Reading David Byrne’s How Music Works the other day, I came across a passage where the Talking Heads frontman recalls his formative early exposure to the distinctive compositions and persona (not that you can really separate the two) of Sun Ra. “When I first moved to New York, I caught Sun Ra and his Arkestra at the 5 Spot, a jazz venue that used to be at St. Mark’s Place and Bowery,” Byrne writes. “He moved from instrument to instrument. At one point there was a bizarre solo on a Moog synthesizer, an instrument not often associated with jazz. Here was electronic noise suddenly reimagined as entertainment!”
Some might have written off Sun Ra and his Arkestra as indulging in formless artistic flailing, but in these shows, “as if to prove to skeptics that he and the band really could play, that they really had chops no matter how far out they sometimes got, they would occasionally do a traditional big band tune. Then it would be back to outer space.” As in Sun Ra’s music, so in Sun Ra’s words: as the jazz composer born Herman Poole Blount got increasingly experimental in his composition, the details of his “cosmic philosophy” underlying it, a kind of science-fiction-inflected Afro-mysticism, multiplied.
While many of Sun Ra’s pronouncements struck (and still strike) listeners as a bit odd, he could nevertheless ground them in a variety of intellectual contexts as a serious thinker. We offered evidence of this last year when we posted the full lecture and reading list from the course he taught at UC Berkeley in 1971, “The Black Man in the Cosmos.” Now you can hear it straight from the man himself in the playlist at the top of the post, which contains his lecture “The Power of Words,” also delivered at Berkeley in 1971, as part of the school’s Pan-African Studies curriculum.
But do heed the warning included with the videos: “Remember, Sun Ra was a ‘UNIVERSAL BEING’ not of this dimension or of a race category. With all his informative authority, in some cases during these lectures, the content will be shocking to hear.” Shocked or not, you may well come away from the experience convinced that not only did Sun Ra the musician understand the power of music, executed creatively, to take us to new aesthetic realms, he also understood the power of words to take us to new intellectual ones. But you’ve got to be willing to take the ride into outer space with him.
Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.