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Space Truckin'

Traveling with the Sun Ra Arkestra has its perks: cigarettes and coffee

The show was spectacular, in every way. The 13-member ensemble came out wearing robes, gold lamé shirts, sequined vests and all manner of homemade space hats, antennae poking out everywhere, singing, "We are the Sun Ra Arkestra, and we are here to entertain you." The group played for more than two hours to the sold-out MECA audience, who cheered wildly as the Arkestra snaked through the crowd like a New Orleans funeral band. Most of these guys have played together, off and on, for at least 20 years. Many still live and practice at their home in Philadelphia, the house that Ra built. All of them carry on the legacy of their bandleader and guru, Sun Ra, the mystic innovator of noise and free jazz and the self-taught Egyptologist who mesmerized followers with prophetic speeches about outer space and the reinvention of African-American culture. Sun Ra claims to have come from Saturn, which is often the best explanation for his obscure genius.

Several hours after creating that glorious noise at MECA Auditorium, the band is loading its equipment into the van, preparing to leave that very night for the next gig, the International Music Festival in Austin. I have asked to tag along. Riding with the Sun Ra Arkestra seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to absorb the mystical vibes from these cosmic music philosophers, who have performed with John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk. (Incidentally, the overnight trip to the Live Music Capital of the World was the promoter's idea; he couldn't afford to put the band members up in Houston, so we offered to drive them directly to Austin.)

As we pile in I ask if anyone knows about the Leonid meteor shower, supposedly the millennium's largest. Drummer Jimmi Esspirit grins and says, "I heard it. It started while we were playing." My heart clutches in pain: These guys are nuts. Then he adds, "It had a beautiful sound. Did you hear it?" A couple of other orchestra members nod. On second thought, I think, why wouldn't the creators of such cosmic, joyful noise hear a meteor shower during their set? I learned later that Jimmi was correct; a science Web site confirmed the meteor shower began shortly before the band assembled on stage. There's no way he could have known this. Hell, the scientists didn't even know it.

Noel Scott cuts loose with some African-flavored dance on stage at MECA.
Liz Belile
Noel Scott cuts loose with some African-flavored dance on stage at MECA.

It's 1 a.m., and everyone's starving, so our first stop is Bibas, the 24-hour Greek diner on West Gray.

I ride with the elders (average age: about 60) in a late-model Ford Club Wagon. Johnny Cavazos, drummer in the Latin rock band Moscas, is driving. He's as excited to hang with the Arkestra as I am. Avant-garde trombonist Dave Dove, who produced tonight's gig, drives the beat-up "party van" with the "young" guys (average age: 35).

As we pull up to Bibas, Esspirit, forever beaming, asks, "Do you think they'll have something for a Sagittarius to eat?" I wonder what someone born under the sign of the archer would eat. I assume it has to be killed with bow and arrow. Turns out, despite Ra's dietary impositions, few Arkestra members are vegetarian.

Marshall Allen, 74-year-old badass sax player and the Arkestra's present director, sits near the head of the table next to Art Jenkins, 66, vocalist and lyricist. Curious about the Arkestra's early days, I sit across from Allen and between Jenkins and Noel Scott, the serious alto sax player who broke into a spirit-possessed dance during the show.

KOOLs lighted, they order a round of coffee. No decaf.

Art Jenkins says his first audition for Sun Ra, in 1964, didn't stick. He was rejected by Ra, who dismissed him with, "I know what you know, but I want the impossible." A year later Jenkins dropped in on a recording session, and Ra directed him toward a ram's horn. Jenkins took it as a sign. The horn took him back to childhood when, he says, "I couldn't talk, but I could sing." During this mute period, he was given a potion to drink through a ram's horn as a "cure." Jenkins immediately recognized this moment with Ra as coming full circle. "I took that ram's horn, and I turned it around and sang through it. It was a different kind of sound. And [Ra] said, 'That's it.' " Apparently having achieved the impossible, Jenkins ended up on that recording, Secrets of the Sun.

The waitress brings water. Marshall Allen says he met Sun Ra more than 40 years ago in Chicago, when he crashed a rehearsal. Ra hired him on the spot. "But it was a slow processŠ.We had to listen to him talk, and I was late for work the next dayŠ.You know, he was talking about Š going into outer space, all these things you read about or see in the movies nowŠ.But for me, that was it. He couldn't get rid of me." By the end of the '50s, most of the musicians had left the band. Allen stayed.

The table conversation is full of long pauses as Allen and Jenkins try to recall dates, names, places. They've known each other since 1967.

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