Sun Ra in Sin City

Source: Lapham’s Quarterly.

he last time I spoke with Sun Ra, I asked him for his take on the enduring legacy of the Great American Songbook. It was 1993. Ra had returned to Birmingham, Alabama, where he’d been born nearly eighty years before. He would die there, from complications associated with pneumonia, a few weeks later. The pianist, composer, and bandleader’s first published composition, “Alone with Just a Memory of You,” written in 1936 together with Henry McCellons, conveyed a tender, awkward Tin Pan Alley tone that betrayed his love of sentimental songcraft. This passion is driven home repeatedly in a survey of Ra’s magnificently gigantic discography. He employed anachronistic singers like Clyde Williams and Hattie Randolph. He played familiar compositions with double-entendre titles especially meaningful to him, such as “East of the Sun,” “Keep Your Sunny Side Up,” “I Dream Too Much,” “Out of Nowhere,” “This Is Always,” “Second Star to the Right,” and “Over the Rainbow.” Never mind that Ra is known as one of the most adventurous and innovative figures in the history of the twentieth century. That he brought synthesizers to jazz. That his costumes and light shows paved the way for psychedelic rock. That he wrote apocalyptic and deeply philosophical poetry. That he identified as an extraterrestrial. That outer space and the unknown featured as prominently as ancient Egypt in his unique proto-Afrofuturist weltanschauung, which often manifested as a circus-like performance troupe that he called the Arkestra.

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