Features I by I 22.05.14

100 Years of Sun Ra: digging deep with Peter Dennett, the space-jazz supremo’s chief archaeologist

Sun Ra Mr Beatnick Peter Dennett interview

Peter Dennett runs Artyard Records, a specialist Sun Ra reissue label.

It’s fair to say that Peter has dedicated every waking minute of his life on this planet to Sun Ra’s music, ever since he first stumbled upon some colourful looking sleeves in a Wandsworth record shop as a young man. One of the world’s foremost experts on the Arkestra, Peter is responsible for reissuing Sun Ra white elephants like the Sleeping Beauty and Disco 3000 albums, and has a number of exciting projects lined up for 2014, Ra’s centennial birth year, including the definitive reference guide to Sun Ra’s work, a 45 reissue series, and a collab compilation with Strut Records amongst others.

Here’s Peter’s thoughts on the meaning of today in the Ra omniverse, and some anecdotes from his mystical quest to track down and rerelease some of the most obscure tapes on this planet. You can keep an eye on his projects over here.

It’s Sun Ra’s 100th birthday today but some people might say, as an alien, he would consider birthdays to be the stuff of earth people – not something he would be bothered about celebrating.

Well, for someone who considered themselves to be not human, birthdays don’t really apply. Essentially he “arrived”, didn’t he, from Saturn. To be honest, I think he still celebrated his birthday. Difficult really – was he from this world or somewhere else? Was he alien? Was he human? Who knows. I’ve got to say, there’s a lot of people who do truly believe he came from somewhere else, we live in a world where people believe all sorts of things. I didn’t know the man, my best suggestion would be to ask Marshall Allen, he’s going to be in London soon, for the Barbican show, so you can ask him then.

I’m sure you and I will both be raising a glass in his honour tonight.

It’s definitely a special day, 100 years of Sun Ra! He was a prolific composer, bandleader, philosopher, poet – you name it. He definitely was a genius, it’s definitely a point on the calendar to celebrate. Someone like Sun Ra doesn’t come back around twice. The point with Mr Ra, or Mr Mystery as he was also known, he was way ahead of his time. His electronic jazz crossover stuff from the ’70s, his earlier, experimental avant garde stuff… Someone once pointed out that the early avant-gardists in the ’60s in America thought they were inventing something new, and when they finally got to those forms of music, they discovered that Sun Ra had already been there long ago.

I sometimes wonder what the exact moment the character of “Sun Ra” – versus his human form, Herman Blount, came into being, what sparked that idea.

I think it’s a hard one to say, I mean he was so immensely gifted, everything around him was an idea – he could have walked down to the corner shop, bought a toy, and then that toy becomes part of a song, inspires an idea. Where does true inspiration come from?

sunra-wakeupangels1Thanks to you, we can explore so many of Ra’s long forgotten ideas – none of us would have heard a record like Sleeping Beauty for example, if it hadn’t been for the hours of time and effort you spent tracking down the masters, and the rights.

Well that’s the job isn’t it – restoration and preservation – as long as it’s beneficial to all the people involved and the music gets heard, job done. Art Yard is 10 years old this year. I started off doing everything on my own, and to a certain extent I still do. Earlier this year I released a 10”, ‘Space Aura’, filled with early 1960s stuff. To find previously unreleased tapes, and sort them out, and for the tapes to be in good quality, is really very difficult these days. There are just so many bootlegs, so many anonymous releases – even a lot of the very well known releases are bootlegs.There’s the Sun Ra estate, and they are trying to sort all this stuff out, but it’s still a mess.

You’ve got to understand, there are so many private recordings – Sun Ra was recording all the time, so a lot of these recordings belong to the engineers who recorded them, or if they have passed away, they belong to their families. But to find these tapes, that haven’t been discovered before – it’s like gold dust, extremely difficult. Especially if you’re competing against all these other record companies that have been reissuing stuff, a small company like mine doesn’t really stand much of a chance.

