Traveling the Spaceways: Writing, Radio, Research, & Art

Today, May 22, marks the 103rd anniversary of Sun Ra’s arrival to earth.

Sun Ra never spoke of birthdays, and he never claimed Birmingham as a birthplace. He arrived in Birmingham from outer space, he said, on May 22, 1914.

I’ve spent a lot of the last decade researching and writing about Sun Ra. I’m especially interested in his Birmingham roots, and in the way the city helped shape his music and persona. My book in progress, a history of Birmingham jazz, goes pretty far into all this, expanding on some of what I’ve written and released in various forms and forums so far. For now, for today’s anniversary, I thought I’d share or re-share the following:

+ excerpts from my book Doc, with Frank “Doc” Adams

+ brief footage of Doc Adams playing tribute to Sun Ra at Birmingham’s Bottletree Café

+ links to my series on Sun Ra’s Birmingham roots, published in the newsweekly Weld on the occasion of Sun Ra’s centennial

+ my radio interview with Robert Mugge, director of the landmark documentary film, SUN RA: A JOYFUL NOISE

+ promotional materials for a series of Sun Ra Celebrations I hosted at the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame

+ and a few other odds and ends

First, an excerpt from Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man, my book with the late & beloved Dr. Frank Adams (University of Alabama Press, 2012). Doc played in Sun Ra’s (Sonny Blount’s) early Birmingham band, back in the 1940s, and a chapter of our book together—Chapter Five, “Outer Space”—deals with those days. In the two quick excerpts here, Doc describes a few impressions of the bandleader:

Sun Ra lived across the street from the old Terminal Station in this rickety, raggedy house: I mean, it was terrible.  But when you got in there, he was so full of what he was doing.  He really believed in this outer space thing, and he talked about it all the time.  He would say this was this and this was that, and he rehearsed, rehearsed, rehearsed, till his band was just a jewel—I mean, it was just a jewel—and he had people in his band that weren’t great readers of music, but they could catch on quick.  They had this complete musicianship about them.

I first heard, like most people in Birmingham, that there was this weird guy—there was always some talk about this fellow that lived near the Terminal Station, in this old, broken-down house.  That’s back in the early thirties, my elementary school days.  Nobody would say he was crazy, he just had a reputation for being different.  In certain neighborhoods they knew he had a tremendous band, and he was a bandleader that nobody knew where he came from.  He was just there.

In those days he was called Herman Blount, or “Sonny”: Sonny Blount.  And you just couldn’t figure him out.   Did he have a mother, or did he have a brother?  Everything was a mystery about him.  And we never heard of him eating any food—he survived on grapefruit.  He would go to Mr. Forbes’ music store, the biggest music store in town, and look through all the new music that would come out.  He would probably be eating on a grapefruit, and he’d take his pen out and a piece of manuscript paper and copy the music.  He’d stand there for maybe an hour, and drip grapefruit juice on the music and write it out in hand—he never would buy the music.  People would be standing back, waiting to be waited on, and, no, he wouldn’t move.  Mr. Forbes would stand and watch him.  When he finally got his music, he would say “Thank you” to the wall or something, and go on out.  And everybody understood that.

You would say, because it’s segregation and everything, “Why don’t they stop you from going in the store?”

He’d say, “They like me.”

“Why would they like you, when you’re messing everything up?”

“They understand.  That I’m a power.  And really,” he said, “we are friends.”

He thought about white people that way.  He said, “They are my brothers.  They are my brothers, but some of them don’t know it yet.”

[…]

Blount’s band was real unique.  Everybody in there couldn’t read music real well, but he could put them together: I admire Sonny for being able to mold his musicians together to do things that he did.  His orchestra would consist of maybe three trombones or five, it didn’t make any difference—he wanted to know how you sounded and how you sounded, and all that kind of thing.  If two bass players showed up, they were both on the job: he’d have two.  Some of the musicians might have complained, because they’d have to split the money more ways, but Sonny wanted to hear what each one of them could do: how it all sounded together.

As I said, he lived in this rickety old house, and his whole world was in that place.  It was a wooden frame building.  As far as we got, and anybody got, was the front room, and that was where he had his bed and where he rehearsed.  I think he took his meals in there.  We understand that he had a sister or somebody, but nobody ever saw anybody there in the house.  He would always be there, and he had these records stacked about five feet off the ground, these [78] records and all of those kinds of things, and he had his piano in there.  I remember that the hallway was about to fall in—you could step down in a hole or something if you weren’t careful—and the furniture was in shoddy shape.

