The pianist and bandleader Sun Ra — who claimed Saturn as his planet of origin, referred to his ideas as “equations,” and led a long-running Arkestra that performed from the 1960s onward in ancient-Egypt-meets-outer-space regalia, sometimes with dancers or carnival performers on hand — was, to the general public, an odd, cryptic character.
To saxophonist Danny Ray Thompson, who joined the Arkestra in 1968, the same year that Ra moved the band to Philadelphia — it had first formed in Chicago in the 1950s, and moved to New York after that — Ra was something else altogether: a musical prodigy with extraordinary breadth of knowledge, creative genius, and professional dedication.
“He’s not recognized enough,” says Thompson. “He was a consummate musician. He could play Rachmaninoff, stride piano, the blues. . . . He was a fantastic composer. He wrote thousands of songs, in so many different styles. He once told me: ‘Years from now, they’ll be studying my kindergarten stuff.’ ”
On Thursday, Thompson and two other key veterans of the Arkestra, which still plays and tours widely although Ra died (or returned to Saturn) in 1993, visit Berklee Performance Center for a concert of Ra’s music, joining Berklee’s faculty tribute band, the Inter-Galactic Sun Ra Astro-Infinity Myth Equation Commemorative Arkestra.
Dubbed a Cosmic Centenary, the event is a 100th birthday party for Ra, who was born May 22, 1914 in Birmingham, Ala. That detail was long elusive: Ra, who changed his name from Herman Poole Blount to Le Sony’r Ra in 1952, deflected queries about his youth. It took research by biographer John Szwed to ascertain his birth date and year.
Now, however, the centennial is renewing attention to Ra, a protean figure in jazz who was on the scene in crucial times and places — in the Deep South in the swing era, in Chicago in the bebop 1950s, in New York in the avant-garde 1960s, with an uncanny ability to anticipate crucial musical ideas and innovate ahead of his peers.
“He brought very key things into the jazz language,” says Berklee bass professor Dave Clark, who leads the faculty band. “He’s the progenitor of free music, but he also originated modal compositions. He was an early adopter of electric instruments, and in the fusion of rock and jazz, he arguably preceded the others by at least five years.”
Allan Chase, Berklee’s chair of Ear Training who has studied and taught Ra’s work, says Ra shaped jazz and creative music from the 1950s to this day. But he was little-known outside jazz circles, and when he became famous in the 1970s, “listeners and critics were often overwhelmed” by the performances and pageantry.
“But musicians who listened carefully couldn’t miss Sun Ra’s radical innovations as a composer and bandleader,” Chase writes in a program note for the concert, offering a dizzying list of firsts — in composition, instrumentation choices, group improvisation, performance, recording methods — attributable to the man from Saturn.
Of course, Ra’s self-presentation and that of his group were not just for the sake of being outlandish. The outer-space theories, references to ancient Egypt, and wild outfits and staging were consistent with a musical approach that reveled in both the tradition — gospel, the blues — and in radical ideas of artistic and also political freedom.
Ra was as suspicious of movement leftism and professional activists as he was of the power structure, as his interviews and the hilarious and sharp 1974 cult film “Space Is the Place” make clear. His work instead inspired Afrofuturism, the artistic movement that employs science-fiction to imagine scenarios of black, and human, liberation.
“When you went to hear him in concert you suspected there were deep waters there, deep information,” says Clark, who saw the Arkestra around town in Philadelphia in the 1970s. “Lately we have this phrase, ‘respectability politics.’ He didn’t care about that. He blew it out of the water.”
One major Ra friend and supporter was Amiri Baraka, the African-American writer and intellectual who died last month. Baraka was present at Berklee in 2010 for another Ra-related event, when the archived papers of the late saxophonist Pat Patrick — a close Sun Ra collaborator dating back to the 1950s, and the father of Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick — were given to the college.
Baraka attended the first major Sun Ra centenary tribute, a performance by the Arkestra at New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center last October, and was slated to attend the upcoming Berklee show as well.
It was he who arranged for the three Arkestra veterans — Thompson, Charles Davis, and Arkestra leader Marshall Allen (who turns 90 this year and is going strong) — to sit in with the faculty band.
“We weren’t going to refuse Amiri,” Thompson says.
In the Arkestra tradition, both Thompson and Berklee’s Clark say they and their colleagues intend to dress for the occasion — and in fact, Clark says, audience members are encouraged to do the same. Formal wear, Egyptian head-dresses, beads, science-fiction and robotic gear are all welcome, though of course optional.
“It’ll be just like a Sun Ra concert,” Thompson says. “It’s a special occasion.”Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.