Meeting The Sun Ra Arkestra – A Chapter from The Table

Chapter 10 – The outer space employment agency. Jazz

Jazz musicians in their solos frequently quote other musicians they have learned things from. I am riffing my way back to a place in time – to a table on a roof in NYC on a hot, late summer night in 1994. If I were John Coltrane, I might put some Bird on it. If I were Miles Davis, I might quote Dizzy.

Quoting other soloists is a tradition that aficionados of Jazz recognize. If I were John Gilmore, Sun Ra’s long-time saxophone player, the sax player that John Coltrane was reported to have said was the last sax player that he took time to study. I would just play. So, I have played my way to a point. Let’s go back to NYC! Let’s get in the pocket. Take it to the head! From the top, of a roof. The roof is on fire. We don’t need no water. And so on.

After drinking cokes and hanging out on a roof in the east village, the next day came and the sun came up and I left Christopher Street and walked back to the Gershwin hostel. The Sun Ra Arkestra was going to be playing two gigs in the month of June and I was going to both shows. I was receiving my crazy check money via western union from my mother, so this was going to be publicly funded activity. The first gig was at the Bottom Line and guitar virtuoso Stanley Jordan was playing with the Arkestra. I found some interesting information at this gig.

It surprised me that Mr. Jordan was playing with the Arkestra. Before the show, Marshall Allen, Sun Ra’s longtime wingman, was sitting out in the open, so I walked up and after a brief introduction, I asked him a qwarshtion. Why is Stanley playing with y’all? Marshall simply said that he was inspired. So, that’s all it takes to be a member of the mythical Sun Ra Arkestra? Inspiration? Well … sew a button on your shirt! I liked that answer. I also found out that:

Dancing in NYC’s Bottom Line is prohibited; except at the bar, in your little space. Space is the place and I was not going to be able to contain myself, so I danced. The Sun Ra Arkestra is a jazz ensemble that dresses up in space costumes and follows a mystic bandleader. Ra had recently passed away and John Gilmore was leading up the throng. I am a serious follower of Ra. I used to call him on the phone and ask him questions. My Sufi friend with the Teepee had his home number and I would call and ask Ra one question. Sunny would go on for hours.

“Hey Sunny, what does it take to be a good musician?” And so on. He would talk for a long time. I listened as if I was receiving a personal class about jazz, vibrational healing and human history – His Story is endless … Sun Ra and his band from outer space are featured in a movie called Make a Joyful Noise. In it, Ra recites a poem while standing at the base of a replica of an Egyptian statue.

History repeats itself.
His Story repeats itself.
I do not repeat myself.
My story is endless …
What’s your story?

Once upon a time, I love New York in June and I was going to go see The Sun Ra Arkestra in the meatpacking district. I took a cab across town and was let out in outer space. Or at least that is what is seemed to me. I am from Louisville, Kentucky, and not used to seeing prostitutes leaning into car windows selling their packages. Ladies with their neatly packaged tits hanging out while their big asses are struggling to contain themselves in the tight shorts thereof.

On my way to a bar called the Cooler, I walked past real gay biker bars with Harleys, all dressed up in their finest turquoise feathers and leathers. Me being the dude that always shows up early, I walked down to the river to place my hand into some water. That was all I wanted to do. I just wanted to hide for a minute and touch the river. Take a break from NYC. New York never sleeps and I needed a break from all of it. So, I walked down the street two blocks right into another crazy story.

There was a pier at the end of the street that went out into the Hudson river. As I walked down to greet the river, I noticed a little hut over to the other side of the pier. The hut was made from old mattresses, billboard wrappings and old drift wood. As I walked the concrete pier, I didn’t pay much attention to what might be going on inside of the lean-to looking structure. My bee line was the river that was going to be my connection to a natural world that NYC was lacking.

I had been under the pier for a while smoking one of my last smokes when a skinny old black dude yelled over the side for me to get my fucking ass off his pier. I climbed up the side of the concrete wall that provided me a bit of much-needed privacy, to a conversation with a very pissed off dude.

“What the fuck are you doing on my pier?!” he exclaimed.
I said, “Sir, I am sorry, I was just wanting to touch the river.”
He said, “Do you know where the fuck you are?”
I said, “yes sir, I am in NYC, getting ready to go see the Sun Ra Arkestra up the street. I was early and I just wanted to see the river before the show.”
“The Sun Ra Arkestra? Those niggers are still around?” he said.
“Yes sir, and I am going up the street soon, you outta come up there and check out the show.”
Man says, “Motherfucker, I asked you, do you know where you are?” asking in a not so pissed off voice, so I said, “Look man, I am really sorry and I really don’t know what you mean.”

He then tells me that this was his pier and that little hut on the other side of the walkway was where business men come to fuck his transvestites. I apologized profusely and he then relented his freak out and decided to join me. While walking to the show, I mentioned that I needed to get some smokes. We walked over to a gas station and I asked for the cheapest non-filters that they had. He called the person behind the counter by his first name and told him that he has it and to give me the camel straights. After this purchase, we were on our way up the hill to see the Arkestra.

The Cooler really was a meat cooler back when the meatpacking district was packing meat. I walked in the front door with the transvestite salesman or I guess representative and he walked over to a booth and sat down with some people he seemed to know. I didn’t talk to him again the entire night. I did walk up to the bar and sat down with John Gilmore. I was early by about two hours and the Arkestra was setting up the stage.

Mr. Gilmore was just hanging out drinking a drink and I sat down and introduced myself. The Arkestra is like that. Very approachable. Our conversation was easy. I asked him about the book list that Ra assigned to his Berkeley students back in the day. I asked John if he had ever assigned the Arkestra books to read. He said yes and I asked him if he had ever heard of a book that I had been reading before I left to go to the Rant NYC beat celebration. I asked him about a book called The Power of Sound by a Sufi named Hazrat Inayat Khan. He mentioned that he had read parts of it years ago, but that he was not reading much now.

We talked for a bit, mostly about what it was like to play for Ra. I could tell that Mr. Gilmore was tired. He soon would leave the planet and Marshall Allen would take the captain’s seat of the Arkestra. I can’t really remember all we talked about. We did talk about Baba Olutunji a bit. Olatunji was the reason I had stayed behind after all the Louisville people went home after we “Ate the Beats.” Eat the Beats was the journey further, the title of what Ron Whitehead had organized. RANT eats NYC and the Beats. INSOMNIACATHON! 48 hours of nonstop poetry and music.

The Cooler and the Bottom Line show converged with Sun Ra’s 80-year birth celebration. WKCR, Columbia college radio had already played three days straight of RA on the radio. I had no idea that any of this Ra stuff was going on when I left Kentucky with my percussion ensemble to perform and then host the open stages. I was hanging around for a month because we were all supposed to meet again a month later at a place called the Omega Institute for Holistic healing. The rest of our group, PRANA, was to attend a weeklong class of African drumming by Baba. The same Babatunde Olatunji that Sun Ra knew when he moved his Arkestra to NYC in the 60’s. Baba hired Sun Ra’s musicians and they knew each other well.

Later in life – I found out that the Omega Institute was founded by a relative of Hazrat Inayat Khan. The Sufi writer who I had been reading. The book that John Gilmore had once read, that I was then reading, that was given to me by the dude who turned me onto Ra. The guy who had the teepee where I had made the final decision to go to the crazy bin. Things get connected when you are dropped off by a New York taxi driver named Mohammed, in outer space, NYC.


 

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