Always it was very crowded.  I remember that whenever we had a singer, after he set the drums up, the singer would have to be out in the hallway, and he would call that person in whenever they would do a vocal number.  The saxophones would be up against the wall over here, and the trumpets would be somewhere back in there.  But you didn’t think about it.  There was never any talk about anything but the music.  He had a wire tape recorder, and he had a shortwave radio—I don’t know how he got it—and he could get music out of New York, like from the Savoy.  He would have all these wild players on there like Don Stovall or something, man.  They were playing bop before bop was even heard about!  He’d listen at night to that, and he’d play that back for you.  It was the craziest music, but he would say, “That man’s not crazy.  You just aren’t able to understand it yet.  He’s trying to tell you something, but you don’t know what to do.  He’s just trying to tell you he’s free—okay?  So listen at it.”  And if you listened long enough, you’d get it.

He would say he came from outer space—and, “I was born with x-ray ears; I can hear all these things you humans can’t hear yet.”

… For more, please check out our book, Doc.

*

Next, here’s a brief clip of Doc Adams at Spaceship Saturn’s tribute to Sun Ra at Birmingham’s Bottletree Cafe in 2013. Doc spoke briefly about his time with Sun Ra, then played the strangest solo set I ever heard him play. Finally he was joined onstage by SI Reasoning, LaDonna Smith, and Davey Williams, all seen here. Doc was utterly enchanted by the Bottletree that night.

*

Next, from 2014, my four-part series on Sun Ra’s Birmingham roots. “The Magic Citizen” was published in the local weekly Weld and is still available online at the links below.

Part One: Sun Ra in Birmingham

Part Two: Sonny Rising

Part Three: First Steps in Outer Space

Part Four: The Voyager Returns

This project developed out of my work with Doc Adams, and anticipates the book I’m working on now. One of the greatest thrills of writing this new book—which I swear is getting close to finished—is the chance to expand on this story and uncover important pieces of Sun Ra’s early years. So stay tuned.

*

From 2012 to 2014 I organized, with the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, an annual Sun Ra Celebration. The events were a mix of film, poetry, reminiscence, and live music. In 2013 we showed the great film, SUN RA: A JOYFUL NOISE, and I had the opportunity to interview the filmmaker, Robert Mugge, on my radio show, The Lost Child. Mugge gave a gracious, funny, and eye-opening interview, which I still remember very fondly. This episode of The Lost Child includes, besides our interview, a few short audio excerpts from the film, plus excerpts from Sun Ra’s 1988 show at Birmingham’s The Nick.

You can hear the episode here. (And find more of Robert Mugge’s work here.)

*

While I’m add it, I thought too that I’d dig up for today’s post some of the drawings, posters, and postcards I put together for those three events at the Jazz Hall of Fame.

So:

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Drawing, 2014

Sun Ra Celebration 1 copy
Postcard, 2012
Sun Ra Celebration 2
Postcard, 2012
919525_10151442353896868_1022378145_o
Poster, 2014
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Poster, 2014. Production photo still courtesy Robert Mugge (SUN RA: A JOYFUL NOISE)

P

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Poster, 2014

*

Finally, the following items may be of some interest to Sun Ra fans and followers:

+ In 1989, Sun Ra came back to the Magic City to play Birmingham’s first City Stages festival. While in town he also played a show at Southern Dance Works. You can download the audio of this festive performance here. I recommend it.

+  Backing up: as a teenager, Sonny Blount played in the Ethel Harper orchestra. Harper was a teacher at Birmingham’s Industrial High School; when she left Birmingham to pursue her own career in entertainment, Sonny Blount took over the band. Recently on this blog I sought to shed some light on Ethel Harper’s story, drawing from her papers at the Morristown, New Jersey, library, and other sources. You can read part one of that story here. 

+ And here’s a couple of advertisements from Sonny Blount’s Birmingham years, both from the mid-1940s:

Okay, that’s it for now. But also this: as I compile these links I’m happily and heartily reminded of the many friends, artists, scholars, fans, concert-goers, filmmakers, musicians, writers, bootleggers, and others who’ve contributed a great deal to my own ongoing understanding of Sun Ra, his music, his mythos, and his bio. Thanks to one and all.

See you around.

*

Outer space is a pleasant place
A place that’s really free
There’s no limit to the things that you can do
There’s no limit to the things that you can be
Your thought is real
And your life is worthwhile

— Sun Ra, “Space is the Place”

One thought on “Traveling the Spaceways: Writing, Radio, Research, & Art

  1. Also: tomorrow a bunch of my students will graduate from high school. On this blog tomorrow I’ll post some words for graduating seniors. But those lyrics from “Space is the Place” seem as appropriate a send-off as any.

    In fact–in the last week of May every year my life as a teacher coincides exactly with my annual deepest bout of Sun Ra research, writing, listening, and reflection. One reason “Space is the Place” resonates so much with me (I now realize) is that I’m always listening to it on a graduation week, and it’s always perfectly timed to the season. Thanks to this timing, the song is very much tied up in my mind with high school seniors and, if they want it, their infinite possibilities.

    More lyrics:

    Take your first step, take your first step
    Way out in space
    Walk on Jupiter, walk on Mars
    Walk on Neptune, Pluto too
    Take your first step
    In outer space

    Etc.

    Like

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