In the Beginning
(Luv N’ Haight/Ubiquity)
Legends, most of them created by the man himself, trace Sun Ra’s origins to the planet Saturn, and as his Arkestra big band combined this mystique with ancient performance rituals, he did anything but tie himself down musically or geographically. But a recent two-CD compilation of his 45-rpm singles reveals that he was a significant presence on the music scene in Chicago when he lived and worked here, and that the legacies he left to both experimental jazz and populist R & B have continued to evolve.
In jazz histories–notably John Litweiler’s The Freedom Principle and Valerie Wilmer’s As Serious as Your Life–the connections between Sun Ra and the venerable Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians cooperative are duly delineated. Certainly, Sun Ra’s activities on the south side in the 50s and early 60s inspired the AACM in sound and in philosophy: the Arkestra’s collective improvisation, surprising tonal shifts, and African-influenced percussion are pronounced in works of such AACM pillars as composer Muhal Richard Abrams. What has not been as sufficiently chronicled is that accomplished R & B and funk groups that have emerged from Chicago since–especially the Pharaohs–can also claim Sun Ra as a progenitor.
In the 1940s Sun Ra migrated from Alabama to Chicago, where he worked with R & B vocal combos as well as star solo singers. He also played piano in an ensemble led by the legendary Fletcher Henderson, and when he formed his own group in the 50s, he took a cue from Henderson, composing and arranging for specific instrumentalists rather than instruments. That, and the complex and uncanny nature of the arrangements, made such outstanding jazz musicians as saxophonists John Gilmore, Pat Patrick, and Marshall Allen faithfully devoted to him. When they came together with the stellar vocalists that Sun Ra also assembled, composed for, and usually accompanied, the results were light years beyond mere doo-wop.
While Sun Ra was in Chicago, he tuned in to an apocalyptic Afrocentrism then burgeoning on the south side. Depicted with great style in the speeches of a prophetic character in Leon Forrest’s 1992 novel Divine Days, this worldview combined accounts of the glories of ancient Ethiopia and Egypt with a futuristic belief that African-Americans would be delivered from their suffering in part through interplanetary travel. The celestial mythology included the advocacy of black entrepreneurship, as carried out to this day by followers of Elijah Muhammad, and so Sun Ra and an enigmatic business partner, Alton Abraham, founded their own label, Saturn Records, in the early 50s.
Though they displayed little concern for audio fidelity, the singles Saturn released between 1954 and 1968 were strange and beautiful, and above all, they were pop. The Cosmic Rays’ ebullient “Daddy’s Gonna Tell You No Lie” lays mellifluous, if slightly off-kilter, harmonies over a striking Afro-Latin backbeat. When the Qualities sing “It’s Christmas Time,” their voices raise what should have been a novelty number far above such gimmickry. Some weren’t even that strange–Juanita Rogers, whose “I’m So Glad You Love Me” was recorded “in someone’s living room,” could have been Chicago’s answer to Stax star Carla Thomas.
Some of these singles reflect the philosophy that Sun Ra would express narratively throughout his life. Sun Ra’s investigation of Moog synthesizers and other electronic keyboards before they were heavily used in jazz or rock illustrated his belief in advanced technology as a medium for redemption. On “Rocket #9,” blending high tech with primal musical techniques like chanting, the Arkestra described a trip to Venus a year before the Apollo moon landing. Other singles take the more melancholy perspective that Sun Ra’s ideal world is still far away. The Cosmic Rays lament on “Dreaming”: “If you live in fables, then you know what I mean / For that here’s a world where things aren’t what they seem / For no matter how I dream / It always makes me cry.”
The Arkestra singles jump around from seemingly archaic stride playing on an aging upright piano to curious attempts at disco to tight Count Basie-derived swing. Yet there’s an inherent logic to these shifts: before the AACM coined the slogan “Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future,” Sun Ra demonstrated it.
