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The Sun Ra Arkestra will be taking over 40th Street this weekend

Philadelphia United Jazz Fest celebrates the scene in Center City
Sun Ra Arkestra | Photo by Matthew Shaver | brightloud.com

The Sun Ra Arkestra is, to put it simply, an experience. A concoction of far too many genres to list, the off-kilter big band will be performing for free as part of the 40th Street Summer Series on the University of Pennsylvania campus at 40th and Walnut. They will be joined by The South Pacific Island Dancers on August 29th to create an event that should not be missed. Music will begin at 6 p.m. and you can find more information here. Continue reading →

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This Planet Is Doomed – a free event celebrating the life and times of Sun Ra

Photo courtesy of the artist.
Photo courtesy of the artist.

A celebration of any artist that leads with the alarmist title “The Planet is Doomed” may seem incongruous, but it’s a perfectly apocalyptic fit when the artist in question is Sun Ra. The cosmic bandleader is being feted this Thursday, July 10th at a free event. The Galleries at Moore and Ars Nova Workshop, in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, present This Planet is Doomed: A Sun Ra Celebration. It’s an evening of poetry, futuristic sounds, archival films and an Afro-Futurist dance party being held at the Penn Museum.

Depending on whether you believe his biographers or his own claims, Sun Ra was either born 100 years ago as Herman Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, or he arrived on Earth at that time from Saturn. In either case, with the Sun Ra Arkestra he eventually combined jazz with a science fiction-refracted look at social issues – it’s no accident that an African-American born in 1920s Birmingham would look to relocate his home as far away as humanly (or otherwise) possible.

After making his home in Chicago and New York, Ra finally brought his colorfully clad caravan to Philadelphia, taking up residency in the Germantown row home that remains the headquarters of the Arkestra, now led by alto saxophonist Marshall Allen (who marked his own 90th arrival day this year). The Penn Museum is an apt home given Ra’s penchant for Egyptian iconography, and one of the films to be screened includes footage shot in the museum’s Egyptian gallery. The evening will feature readings of Ra’s science fiction poetry, a relatively unexplored aspect of his work, by Pew Fellow CA Conrad, writer Ras Mashramani, and biographer John Szwed, accompanied by music from Charles Cohen playing his appropriately otherworldly Buchla Music Easel. Artists Anthony Campuzano and Jack Sloss will spin music for the dance party afterwards. Go here for more information about the event.

Below, watch Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise, a documentary by Robert Mugge.

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The Week’s Best Free MP3s, incl. Sun Ra, The GTVs and more

The GTVs | Photo by Eric Schuman
The GTVs | Photo by Eric Schuman

Mount Airy based outfit The GTVs stopped by for this week’s Key Studio Session.  Armed with a vintage Hammond organ and a few tracks, the band performed songs that showcased their wide-ranging sound.  Check out the instrumental Ventures-inspired number “Sleeper Agent” below and get the full session here.

Sing-along-friendly “Strangers” from The Rebel Light was Tuesday’s My Morning Download.  The upbeat power-pop song was released as a single from the L.A. band last month and is a great summer kick-start track for this Memorial Day weekend.

Local musician That Dream Was Our Life continues his monthly EP project with a collection of six new songs that cover everything from Center City traffic to friends getting married.  Check out “Early Spark” below and get the full EP here.

Folkadelphia brought Brooklyn’s Sondra Sun-Odeon in for a session to showcase her boundary-bending songs, joined by tour-mates Orion Rigel Dommisse.  Take a listen to “Paradise” below and download the full session here.

NPR celebrated what would have been jazz legend Sun Ra’s 100th birthday with an in-depth profile on Thursday.  In 1976, Sun Ra appeared on WXPN during a program called Blue Genesis, performing music and reading poetry.  You can download the two segments below.

