Back in the early 1970's, the school I attended, Philadelphia College of Art, was in the throes of hippie days. But there was a tradition to honor, a Spring Formal at the august Philadelphia Museum of Art. A dance has to have a band, so PCA made the obvious choice: Philly's premier avant-garde ensemble, the Sun Ra Arkestra.
That was my first encounter with the Arkestra's unlikely combination of big band tradition and free-jazz frenzy. I remember pianist and bandleader Sun Ra as a small man in a colorful costume at once evoking ancient Egypt and a brother from another planet. I'd heard that he was a fascinating figure who drew top musicians to his unorthodox band.
"He was a philosopher," says saxophonist Marshall Allen. "He knew people; he could read you. He had a vision of the future and he wanted to raise the planet up to the space age. He was a poet and a real scholar. He knew the Bible and the Koran and he knew about history. He was a teacher; a genius really."
Sun Ra died in 1993, but the band plays on under the leadership of Allen, a long-time Arkestra member. Allen and the Sun Ra Arkestra will be making a rare Rochester appearance at Lovin' Cup, Thursday evening.
The Bop Shop's Tom Kohn scored a major coup when he heard that the band was heading to Cleveland for a special event. He called and asked if the Arkestra would consider swinging by Rochester for an extra gig. The answer was yes.
"With Marshall Allen now 92, I thought it was the only opportunity we would have to see this iconic ensemble," Kohn says.
It's good timing. The Arkestra has just released "Babylon Live," a landmark album in honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Sun Ra. Recorded last year at a club in Istanbul, the CD (and a deluxe edition with a DVD) captures the full range of the band's music.
"We play charts from the great musicians and the great bands like Duke Ellington and Count Basie. We give you a history of music," says Allen, who joined Sun Ra in 1958. "And we play avant-garde. We give young people a taste of yesteryear right up until today."
To fully appreciate the Arkestra, you might need a bit of history.
Born Herman Poole Blount in 1914, Sun Ra was a student of ancient Egyptian, African, and Greek texts, the works of Madame Helena P. Blavatsky (a leading proponent of a mystical mixture of theology and philosophy called theosophy), the Kabbalah (mysticism-based Jewish teachings), and more down-to-earth subjects like the history of African-Americans and the ideas of Booker T. Washington.
The name Sun Ra is derived from the name of the Egyptian god of the sun. Sun Ra studied the past but he always had an eye on the future, especially space exploration. He called his philosophy Afrofuturism. And in keeping with that philosophy, the collective organism that is the Arkestra has always had one foot in the past and the other on the cutting edge.
Sun Ra insisted that he came from Saturn, and with the recent discovery of liquid water on Mars, he may have been on to something. His band dressed accordingly, bringing together alien fashion with ancient Egyptian chic.
The group I saw several times back in Philly was unusual in another respect: the musicians lived together communally in a house in the city's Germantown neighborhood.
"Most of that band died in the 1990's," Allen says. "I had to build a new band. We now have 27 people — violins, cello, harp, French horns, dancers ... The road band is 12 or 14 musicians."
The earlier group was not embraced in the United States, so the Arkestra has toured more in Europe and beyond since 1969.
"They accepted us and liked our music there," Allen says. "America was a little slow. In America they wouldn't accept anything new for a couple of generations, until the young people caught on. The next generation was hip to electronic things and space. Sun Ra was talking about going to the moon and everywhere else before they put up the Sputnik."
In fact, the group is now greatly respected around the world.
"We were in Egypt five times," Allen says. "We played in Cairo at the pyramids right after the war with Israel. We were in the Sinai desert. They were sitting out there in that desert alone. They were glad to hear some music."
In recent years, Allen has broadened his horizons, playing with Phish and other genre-bending groups. He regards music as a healing force.
"I changed my drinking habits; I'm trying to use the music for my well-being," Allen says. "It can make me a better person, energized and interested in life. They say music can make you cry and music can make you happy, so I say let me play this music not for money, not for girls, let me play this music for my well-being."
It's one thing to hear the Arkestra on records (the group has recorded almost 200 albums), it's quite another to see the band live. Kohn has seen the group many times, and still vividly recalls the first, a joint appearance with the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
"The Art Ensemble was amazing and there was a fairly long break before; all of a sudden, all this commotion was happening at the back of the theatre," says Kohn. "It was the Arkestra in full regalia playing their instruments, marching and dancing through the audience. It was like an avant-garde circus."
Kohn believes the group is among the most innovative in jazz history.
"The Arkestra is able to take what we know and turn it into something new," Kohn says. "They swing like a big band even when it sounds like cacophony, but if you listen closely there is always something that sounds grounded. They take you to outer space and bring you back to Earth."