I’ve been very fortunate that I moved on all this work 10 years ago – since then there have been so many things going on – recently I looked on iTunes, and there were 5 or 6 versions of Super-Sonic Jazz put up there by different record companies, and they’ve all released them? That doesn’t make sense. Marie Holsten, Sun Ra’s niece, died six or seven years ago – next of kin and line of succession is really important. This is the problem – it’s all well and good, record companies trying to rebuild the legal case for reissuing this music, because one of Sun Ra’s missions was to get his music out there into the world. But it’s not just about exploitation; it’s about preservation and protection, that’s what record companies are also supposed to do. From that point of view, Ra’s catalogue is still a mess.

Is that because of the size of the Arkestra, and the number of musicians involved – they were a travelling troupe of sorts, a kind of circus – it seems doubtful that much paperwork was signed over the years. 

True – but I collaborate with Marshall Allen, who leads the Arkestra now that Ra has passed. Some of these companies are not interested in the musicians and working with them, or looking after their welfare. There are sharks in the water, basically. The 21 new album releases on iTunes are official reissues administered by the Estate, those and all other official reissues should say “Sun Ra LLC” on them, which means the rights have being properly administered, so look out for that when you’re tracking down the reissues.

How did you first get in touch with Marshall?

I just called him up! I said, listen this is what I want to do – I want to release Sun Ra records. And he said, well okay! Show us what you can do. That was the first step, then I had to track down the masters.

Perhaps we should go further back still – how did you get into Ra’s music in the first place?

I used to buy Sun Ra’s records, the original Saturn releases, for £3.99, in London, when I was a kid. They were sent over in boxes, with hand-drawn record covers, to the RER record shop on Wandsworth road. I used to wander down there when I was 16 or 17 and buy those records – that was 30 years ago.

At that time, it wasn’t a big deal to buy a Sun Ra record, they were being pressed, with hand-drawn covers, double album for a fiver! I used to record Space Is The Place onto cassette tapes and give them to people, cause I thought it was so great.  The thing is, in recent years, Sun Ra’s music became really hip, and there were so many people and so many bands that aligned themselves to his music, it grew into a huge cult following. Of course there was huge cult following for his music in Chicago, across the states, in the 60s and 70s. But over here, it didn’t catch on ’til the ’80s and ’90s. I used to go to record shops and ask for his records, and no one had even heard of him! So in that sense, his music has been on a long journey.

I’m always fascinated by the contradictions in his work, the complexity of his ideas – it’s hard to pin down his belief system and how it worked, or what it meant – or what he intended it to mean.

He was a paradox, he was a poet, a metaphysical poet. He would draw parallels and create contradictions, there’s just so much going on in his prose that it’s entirely up to the individual, how to interpret it. There’s no one set way, no one formula, no single fixed interpretation – and that’s part of the magic of poetry.

His discography is also contradictory – for every ear-splitting, noisy record, there is a quieter, softer and more reflective release – it’s not all “free jazz” at all.

He literally did everything – he was performing his whole life, and it’s fortunate that much of that was recorded and released on record. The Arkestra was a troupe, and still is – their mission is to spread his message. But to define it and pin it down, is simply impossible, and this is why they are so historic. It’s wonderful that his music has come to the forefront again, and it’s finally accessible, on iTunes, on CD, on vinyl or whatever format – that is the job, to get this music out there again. There’s releases which I have put out which have gone unnoticed – perhaps because the music is inaccessible, or that particular gig had a lot of percussion involved, or whatever factor. To me these are important historical documents, and the important thing is a lot of this work has to be done now, before the tapes get lost, they deteriorate, and the music’s gone forever.

What was the first unreleased track that you heard that blew your mind? 

‘Dance Of The Cosmo Aliens’, from Disco 3000. It just completely blew me away, because essentially at the core it’s a cover version of ‘Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child’ – well, cover version is the wrong word, but there’s that theme in there somewhere, it sounds a bit like it in places. Personally, my experience of being involved with Sun Ra’s music, it’s often like being on a mystical journey, based on intuition, and trying to do the right thing – I don’t have a business plan.