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Celebrating the legacy of futuristic jazz composer Sun Ra (and listening to his 1976 appearance on WXPN) for his 100th birthday

Baron Wolman/Courtesy of the artist
Baron Wolman/Courtesy of the artist

Today we celebrate what would have been the 100th birthday of forward-thinking jazz icon Sun Ra. It’s likely you’ve heard his name, but if you don’t know much actually about him or his music, the folks at NPR Music put together a great profile today. Sun Ra was an experimental jazz composer who believed he came from the planet Saturn.  He was so convinced he did not come from Earth, he actually owned a Saturn passport that didn’t contain a birth dates.  Ra was eccentric in all ways, dressing in a style NPR’s Joel Rose described as  “elaborate costumes that were part ancient Egypt, part science fiction.”

He began his jazz career in Chicago where he worked for Fletcher Henderson.  It was in Chicago that he started leading a band known as the Arkestra. Some band members had a hard time understanding Ra’s complicated style of music.  Tenor saxophonist, John Gilmore, recalled that he finally got it one night when they were playing one of their songs “Saturn.”

“‘My gosh, it’s unbelievable that anybody could write meaner intervals than Monk or Mingus. But he does.'”

After Chicago, Ra moved the Arkestra to New York.  He began to take his act to extreme levels through improvisation and new techniques such as using synthesizers.  Some people did not know how to interpret this new-age form of jazz.

In 1969 the band moved from New York to Philadelphia, where they were immediately embraced by the local jazz community and the music scene at large. On Christmas Day in 1976, Sun Ra appeared live on WXPN to read poetry with music playing underneath on the program Blue Genesis. A quote from John Szwed’s book Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra:

The choice of poems and their sequencing offers what Sun Ra thought was most important in his writing. Here are key words like “cosmos,” “truth,” “bad,” “myth,” and “the impossible,”; attention to phonetic equivalence; the universality of the music and its metaphysical status; allusions to black fraternal orders and secret societies; biblical passages and their interpretation; and even a few autobiographical glimpses. The poems were read softly, with little expressions, the music punctuating the words, with the heavy echo and delay in the studio sometimes reducing the words to pure sound without meaning.

Ra died in 1993 after suffering a number of strokes. But since their arrival to the city of Brotherly Love, the Arkestra has continued to make music together, locally as well as all over the world.  They appeared on stage at the XPoNential Music Festival during Yo La Tengo’s set in 2010, and are currently on tour and will play the Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona on May 29th. Today, the Sun Ra Arkestra will play a show in Zurich, Switzerland in honor of Sun Ra’s centennial.

Read or listen to the full story about Sun Ra here, via NPR. Below, download Sun Ra’s 1976 appearance on WXPN.

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Listen to Sun Ra on WXPN, Christmas Day, 1976

Yesterday on twitter we picked up a tweet that said “listening to “Sun Ra WXPN 1976 side A.” After reaching out to this person, we were led to this site that had an archive of Sun Ra and his Arkestra on WXPN. Here’s the description:

On Christmas Day 1976, Sun Ra read a selection of his poems accompanied by music on the program “Blue Genesis” over the University of Pennsylvania’s radio station WXPN. The choice of poems and their sequencing offers what Sun Ra thought was most important in his writing. Here are key words like “cosmos,” “truth,” “bad,” “myth,” and “the impossible,”; attemtion to phonetic equivalence; the universality of the music and its metaphysical status; allusions to black fraternal orders and secret socities; biblical passages and their interpretation; and even a few atuobiographical glmipses. The poems were read softly, with little expressions, the music punctuating the words, with the heavy echo and delay in the studio sometimes reducing the words to pure sound without meaning. — from “Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra” John Szwed.

Listen to Side A here
Listen to Side B here

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The Eternal Myth Revealed Volume 1, a 20-CD box set of Sun Ra rarities, due in July

In 1968, jazz legendary Sun Ra relocated to the Germantown section of Philadelphia until he died in 1993. Though Sun Ra already has a massive body of work to his name, a new collection of rarities is being released on July 18th called The Eternal Myth Revealed Volume 1. It is being released on Transparency Records and was curated by Sun Ra archive director and Arkestra member Michael D. Anderson. Volume 1 includes over 400 songs and thirteen hours of music from the period 1933-59 and includes a number of sides transferred to tape from 78 RPM records. The video below offers a unique history of the period of music the first box set covers, including some of Ra’s musical influences and interviews with the man himself.