curiosity with language, his playful and paradox-ridden approach to etymology, his attempt to decode the Bible, and his intense scrutiny of the lexicon and social roots of racism.
As far as Sun Ra was concerned, the past was passed. “Yesterday belongs to the dead/Tomorrow belongs to the living.” The past was violence and “the chains that bind.” But imagination could usher in a better tomorrow, one full of pleasure and freedom and discipline. Freedom and discipline were not contradictory. As far as Ra and his peers were concerned, these ideas went hand-in-hand. And music was the method, the primary means for unleashing these positive vibrations in order to build a more promising world.
Sun Ra did not leave the past completely behind. He and his colleagues excavated many ancient concepts and texts, central among them the Bible and Egyptology, mining the past in order to formulate the future. Evidence of Ra’s integration of past and future, as well as various cultural traditions, appears on the cover design for a Saturn brochure, which mixes a Buddhist lotus with Egyptian ankhs and spaceships. Ra’s imagined tomorrow incorporated transformative music and outer-space clothing, futuristic technologies and various mysticisms, Utopian community, extraterrestriality and a belief in the possibility of immortality.
The year Ra left this planet, cultural critic Mark Dery coined the term “Afro-Futurism,” broadly defined as “African-American voices with other stories to tell about culture, technology, and things to come.” Ra is now recognized as a key figure in Afro-Futurism. Through his writings and lyrics, record titles and cover designs, and especially his provocative music and otherworldly presence, Ra established himself as a visionary and innovator. He reached the most people via bigger launching pads in New York, California, across Europe, and Philadelphia, but he built his first solar boats, metaphorically speaking, in the Windy City, and his music and persona first took shape and was tested in the African-American community of this great Midwestern metropolis.
My radio show – although nobody listens to it – is proving a lot of fun. I can rally cut loose and play the music that get be going. I appreciate it is not to everyone’s taste – but I am particularly fond of it. Continue reading →