When I was young I was in touch with Alton Abraham who ran Ra’s label, Saturn records. I got in touch and he offered me some work in Chicago, I was doing some research for him, and that gave me my first leads as to whose who, and whose not, as it were, in Sun Ra’s world, and intuitively I followed those leads, and always seemed to do the right thing at the right time. Micheal Anderson, who is a researcher in the states, who also works for WFMU radio, he’s been a huge help. Marshall Allen is probably one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. John Gilmore, when I first got in touch, was extremely supportive as well, it was him that gave me Alton’s number. The first record I reissued was that one, Disco 3000 – I made loads of mistakes, I’m completely dyslexic but I still did everything myself, and people seemed to like the record – it gave me a chance to build on that.

Tell me how the reissue of Salah Regab came about. 

Well Salah was involved with Sun Ra, in Cairo, Heliopolis. Sun Ra did these concerts there, in the Ballon theatre. Salah was very inspired by those concerts, and set up his own band, the Cairo Jazz Band, and eventually, further down the line, Salah was invited to go on a world tour with Sun Ra, to be their drummer, and then Sun Ra began performing some of Salah’s compositions.

The way I found out about this, was that I found a record in London, around 8 or 9 years ago, pressed by the ministry of culture in Cairo, all the information on the record was in Arabic. There must have been about a hundred copies pressed – but the people I was with couldn’t read Arabic, so no one knew who the record was by, but I recognised the compositions. So I got in touch with Salah, and said “look, you made this record 40 years ago” and he told me that it didn’t exist! So I took photographs of it, sent the photos to Cairo, called him up and said,  “now do you believe me?” [laughs]. So of course he remembered making it. I ended up flying to Cairo 3 times, did lots of work with him, released his record, sorted out his publishing rights, and all the associated rights with the recordings ect, and the record did really, well. He died about 4 years after it was released, and when he passed he left me all his rights, so I still represent his family in Cairo, his daughters, looking after his music for them. I was so lucky that I got in touch with him, found the record – everything happens for a reason. Had I not done all that restoration work and tracked him down, it never would have happened. No one would have heard that music.

That record was something of a holy grail in the Ra catalogue, and you’ve also managed to unearth another huge piece which is set for release soon, right?

Yes! Recently I’ve signed some contracts with Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts. His father, Pat Patrick, was one of the main players with Sun Ra, and also worked with John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. He wrote music with Mongo Santamaria, the song ‘Yeh, Yeh!’” is a famous example. There is a record that he wrote that came out on El Saturn around 1980, that is now going on Ebay for 2500 dollars, which is just crazy.

So anyway I’ve set this thing up with the estate of Pat Patrick, and that record will come out properly later this year. It’s already been bootlegged, a year and a half ago, by someone in Europe I think, they were selling the bootlegs for between 170 pounds and 250 pounds – they must have made tens of thousands just by selling 100 records or so. So this is the thing, it’s about getting that music back out there into the world, doing it the proper way – I’m looking forward to putting that out properly.

I’m also about to publish a book, called Omniverse, about Sun Ra, with contributions from Amiri Baraka, Robert Campbell, Chris Cutler, Salah Ragab with wonderful photographs from Val Wilmer, and many unpublished photos of Sun Ra’s visit to Cairo in ’71 by Hartmut Geerken. He published Omniverse for the first time 20 years ago, as a paperback, loads of text from writers, philosophers and Sun Ra researchers. This year I’m going to publish the second edition of that book as a huge hardback, a revised and expanded version, definitely something I’ve never done before! Chris Trent, who compiled Sun Ra’s early recordings with Robert Campbell, has done an fully updated discography – this will be a reference / art book, it’s going to be huge, and a lot of work has been involved to say the least.

How many releases are there in the catalogue in total?

Definitely in the hundreds. Reissues, there’s so many we’d have to discount them from that figure. On vinyl, original releases? I don’t know, maybe 250. So many master tapes have surfaced in the last ten years, there must be another hundred releases there at least.

