WBGO Playdate

WBGO's Playdate: Sun Ra Turns 100

Sun Ra Playdate

This is a bonus audio extra for Playdate Show #2. For more web extras and to hear the full episode click here.

Playdate with Matt Wilson is proud to help celebrate the Sun Ra Centennial Year. Sun Ra has his "100th Arrival Day" - or birthday, for those who the bandleader might have called "Earthbound" - on May 22, 2014.

It's an all-year celebration for fans of this musical iconoclast, which kicks off here on Playdate this week. 

In this bonus audio extra, we hear the Sun Ra Arkestra play "Space is the Place" from a performance at the IMAC in Huntington, Long Island on April 21, 1991. Playdate Show #2 features "Love In Outer Space" from this same concert.

Sun Ra was born Herman Poole Bount in Birmingham, Alabama, and settled in Chicago in the late 1940s. He played piano with, among others, saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, and developed a unique persona, which freely combined imagery from science fiction, Egyptian mythology and Freemasonry. In 1952, he legally changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra, inspired in part by the Egyptian sun god Ra, and thereafter claimed to come from the planet of Saturn.

A tightly-knit nucleus of musicians, with saxophonists Marshall Allen and John Gilmore, coalesced around Ra to form his signature big band, the Arkestra, and they remained close collaborators until his death in 1993. Allen now leads the ensemble.

The Arkestra grew in size over the years to become the fourteen-piece ensemble we hear in this recording. They wore outlandish, Egyptian and cosmic-themed costumes of their own creation, and Ra played piano and a variety of electronic instruments he built himself. The Arkestra was based in New York through the sixties, then moved to Philadelphia, where they stayed until Sun Ra’s death in 1993.

However outrageous his appearance and claims may have been,  Sun Ra succeeded in living a life in music on his own terms: his sophisticated arrangements freely incorporated psychedelia, traditional African folk songs and bebop. His live shows were spiritual, and made a profound impression on those who saw them.

Sun Ra's legacy is not only one of the Black experience in America in the 20th century, but one of great individual originality and collective spirited musicianship.

“When I saw Sun Ra on the banks of the Hudson in the late 1980s,” recalls Becca Pulliam, “it was a long summer evening, the sun was setting, and he had a little electric keyboard. I wonder what powered it. He and the musicians were singing "We travel the space wa-aves .. from pla-net to pla-net .."

The Arkestra's personnel on this recording are: Sun Ra, piano, leader; Ahmed Abdullah, trumpet; Jothan Callins, trumpet; Chris Capers, flugelhorn; Tyrone Hill, trombone;  Marshall Allen, alto sax, flute, percussion; Knoel Scott, alto sax; John Gilmore, tenor sax, clarinet, percussion, voice; James Jacson, bassoon, flute; John Ore, bass; Buster Smith, drums; Elson Nascimento, surdo; June Tyson, voice; TC III, voice.

A current edition of the Arkestra,directed by Marshall Allen, performs on Thursday, February 20 at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston. The band will also be in New York City on April 18, in the more intimate setting of the nightclub DROM.

Happy centennial, Sun Ra!

Support comes from the National Endowment for the Arts, New Jersey State Council on the Arts and WBGO.

Playdate funders

Produced for WBGO by Alexander Ariff,
with Becca Pulliam and Duke Markos, Executive Producer Josh Jackson.

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