Sun Ra Applies to NASA’s Art Program: When the Inventor of Space Jazz Applied to Make Space Art

You may have seen the image above float­ing around, espe­cial­ly if you fol­low jazz lovers and writ­ers like Ted Gioia: the first page of Sun Ra’s appli­ca­tion to NASA’s art pro­gram. The pro­gram was “some­what of a glo­ri­fied PR cam­paign,” writes Shan­non Gorm­ley at Willamette Week, but one nonethe­less that has employed many promi­nent artists since its incep­tion in 1962, includ­ing Annie Lei­bovitz, Andy Warhol, Lau­rie Ander­son, and Nor­man Rock­well. NASA has “enlist­ed musi­cians, poets and oth­ers for more vari­ety,” the Admin­is­tra­tion notes. “Pat­ti LaBelle even record­ed a space-themed song.”

But Sun Ra—given name Her­man Blount; legal name (as he writes in paren­the­ses) Le Sony’r Ra—was not, it seems, con­sid­ered when he applied in the 1960s, even if he more or less invent­ed space jazz in the pre­vi­ous decade. After many years in Chica­go, he’d relo­cat­ed his free jazz big band, the Arkestra, to New York, where they influ­enced lat­er Beats and the ear­ly psy­che­del­ic scene (just as he was to influ­ence funk, prog, and fusion in the 70s, and come in for a major revival in the 90s through indie rock and hip hop.)

Like­ly, who­ev­er read his appli­ca­tion was unfa­mil­iar with the cre­ative idio­syn­crasies of his lan­guage, writ­ten just as he sang and played—with incan­ta­to­ry rep­e­ti­tion, syn­tac­ti­cal sur­pris­es, and ALL CAPS all the time. The prodi­gious, vision­ary band­leader pro­pos­es to con­tribute “music that enlight­ens and space ori­en­tate dis­ci­pline coor­di­nate.” One might cast a wary eye on this descrip­tion, from an appli­cant who lists their edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion as “space ori­en­ta­tion.” Unless you’d heard what Sun Ra meant by the phrase.

Take his ori­en­ta­tion in 1961’s “Space Jazz Rever­ie” from The Futur­is­tic Sounds of Sun Ra, record­ed just after he arrived in New York, on the thresh­old of push­ing the Arkestra fur­ther out into the solar sys­tem. The tune “osten­si­bly sounds like a large-ensem­ble take on hard bop,” writes Matthew Wuethrich at All About Jazz. “Mid-tem­po swing, strange-but-not-unheard-of-inter­vals and a string of solos.” But the com­po­si­tion starts to warp and wob­ble. “Ra’s comp­ing on the piano gen­er­ates an unset­tling back­drop.” A “bizarre bridge” after the solos throws things fur­ther off-kil­ter.

This is not cold, crys­talline music of the stars, but an emo­tion­al jour­ney into the exci­ta­tion, coor­di­na­tion (to take his phrase), and defa­mil­iar­iza­tion of space trav­el. Lis­ten­ing to Sun Ra almost inclines me to believe his tales of inter­stel­lar trav­el and alien abduction—or at least to feel, for a few min­utes, as though I had tak­en a cos­mic trip. NASA’s art pro­gram would have cer­tain­ly been enriched by his con­tri­bu­tions, though whether it would have raised either one’s pro­file is uncer­tain.

Ra’s appli­ca­tion “reads like a prophe­cy,” writes Gorm­ley. We need music, in space and oth­er­wise. “What is called man is very anar­chy-mind­ed at present,” he wrote. But Sun Ra him­self was “anar­chy-mind­ed,” in the best sense of the term—he gave his imag­i­na­tion free rein and did not cater to any author­i­ty. This ran­kled many of his jazz peers, who fre­quent­ly said he went too far. Sun Ra nev­er seemed to both­er about the crit­i­cism.

He may have tak­en the NASA snub a lit­tle hard. In his land­mark 1972 film Space is the Place, he dis­cuss­es the space pro­gram with a group of black Oak­land youth, say­ing, “I see none of you have been invit­ed.” Sun Ra and the young peo­ple to whom he brought the hope of out­er space could not have known about the hid­den his­to­ry of African Amer­i­can sci­en­tists and astro­nauts in the space pro­gram. In any case, Ra had his own space pro­gram. A one-band cul­tur­al rev­o­lu­tion that was too for­ward-look­ing for both jazz and NASA.

via Ted Gioia

Relat­ed Con­tent:

NASA Enlists Andy Warhol, Annie Lei­bovitz, Nor­man Rock­well & 350 Oth­er Artists to Visu­al­ly Doc­u­ment America’s Space Pro­gram

Star Trek‘s Nichelle Nichols Cre­ates a Short Film for NASA to Recruit New Astro­nauts (1977)

Stream 74 Sun Ra Albums Free Online: Decades of “Space Jazz” and Oth­er Forms of Inter­galac­tic, Afro­fu­tur­is­tic Musi­cal Cre­ativ­i­ty

Sun Ra’s Full Lec­ture & Read­ing List From His 1971 UC Berke­ley Course, “The Black Man in the Cos­mos”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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