You’re also working on a project with Strut Records, who put together that excellent Dance Mania compilation recently.

Yes, I’m working with Strut on a compilation that’s going to come out later this year, with an unreleased track from the Art Yard archive on it called ‘Trying To Put The Blame On Me’. As far as I’m aware that composition has never been released before . I was also in Philadelphia last year, and filmed a series of interviews with Marshall Allen, Danny Ray Thompson, Knoel Scott and Michael Rayt. That will be part of a double album later this year. there will also be a limited edition 45 series, the first one is ‘Salah Ragab’s Tribute To Sun Ra’ on 7”, 750 copies only on heavy weight vinyl. I hope to have the Art Yard website up and running properly, soon.

I’d love someone to do a proper reissue of the John Cage and Sun Ra concert where they took turns to perform.

I agree, someone does need to sort that one out. It was originally released by Meltdown, which wasn’t a Ra affiliated label.

sun ra disco 3000 sleeveRa was very fond of mistakes and the value of them wasn’t he – do you feel like happy accidents and mistakes are a big part of the process?

As Ra put it himself, “You made a mistake, you did something wrong. Now make another mistake, and do something right”. And that is exactly it, that’s the process. If you make a mistake, you go back and make corrections. I have that problem with the LPs all the time – you get the line up wrong or whatever. The bottom line with that is if you make mistakes, that’s fine, as long as you go back and correct them. If you can!

Sun Ra is a popular choice for samplists – everyone from Photek to Ras G, from Dilla to Digable Planets have had a slice of the Arkestra over the years. How do you feel about that?

I think it’s really important! I’ve licensed things, including Salah Regab’s stuff, to people who want to celebrate the music in their own way. Now I may not always like what someone’s done with it – but that absolutely doesn’t mean that what they’ve done is invalid. It puts all this music in a contemporary frame, and brings their music to a fresh audience – if that introduces someone to Sun Ra then that’s a good thing, because hopefully it will lead people down that path where they feel inspired – not just inspired, but they get something from the music that excites them – it’s like good food. You know, avant-garde jazz isn’t for everyone – to be honest, it tends to be the tracks with more of a groove, like ‘Lanquidity’  or  ‘Door of The Cosmos’, that most people are into. Incidentally, there is actually another forgotten version of ‘Lanquidity’, but currently Philly Jazz don’t want it to be re-released.

Its funny how widely known and yet unknown some of the Sun Ra references are in popular music – I still meet people that don’t realize ‘Shadows Of Tomorrow’ by Madvillain is based around a Sun Ra poem.

Well, Sun Ra recently got a writing credit on a song by Lady Gaga! There are so many people who take influence from his music, and rightly so, from The Heliocentrics, to Jerry Dammers and The Spatial AKA Orchestra, they all have their own interpretations, and I think that’s really important – this music is there to celebrate for everyone. How do we learn? We learn by listening, whether it’s learning to talk, or speaking a language, or learning to play music musicians need to learn how to communicate their ideas and the best way is learning from a master.

Meeting with all these Ra experts, over the years, you must have heard some incredible anecdotes – which one is your favourite story?

Well I was told once that Sun Ra was doing a gig here in Germany, doing a concert and they couldn’t find him anywhere, so they sent out a search party to find this “Mr Ra”, and eventually they found him in the middle of a forest, talking to a tree! [laughs] Maybe we should leave this out?

Nah we’re definitely not leaving that out, it’s anecdotal gold from a distant planet. And finally, favourite unreleased Sun Ra record of all time, and you can’t cheat and pick any you’ve reissued. 

I once had a dream that I was sitting with John Gilmore, and we were listening to a 10” inch version of Disco 3000 – it was a completely different version of the Milan recording, and the stylus was playing from the inside out, like some of the first records pressed 100 years ago! That’s definitely my favourite unreleased Sun Ra record. (laughs).


Also check Mr. Beatnick’s guide to The Essential Sun Ra, and his two-hour radio tribute to the big man.



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