I Saw A Film!
This, too short, documentary centered on one of the legends of free-style Jazz is a treat from forgotten and subterranean realms. Sun Ra himself, a largely self-educated pianist and composer, born Herman Blount in Birmingham in 1914, teaching himself music at a local library, and progressing through Jazz apprenticeships in the 40s Ra was the real deal. Before there was Ornette Colman, or Coltrane’s Meditations, there was Sun Ra. He could do Monk’s beautiful mixture of atonal and stabbed chord melodies as well as outlandish electronic experimental wildness, and come crashing back to sweetie pie Disney pieces. Ra was a genius of effort and excitement.
Sadly, this film has only excerpts of a few gigs, in tightly packed bars, on rooftops and at home. His talented musicians devote to his vision, building drums and costuming up for the shows. There is a beautiful mix of ethnic pride, futurist vision, and plenty of peace, love, and respect for cultural beauty (especially that of ancient Egypt). Sun Ra, much like Captain Beefheart, or David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, is a concept character that is played to the hilt. It is both brilliant, exciting, and somewhat cornball. When he dabbles in wordplay, it’s both very skillful and somewhat humorous. Sun Ra rejects history, saying that it’s a world compounded of the terms “his” and “story”, suggesting it’s not about us, and that we should prefer mystery, getting “my” and “story” out of the suggestion. As silly as this little game is it’s very enjoyable from an artistic outlook expanding. These sorts of games entertained Captain Beefheart as well and created some of his most eccentric and enjoyable poetic reaches recorded on Trout Mask Replica. I see Sun Ra as a kind of influence there, but it might be just my stretch.
It has always fascinated me how artists from Duke Ellington to Sun Ra manage to outfit themselves with tremendous players who are happy to contribute to the vision and aural project. I’m sure it takes money, but it also takes finding the appropriate artists who can feel your direction and hold down an edge of the sail so the wind can billow into it and drive it forward. Sun Ra and Ellington were masters of locating these brilliant artistic warriors and the film features some of their amazing playing-though not enough! It would have been nice to meet more of them, the vocalist, and guitarists, etc.
It is 1978 and a bit later when this was made, and Sun Ra is already well in his sixties, and there are scores of recordings by him, some of them only known from LP pressings (tapes have been lost). Night of the Purple Moon is a favorite along with Atlantis you get a good feel for his melodic as well as outrageous expansion of noise into beauty into art.
This is running Free on Prime and if you have any interest in Jazz or beautiful (lo fi) costuming and stage show, you should check it out. Sun Ra is an American Treasure.