Sun Ra, who appeared on this planet as Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, 105 years ago, led a life that encompassed the whole history of jazz before he decamped for the planet Saturn, where he claimed to have been transported and experienced a spiritual transformation.
In the 1940s he moved to Chicago, where he played piano and wrote arrangements for a broad array of settings, from blues singers to society bands. He eventually began to lead his own groups in local clubs, leading up to the formation of his Arkestra, which featured his own compositions as well as standards. He led the band for decades, moving to New York and finally to Philadelphia and touring Europe and the Middle East. As was the case with Duke Ellington, whom he admired immensely, several musicians, such as saxophonists John Gilmore and Marshall Allen, stayed with him for most of the journey.
The music he created over the years is difficult to define, ranging from the big band era (Ra actually played in a later version of the Fletcher Henderson orchestra) through modal and polytonal versions of hard bop to highly abstract avant-garde outings. Jazz critic Robert Campbell described his range as “everything from 1930s hotel-band schmaltz to synthesizer pieces that twittered and clunked like a demented Pac-Man machine.” He created a complex idiosyncratic intellectual Black Myth, which asserted alienation from the dominant white culture, associated his people’s blackness with the blackness and infinite dimensions of space, and pointed to a better future.
The master may have moved on to outer space, but the Arkestra lives on, led by ninety-five-year-old Marshall Allen. Others remain dedicated to Sun Ra’s music as well. Chief among them is Detroit’s own PD9 Sun Ra Band, led by drummer RJ Spangler. This group, not unlike Ra, surveys decades of jazz history: the blues, the roots of the swing bands in the works of Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, and Bennie Moten, and Ra’s own cosmic excursions. They are particularly fond of compositions from his early Chicago days, such as the fast-paced boppy “Saturn,” which became the Arkestra’s theme song, or the much more complex mysterious processional “Ancient Aiethiopia,” a harbinger of more avant jazz to come.
During his last decade or so, Ra often looked back to his early days by featuring tunes by Fletcher and Horace Henderson and their contemporaries. including “King Porter Stomp,” and “Big John Special” made famous by Benny Goodman as showcases for trumpeters Bunny Berigan and Harry James. PD9 takes particular delight when delving into such tunes, tipping a hat to their own swing era repertoire concerts. Most important, however, is their invocation of the very spirit of Sun Ra in their vibrant and sometimes irreverent celebration of the theatrical and spiritual nature of musical enactment. Their public performances are pure joy.
The PD9 Sun Ra Band plays the Blue LLama jazz club at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. on February 22.