As metro Detroiters, we're lucky to live in an area with an extensive legacy of innovative music and art in such a wide range of styles. We're also lucky, however, to have been a stop on the journeys of those who aren't natives of Michigan — or even of Earth. I am, of course, referring to visionary jazz composer, bandleader, piano and synthesizer player, poet, philosopher, and pioneer of Afrofuturism — Sun Ra.
Thanks to John Sinclair, who brought him to our fine state numerous times throughout the late '60s and onward (including the nearly eight-hour marathon set of three New Year's Eve performances during the Arkestra's residency at the Sinclair-founded Detroit Jazz Center), Michigan citizens have been granted various opportunities to see Sun Ra and the many manifestations of the Arkestra. Apart from the New Year's shows, I'd give anything to have been one of the 100 or so people to witness the Arkestra's first Detroit appearance in 1967, also arranged by Sinclair and held at Wayne State University, accompanied by local legends the MC5 and a rendition of the Magic Veil Light Show.
Fast-forward to the future here in 2016, and space is still very much the place. While Sun Ra has long since ascended to his home planet (he died in 1993), Detroit is once again fortunate enough to host the current incarnation of the Arkestra. Led by alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, a longtime core member, the group offers not only original arrangements of Sun Ra's music, but new cosmic compositions and arrangements of their own, as well.
For just one night, do not succumb to your own mundane humanity. Instead, spend Monday, July 18 at El Club, traveling to worlds unknown during An Evening With the Sun Ra Arkestra under the direction of Allen. Prepare yourself with just four reasons you must be in attendance.
1. An Arkestra performance is creative discipline of the highest order.
Sun Ra's extreme dedication to the craft is well-documented. (For one thing, he had musicians move in with him to be able to work and train virtually around the clock.) It becomes even more impressive when you consider that so many of the players are, at this point, quite old. (Allen is 92, but he plays with the energy of someone far younger.) Where does this ferociously good playing, so far into old age, come from? Of course, through talent and commitment, but it's hard not to attribute at least some of that energy to the lifelong pursuit of musical excellence instilled by Ra's ceaseless emphasis on discipline. For Sun Ra, freedom was not the ultimate aim — discipline was. Freedom is a well-intentioned goal, but it's kind of a fantasy. Sun Ra recognized this and instead sought control over his life through well-cultivated self-control. There's a lesson in here for all of us. But with regard to the Arkestra, it becomes a manifesto to the power of longevity, which is only made possible through strict and constant intentioned practice.
2. For all the "space" music that exists, precious little of it imagines and executes so well not only the aesthetic components, but the visceral experience, of traveling through space, as well as the Arkestra.
This surely has a lot to do with what Sun Ra called the "space key." Instead of unifying the music with a traditional tonal center, a sustained drone note might serve as sonic mooring. Around this, players could improvise without relying on the structure of a specific key. Combine this avant-garde form of playing with obscure percussion, Sun Ra's inventive use of electronic keyboards, and fancifully inspirational interstellar poetry, and the path to space seems to open up right before you.
There's all the psychedelia that is typically associated with cosmic music, and sure, that stuff is mostly great in its own ways. But then there's Sun Ra, the original spaceman who, inadvertently or not, inspired it all.
3. Despite — or perhaps because of — the intense training and challenging style of playing, the Sun Ra Arkestra is also fun in a way nothing else is.
This is where I should mention the elaborate costumes, a mystical mix of Egyptian/Afrocentric imagery with Space Age stylings. But this is also where I get to tell a story I heard during a lecture on Sun Ra's life and legacy held at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit a few years ago. The story is really about the group's founder. But he informed the spirit of the Arkestra so much that it can easily be seen as an accurate reflection of who they all were/are, to this day.
During the lecture, a woman in the audience shared the following memory with us: During her youth going to jazz clubs in the city, she was intrigued and amused by Sun Ra's claim to be from Saturn. One night, she approached him with a question that he must have been frequently faced with: "Where are you really from?" He replied, "Saturn." She kept asking him, and his answer never changed, though she could tell at one point he was starting to get exasperated. Still, she continued to ask him, again and again. "OK!" he finally said. "I'm really from Jupiter!"
4. You want to be overwhelmed by something powerfully wonderful.
Don't you? Who doesn't? You can read about Sun Ra's work or watch videos all day long, but nothing compares to the actual experience. And Marshall Allen, having taken over after the death/ascension of previous leader and tenor saxophonist John Gilmore in 1995, is as committed to studying and furthering Sun Ra's musical doctrine as anyone could be.
I keep using the word lucky, but it fits, and we are: lucky to be able to witness a full-scale performance now, so many years after their astral journeys were begun; lucky that Detroit has its own special connection to the otherworldly personage of Sun Ra (he was given a key to the city in 1980, and before that had hugely influenced artists here from the MC5 and Tribe collective to Destroy All Monsters); lucky enough that perhaps not all is lost so long as his message of peace endures, a message more relevant today than ever.
You've been given the chance to be filled with interdimensional love and possibility; don't miss your opportunity during An Evening With the Arkestra.
The performance takes place on Monday, July 18; Doors at 8 p.m.; El Club, 4114 Vernor Hwy. Detroit; elclubdetroit.com; $21.50.