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The light still shines on Sun Ra

Library hosts expert, movies a century after the late jazz legend and provocateur's life.

April 04, 2014|By Kirk Silsbee

His birth certificate said Birmingham, Ala., but the man who called himself Sun Ra declared that he was from the planet Saturn. Miles Davis set the late 1950s standard for jazz couture with his Italian tailored suits, but Ra wore Africanized capes, tunics and cartoonish headgear. After the big band era ended, he retained a respected core of musicians in his orchestra for decades — an achievement only duplicated by Duke Ellington.

Though he operated on the fringes of the jazz world, Sun Ra (named for the Egyptian solar god) played his iconoclastic “space” music, and waited for his audience to catch up. With cacophonous collective improvisations and dissonant chords, the music always had solid underpinnings. One hundred years ago, pianist Herman ‘Sonny’ Blount began his odyssey, and the world has never been quite the same.

Pasadena’s Allendale Branch Library observes the Sun Ra centenary Saturday with films and a freewheeling talk by a Ra expert. “I was fortunate to have seen Sun Ra’s Arkestra five different times,” said library assistant Terry Cannon. “His band played the entire spectrum of African American music: from Fletcher Henderson’s big band swing to the most cutting-edge avant garde. And he had this unique visual aspect to performance — colorful, sparkling robes and psychedelic light shows — that was unique to jazz.”

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While commercial success beyond subsistence living eluded Ra for most of his life, he was an irresistible subject for independent filmmakers. Cannon will screen three Ra-themed movies: “Cry of Jazz” (1959), “The Magic Sun” (1968) and “Space is the Place” (1974).

The late composer Ed Bland (1926-2013) produced “Cry of Jazz,” the first feature film on Ra. In 1993 he spoke on the occasion of a Los Angeles screening of the movie. He remembered the informal philosophical talks Ra gave in Chicago’s Washington Park — mixing ancient Egyptian references, pseudo Africana, and outer space fantasies. “His space talk,” recalled Bland, “didn’t interest me in the least. But his music did; I could tell that he was a well-grounded musician with knowledge of historical techniques. I’m a composer and I know when a musician knows what he’s doing.”

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