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.
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 process.We had to listen to him talk, and I was late for work the next day.You know, he was talking about going into outer space, all these things you read about or see in the movies now.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.
The food arrives.
Jenkins explains that he needs meat for energy. "Especially for playing space chords. Gotta have some sustenance in you when you go deep in your heart like that."
Space chords, a Sun Ra innovation, are a collective improvisation, a high-volume tone he'd introduce whenever a piece needed a new direction. Ra contended that music originated from "the Creator," a.k.a. "the life force," and could transform both musician and listener.
I ask about the famous Sun Ra "miracles." They spin tales about weird telepathic dreams or outdoor concerts in which Ra stopped the rain by hitting a drum. Allen recalls the time he explored an Egyptian pyramid with Ra, who "called the Creator's name, or something, and all the lights went out." And once they drove all the way from California to Lovelock, Nevada, with the gas gauge on "E." Broken gas gauge or miracle? You decide.
We finally leave Bibas at 2 a.m., heading west on I-10 until we'll turn north at 71.
I'm sharing a seat with Thelonious Monk's longtime bassist, John Ore, who is quite renowned in jazz circles. His jaw-dropping solo earlier in the evening, a breakdown of Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady," was the highlight of the show.
After our first gas stop, just outside Houston, Johnny Cavazos and Marshall Allen put some Monk in the tape player.
When I ask Ore about Monk, he says, "You know as much about him as I do. You tell me." I almost laugh out loud.
I ask what was different about playing with Ra.
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"Well, [Ra] would give a person more room to express themselves in the way they wanted to. I remember one tune, 'Shadow,' which we don't play anymore.If I had any poison, any alcohol in my body, by the time I got through playing that tune, I had sweated it all out."
Ra forbade his musicians to indulge in booze, drugs or sex, so that they'd stay focused on the music. The young tenor sax player, Yahya Abdul Jamid, called it "the Sun Ra jail." Yet, like Noel Scott, Jamid chose to stay with the band and the other players, who all say they had no choice in life but to play music. Sun Ra understood this, nurturing and challenging them to new heights.
Art Jenkins and I talk the rest of the way in, keeping our driver awake. Jenkins is from Sleepy Hollow, and is certifiably psychic. He tells me about a concert in Paris many years ago when Ra wouldn't tell the band where they were playing or staying. This apparently was a Ra custom. Inevitably, Jenkins says, he was the first to locate either. The rest of the trip is fairly uneventful, until 4:55 a.m., when Johnny Cavazos sees a meteor. "Hey!" he yells. "I saw one!" The fog that has been cloaking us since 4 a.m. clears.
We arrive at the hotel at 5 a.m. as dawn lightens the sky. Somewhere back on Saturn, Sun Ra has pulled the right strings.