Everybody spreads holiday cheer in their own way. On Christmas Day 1976, the eccentric jazz composer and bandleader did it by appearing on Blue Genesis, a show on the University of Pennsylvania’s radio station WXPN, reading his poetry with music. “The choice of poems and their sequencing offers what Sun Ra thought was most important in his writing,” writes John Szwed in Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra. “Here are key words like ‘cosmos,’ ‘truth,’ ‘bad,’ ‘myth,’ and ‘the impossible’; attention to phonetic equivalence; the universality of the music and its metaphysical status; allusions to black fraternal orders and secret societies; biblical passages and their interpretation; and even a few autobiographical glimpses.”
Though read on Christmas, these poems have no particular religious slant — nothing, that is, but Sun Ra’s usual mixture of the Kabbalah, Rosicrucianism, numerology, Freemasonry, ancient Egyptian mysticism, Gnosticism, and black nationalism.
Fans of Sun Ra would expect no less. But those more recently acquainted with the jazzman born Herman Poole Blount may find this an unusual half-hour of listening, for the holidays or otherwise. “A pioneer of ‘Afrofuturism,’ Sun Ra emerged from a traditional swing scene in Alabama, touring the country in his teens as a member of his high school biology teacher’s big band,” wrote Open Culture’s own Josh Jones earlier this year. “While attending Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University, he had an out-of-body experience during which he was transported into outer space.”
In that post on Sun Ra’s 1971 UC Berkeley Course “The Black Man in the Cosmos,” you can learn more about the numerous nonstandard experiences and philosophies that went into the production of his words and his music, which converge in this special broadcast you can hear at the top of the post or on Ubuweb. It’ll make you regret that Sun Ra and his free-jazz “Arkestra” never produced a full-length Christmas album — though maybe, on whichever distant planet his immortal spirit reached after the end of his Earth-life two decades ago, he’s recording it as we speak.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.