Tag Archives: Sun Ra

Is Jazz Black Music?

On June 7, 1979, President Jimmy Carter recognized June as Black Music Month. A resolution recognizing the importance of African American music was introduced by Congressman Chaka Fattah in 2000. Passed unanimously by the House of Representatives, House Resolution 509 proclaimed:

Whereas African-American genres of music such as gospel, blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, rap, and hip-hop have their roots in the African-American experience.

Incredibly, some question whether jazz is black music. That was the subject of a panel discussion at Lincoln Center a few years ago. Jazz critic Nat Hentoff wrote:

We wouldn’t have been at Lincoln Center for that discussion had it not been for black field hollers, ring games, call and response church music and the blues. So it’s indisputable that jazz began as black music.

That 2008 discussion wasn’t the first time the roots of jazz were questioned. A 1959 documentary, Cry of Jazz sparked controversy when one of the characters asserted that “jazz is merely the Negro’s cry of joy and suffering.” The character, Alex, explained that “the Negro was the only one with the necessary musical and human history to create jazz.”

Cry of Jazz - Alex

In 2010, Cry of Jazz was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. The films selected are considered “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant, to be preserved for all time. These films are not selected as the ‘best’ American films of all time, but rather as works of enduring significance to American culture.”

Black culture matters.

Sun Ra Arkestra House

The three-story rowhouse in Germantown has been home to the Arkestra since 1969. Sun Ra Arkestra Director Marshall Allen still lives and plays here.

Sun Ra Arkestra House

Today the house is a living museum, full of paintings, sheet music and concert posters, dedicated to keeping the spirit of Sun Ra alive.

Sun Ra House Interior

Memories from jazz educator and musician Paul Combs:

One thing about having Sun Ra as a neighbor was the possibility of running into him in everyday situations, like shopping at the supermarket. One day a friend of mine and I did just this. Sun Ra and John Gilmore, the great tenor saxophonist and Ra’s right-hand man, were taking care of the shopping for their household (many of the Arkestra members lived in a big house together with their leader). I have always had the impression that life was one big cosmic game for these folks, one that involved serious dedication and a deep sense of humor.

Both musicians were wearing robes, although less elaborate ones than they would wear on stage. Gilmore had a small, brimless North African cap on, and Ra a small turban. Gilmore pushed the cart, and Ra followed behind directing him to the various things they needed. My friend and I followed them at a respectful distance. Finally they got to the meat counter. This was a small neighborhood supermarket and it was customary to have a butcher on duty behind the counter in those days. As they parked themselves in front of the counter Sun Ra said, “John, tell the butcher that Sun Ra would like five pounds of hamburger,” and, although the butcher could hear Ra at least as well as we could, Gilmore relayed the request. The butcher served up the meat with a straight face, as if he were either in on the play or it was a normal scene to him.

I may be wrong, but I have always had the feeling that once the two of them got home they sat down and had a good laugh. My friend and I sure did, and we wished we had thought of this little piece of theater ourselves.

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Sun Ra Mural

Memories from jazz educator and musician Paul Combs:

I had a couple of encounters with Sun Ra, who was a neighbor of mine, that I would like to share with you before finishing this memoir. I first met Sun Ra during an interview at WHUY-FM, where I was the music producer/announcer. A colleague of mine, Tom Lopez, was conducting the interview, but I got to sit in on it.

Now it is well documented that Herman Blount was born in Chicago, but when he, as Sun Ra, looked me in the eye and told me he was from Saturn, I could not question it. The man had such a presence; I knew that he knew that I knew it was a fantasy, and yet in his company there was also an undeniable truth to the fantasy.

A couple of years later I had the honor to precede him and the Arkestra in a concert. This was part of a series of concerts that a group of us musicians and artists used to organize on Sundays, in a big park in the middle of the Germantown district, where we all lived. On this particular Sunday the sky was full of menacing clouds. Just as we finished performing, a fine mist began and threatened to become rain. We all worried that Ra and company would have to cancel their performance. The sound crew covered all the equipment and disconnected the power. This was discussed with the Arkestra members who were beginning to assemble at the stage, but they said it would be OK, and proceeded to get ready for their set. Just as their preparations were almost complete a car drove up and Sun Ra stepped out. The rain and mist stopped. They played, sang and danced for the next two hours without interruption from the weather, and it was magnificent. When they finished Ra got back in the car and the mist and light rain resumed. Maybe it was a coincidence, maybe it wasn’t.