In spring 2017, John Corbett and Terri Kapsalis gifted to the Tang a selection of album covers, off-prints, advertisements, invitations, tickets, and ephemera from his personal archive of the Sun Ra Arkestra. To celebrate this important acquisition, Adam Tinkle, Visiting Assistant Professor of Media Studies and Documentary Studies, organized an exhibition and two-night performance festival in April. On April 14, 2017, as part of this festival, a private roundtable conversation was held between Tinkle and multidisciplinary artists Ephraim Asili, Chris Corsano, Joe McPhee, Kamau Amu Patton, and Matana Roberts.
Below is an edited transcript from the conversation.
Sun Ra is in the history books as a musician, but he also made important contributions as a philosopher, as a poet, and as a visual artist. One of the goals of the Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow festival is to talk about the ways that you are practicing multidisciplinarily and the way that sound functions within your multidisciplinary practices.
Kamau Amu Patton
I’ll start with talking about getting free from music. I grew up in Brooklyn, born in ’72, pretty deep hip-hop kind of environment, sample-based music. I grew up with my father’s record collection, my friend’s record collection, records everywhere. There’s a particular sound that at the time was being mined. You got a funk sound, you got a James Brown zone. And then you got people getting a little bit deeper into exploring jazz records and grabbing it from there. So, being a kid, growing up in that environment, I was doing things that were a little bit kind of not “it,” skateboarding, beat boarding, break dancing, getting into some other weird stuff. I was always trying to explore, What’s the weirder thing? What’s the more out-there thing? What’s the more obscure thing? And for me, getting into the Sun Ra sounds were outside of the outside. These are the edges. And that just opened a lot of doors for me. Every sound is cool, and it’s all connected to sounds that I was familiar with. And then from that, getting free from particular sounds. You can just do whatever. Everything’s cool. Every way of expressing is cool. There is no sound. There’s no you.
I was a big Miles Davis fan. Wasn’t playing at that time but listening to a lot of music. And I heard Charles Mingus’s “Pithecanthropus Erectus” that threw me o the planet. And about that time, I also heard Ornette Coleman, and DownBeat was writing about how it was not jazz and how it was going to destroy the world, and John Coltrane’s music was anti-jazz and was going destroy the world. And I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. I mean, Ornette’s music was out of the blues for me, Coltrane’s music was so accessible, and Eric Dolphy, took me a little longer, but I got there, I think, eventually. Later when I started to play, those were my guide posts. That’s where I wanted to be. And then I met Pauline Oliveros, which took me to another area, Sun Ra with the synthesizer and so forth. I started working with a friend, John Snyder, who bought an ARP 2600 and he lived with it for a while. And I said, “Wow. That’s it.” And that changed a lot for me. And that’s how all of that kind of started. So it came out of Sun Ra, really, a lot of the later stuff that I was doing.
Philadelphia would pay for the Arkestra to give a free concert every summer. And I remember this one time they played right outside of their house on Morton Street in Germantown, a black neighborhood on the fringes of Philly. Sun Ra had already passed. It was one of those moments where thunder started rumbling, and the band started playing. They were doing their spacecore thing and it was really going crazy, like haywire. It was really something. And then it just started raining, really intense rain, pouring, and everyone left. But the whole band stayed on stage. It was a trip. And then they started going into their procession in the rain. They played all the way out of the park in the rain. My life was changed for sure.
Part of Ra’s practice that is sort of underrepresented is his capacity as an organizer in terms of maintaining a big band for about fifty years. It’s kind of unprecedented, and talking to some of the older jazz musicians that I’ve interviewed, people like Mickey Roker who talk about back in the day when the only time they would see groups of black men that were well organized that weren’t, say, in the NAACP or a church, were big bands. And how he felt like Sun Ra kept this idea going where a group of guys would come to town, dress the same, and bring positive energy, and they would travel around—that was this really, in and of itself, magical thing.
Joe made a comment yesterday with my class: in addition to being well organized, the Arkestra was almost like a social service organization for some of its members.
This was 1967, when they had the place on Third Street. And Lex Humphries was having some kind of problem, and the Arkestra, they just took him in and took care of him. It was part of their mission. That’s what they were doing.
My understanding of Sun Ra’s music was purely by osmosis. My father was a political scientist who studied space and war because of the music of Sun Ra. My father took his senior prom date to the Jazz Showcase to see Sun Ra, who happened to be playing that same night. And he would talk about how they played two sets and they were supposed to stop. They would not stop playing. The owner came, they unplugged everything. They turned o all the lights and the Arkestra just kept playing. They had their own sense of unification. I’ve been hearing about Ra, Ra, Ra all my life. I’ve been hearing that music all my life. I’ve been mostly inspired by the legend and also the powerful statement of taking care of the people that you care about—a band that’s a band. I feel like that’s getting harder and harder to do for a lot of people these days, economically speaking. Not only were they a band, they lived together. I’ve heard the stories about the 24-hour rehearsals, 12-hour rehearsals. You hear all these crazy stories.
I will never be able to hear a Sun Ra cut and not think of my father. I will never be able to talk about Sun Ra and not think of my father. The music for him supported the politics at the time. It was so political for him. It had such a political base even though it wasn’t specifically talking about any particular politics. It was so uplifting and so nutritious in that way. Sun Ra, when I get an image of him in my head, he made people believe. They still make people believe even though he’s not here. He really made people believe in this whole other universe and ways of seeing.
It’s freedom. It’s a freedom music. The work that I’ve had over my lifetime of intersecting and interacting with Sun Ra recordings, it’s like they’re a cross-genre and then they become their own genre. They’re their own thing. That’s amazing to me. I used to go to the Prospect Park drum circles with my dad. There’s no recorded music. There’s nowhere where this exists in recording. Sun Ra has that essence of making a music that’s bigger than the space that contains it, bigger than the record.
I was checking out Dick Griffin, this trombone player who played in the Arkestra and was checking out an interview with him talking about Sun Ra. And when he joined the Arkestra, Sun Ra told him, “All right, you’re gonna open up and you’re gonna go out into the audience and you’re gonna play until you get a standing ovation.” And he did. He’s a great player. And so he got the standing ovation. And he said that the band came on after fifteen minutes of him just going for it or whatever. Sun Ra was never super demonstrative but he just gave a smile and a nod. It wasn’t something that he thought you could just do, but because Sun Ra asked it of him, he said, “This is what’s going to happen.”
“Visionary” is a really good word for Sun Ra in a whole bunch of ways because he would see stuff and he’d be able to materialize that stuff one way or another. Thinking about the collection here at the Tang, he would say, “We’re a band. We’re going to a concert. What do you need to do a concert besides the band? You need posters, you need tickets.” So he taught himself, figured out how to do all these things around making more than just music happen. You can look at how the dominant culture does their version and then say, “Well, I’m going to do my version, Sun Ra’s version.” Seeing it here was a good reminder that he figured so much stuff out.
Sun Ra seemed to be drawing from so much different stuff. He’s pulling from numerology, Egyptology, from ancient to the future. His scope was wider than anybody I’ve ever read about. Me doing my thing is a real tunnel-vision version of trying to take some inspiration.