Sun Ra and most of the Arkestra members left Chicago for the east coast in the 1960s, but some musicians who recorded with them continued to work in what was a thriving R & B industry here. As Robert Pruter mentions in the liner notes to The Singles, Cosmic Rays vocalist Calvin Barron continued singing in local groups, including the Twi-Lights. Others worked behind the scenes as session musicians, such as former Arkestra trumpeter Art Hoyle, who recorded with the Dells.
Subsequent Chicago-based musicians have echoed Saturn’s universal scope in their own musical interminglings. Saxophonist Ari Brown, whose work with AACM groups has been frequently acknowledged, also spent years on Chicago’s soul circuit and worked on arrangements for the Emotions. Composer Anthony Braxton has spoken of his inspiration from Sun Ra, John Coltrane, and John Cage, but he also acknowledges straight doo-woppers Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers as significant in his development. And in the Chicago zine Roctober, James Porter astutely connects the inspired ranter and Saturn recording artist Yochannan, who predates even Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, to Wesley Willis: “Now when I left before / They said I wouldn’t be back / But now I’m back / And that’s a fact / They thought I was dead / They hung me by a long tree / But I came back / On the third morning I rose from the grave / The stone was rolled away / From the grave I came back / I’m the one,” Yochannan shouts over a walking bass line on “The Sun Man Speaks.”
Of all Sun Ra’s musical descendants here, the Pharaohs most directly reflected the spirit of the Saturn singles. Phil Cohran, who played trumpet (as well as “space harp”) on several of the Arkestra’s early records, led a multimedia performance group at the Affro-Arts Theater called the Artistic Heritage Ensemble, which inspired, and then merged into, the Pharaohs in the early 1970s. Two excellent Pharaohs reissues–Awakening and a mostly live collection of odds and ends, In the Basement–are prime funk that are helping bring the band some belated attention; in fact, a Pharaohs reunion concert is scheduled for next Sunday afternoon, February 2, at Stanley Field Hall in the Field Museum of Natural History.
The Pharaohs shared Sun Ra’s interest in Egyptology and his Afrocentric view of the cosmos as well as his inclination to explore pop formulas. They, too, eschewed slick production and focused on combining the creative possibilities of experimental jazz with precise R & B beats. Rarely has cultural nationalism lent itself to such infectious grooves. Using Ealee Satterfield’s flawless electric bass lines as an anchor, the Pharaohs orchestrated an ocean of brass and woodwinds (from flugelhorn to flute), African percussion, and vocals that could be hilarious or eerie; their five-minute anthem “The Pharaohs Love Y’all” encapsulates all these attributes. “Black Enuff” is a gutbucket black-nationalist jam that includes comic commentary from someone who sounds like Fred Sanford’s pal Grady. Pharaohs vocalist Sulanya (Sue Conway) is one of the great underappreciated voices of soul; her mournful and elongated rendition of the Stylistics’ “People Make the World Go ‘Round” is a marvel. In the Basement also includes the ten-minute-plus “Drum Suite,” an adroit piece of polyrhythmic improvisation the Pharaohs didn’t originally intend to release. The Pharaohs split up in 1973, after only two years. Some of the members went on to join Earth, Wind and Fire; tuba player Aaron Dodd became a featured member of the AACM octet 8 Bold Souls. Most are still alive, so their reunion is a must-see.
As pop musicians have continued looking beyond standard material for inspiration, the contributions that Sun Ra and the Pharaohs made to R & B have become more profound. A recently formed local instrumental soul jazz group, Isotope, bases its sound on intuitive shifts from extensive, wildly rhythmic drumming combinations, to guitar- and bass-centered vibes, to inventive horn arrangements; members of the group, especially percussionist John Herndon (also of Tortoise) and AACM guitarist Jeff Parker obviously avidly appreciate the work Sun Ra and the Pharaohs did here. Those musicians may have stood apart from convention during their time, but the extraordinary ideas they captured on cheap wax have endured.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album covers.