Essaying wide grins, Sun Ra Arkestra’s double-bass player Tyler Mitchell and trumpeter Cecil Brooks catch me earwigging on their conversation.
“You know, sometimes the more you learn to play, the less you know how to play,” Mitchell says, by way of introduction, passing me a joint. “Some of the shit I’ve been playing for 30 years in the Arkestra, I used to play best at the start when I didn’t know.”
“And the thing is, when you don’t know, neither does anyone else,” replies Brooks, and they both break into laughter.
We’re standing outside the tiny, packed hotbox of London’s Cafe Oto during the interval following a two hour set of the most swinging and unhinged jazz you’ll be lucky enough to hear here on Earth. Bedecked in cosmic robes and Ottoman-style sequined hats – the garments of the space age – Sun Ra Arkestra are back in town playing their first show of a three-night residency, a show that winds up at 1am on a school night and leaves the crowd singing and dancing long after they have left the room.
The following day, I sit across from their director, 91-year-old Marshall Allen, a student of the natural jazz pioneer Sun Ra and the inheritor of his Arkestra, who echoes their words.
“I play what I don’t know,” he explains. “I play the way life is.”
“Say you hit relative minor instead of the 7th or 9th you’re supposed to play, people in the realm of the square will say ‘That’s not right!’” he says, leaning in close over our little table. “No! We present the vibrations of the day, which are always changing. I am not in the square, I’m in the…,” he makes a spiral with his index finger.
“This is a show band. You have to dance, you have to sing, you have to be a comedian. You can’t just sit still like traditional musicians. Imagination is a magic carpet – you can go to distant lands but, like Ra said, you’ve got to create. You’ve got to play with intuition and creativity and that means playing outside of the square.”
The Arkestra came out of the 60-year legacy of natural jazz and psychic philosophy of Sun Ra, a self-declared angelic deity who fused early 20th century black consciousness with the myths and dreams of the ancient Egyptians. In 1945, after a stint in jail as a conscientious objector to the WWII draft, Sun Ra made the trip north from his home of Birmingham, Alabama, the most segregated city in America, to Chicago.
He got his break playing jazz standards in the orchestra of his hero Fletcher Henderson before forming the Sun Ra Arkestra In the late 1950s. By the 1960s, Ra was in New York with his principals John Gilmore and Marshall Allen, playing free jazz and post-bop performances. It was there that he gained the reputation as the fastest mind in jazz and attracted a retinue of talented trained and untrained black musicians into his orbit.
Ra held that African history was just white mythology and that the Greco-Roman-Judeo-Christian foundations of the Western world were in fact stolen from ancient Egypt. He presented himself as a dream of the future of these ancient Africans, creating an alternative to the white myths that had dispossessed black people and appropriated their history.
“The planet presses you into a square and all of outside you know nothing of! Stay out of the square! Where can you go if you’re in a box?”
His philosophy is best revealed in his 1972 film, Space is the Place, when he talks with a group of black teenage girls:
Ra: How do you know I’m real?
Ra: “I’m not real, I’m just like you. You don’t exist in this society. If you did, your people wouldn’t be seeking equal rights. You’re not real. If you were, you’d have some status among the nations of the world. I do not come to you as a reality, I come to you as a myth because that’s what black people are: myths. I come from a dream that the black man dreamed long ago. I’m actually a presence sent to you from your ancestors.”
The British-Ghanaian writer and theorist Kodwo Eshun says that Sun Ra’s assertions of extra-terrestrial divinity serve as a “hyperbolic trope to explore the historical terms, the everyday implications of forcibly imposed dislocation, and the constitution of Black Atlantic subjectivities”.
“Sun Ra breaks violently with Christian redemption, with [gospel, soul and R&B’s} aspirational deliverance, in favour of a posthuman godhead,” he writes in his compendium of musical history More Brilliant than the Sun. “Ra is disgusted with the human. He desires to be alien, by emphasising Egypt over Israel, the alien over the human, the future over the past.”
It is this legacy that Marshall Allen continues to this day and is passing on to his younger generation of jazz players under his direction, such as virtuoso saxophonist Knoel Scott and trombonist Dave Davis, whose good looks and lose style recall the teenage Laurence Fishburne water-skiing down the Mekong in in Apocalypse Now.
Allen has clearly inherited Sun Ra’s streak for discipline, issuing snap orders on stage to the brass and rhythm sections. At one point Sun Ra’s voice came through the sound system from beyond the grave as if to assist. “The impossible attracts me because everything possible has been done and the world didn’t change,” he says. “Space music is the key to understanding the meaning of the impossible.”
“You couldn’t pin Sun Ra down,” says Allen. “Because he’d turn right around, take what you learned to be true and strip it.”
“I don’t miss him as I’m playing his music. What I need is the spirit of him playing in the band. He’s still here. Don’t cry and weep over him, because he’s not gone.”
I agree not to and bid him good luck and Allen shouts after me, almost tauntingly: “The planet presses you into a square and all of outside you know nothing of! Stay out of the square! Where can you go if you’re in a box?”