A Psychedelic Big Band

Seth Colter Walls tours the cosmic and eclectic music of jazz legend Sun Ra:

Sun Ra’s music became most abstract in the 1960s, when he and the Arkestra moved to New York and took up a residency at the East Village club, Slug’s. This is where Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) encountered the Arkestra. Though initially skeptical, he was won over as soon as he saw the group live. “Sun-Ra,” he wrote in 1966, “wants a music that will reflect a life-sense lost in the West, a music full of Africa.…On one piece the Arkestra moves, behind Sun-Ra, in a long line through the dark, chanting and playing…a totally different epoch is conjured.” Baraka described Ra’s new record for the ESP label, The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, as “one of the most beautiful albums I have ever heard,” the product of the “first big band of the New Black Music.” …

The prospect of getting to know this massive, erratically organized oeuvre may seem discouraging. But giving up on the ability to know everything doesn’t mean you have to resign yourself to total ignorance, either. That realization is a part of what is so welcome about Jazz at Lincoln Center’s embrace of the Sun Ra Arkestra this month. [John] Szwed’s biography, Space is the Place, makes mention of the fact that Lincoln Center’s then-“new jazz department” considered, but ultimately did not produce, a tribute concert to Ra not long before his death. Though by doing their part, now, to include his Arkestra in our understanding of American art music, the institution is helping to realize a mystic-sounding assertion from Ra’s later years: “A true birthday is the day of your death.”