“Are you sure it’s Sun Ra?”
The man who came to the front door of Haverford College’s Roberts Hall on a January night in 1980 was dressed in a blue dashiki and leather aviator’s cap.
But Bill Lupoletti, then a 20-year-old junior, was still dubious. Students at the Main Line school had booked the artist also known as Herman Poole “Sonny” Blount, the Afrofuturist bandleader and pianist who began calling himself Sun Ra after taking a “trans-molecular” trip to Saturn. Two weeks before his scheduled Saturday night show with Philadelphia vibraphonist Walt Dickerson, though, Ra had canceled.
Yet, there he was, ready to shine.
Four decades later, the recording that nearly wasn’t made — Haverford College 1980, Solo Piano, often bootlegged and long lusted after by Ra enthusiasts — was finally commercially released for the first time in December.
Haverford College is rare Ra: a beautifully understated, almost mystical-sounding performance that includes a gentle melding of the iconoclastic composer’s “Space Is The Place” with Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow.”
It’s an uncharacteristically calming recording by the brazen musical explorer known for experimenting with the big band Arkestra, with whom he shared a Germantown rowhouse known as the “Pharaoh’s Den” starting in the late 1960s.
Since Ra’s death in 1993, the Arkestra has carried on under the able leadership of saxophonist Marshall Allen, now 95 and still living in the Morton Street house that Ra bought from Allen’s father for $1 in 1968. Their latest local gig is scheduled for Friday at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Haverford College 1980 is a unique document in the Ra oeuvre, not only because it finds the bandleader playing solo, but also because his instrument is a Fender Rhodes electric piano.
Irwin Chusid, administrator of the composer’s capacious catalog for Sun Ra LLC (the jazzman’s heirs), has overseen the release of more than 60 albums — all available to either buy or stream at the online music store Bandcamp — since the centenary of Ra’s birth in 2014. As far he knows, it’s the only solo recording of Ra playing a Fender Rhodes.
The author of Songs In the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music, Chusid is a self-described “evangelist” for Ra, whom he considers “one of the great musical artists of the 20th century.”
In his notes for the Haverford release, Chusid wrote, “Ra’s choice here is the celeste-like Fender Rhodes electric piano, which has a distinct sound (instantly recognizable in the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm”). There are few pyrotechnics in the performance, and much restraint. Ra sounds relaxed and contemplative. It’s Soothing Sounds for Saturnians.”
What Chusid didn’t realize was that Ra had no choice of what instrument to play that night.
Lupoletti, now a 60-year-old semiretired financial adviser who hosts a weekly world music radio show in Richmond, Va., helped launch Haverford’s alt-concert series after a concert during his freshman year proved unpopular.
“Most of the people hated it” and walked out, he recalls. The name of that band? Talking Heads. The general distaste for the then little-known band led to the cancellation of the next punky act scheduled to play Haverford: a group of impudent British upstarts calling themselves Elvis Costello & the Attractions.
Rather than try to please everybody, Lupoletti and his jazz-loving friends decided to put on shows that interested them.
On that January weekend, Anthony Braxton and Leroy Jenkins were booked for Friday, and Dickerson for Saturday. Dickerson suggested bringing along his friend Sun Ra — the duo had recorded a 1978 album together called Visions. Lupoletti and his pals were so thrilled, they planned to pay the duo $800 out of their $3,000 budget for the semester.
But two weeks before the show, Ra canceled — the reason being, Lupoletti presumed, that the Arkestra had a gig later that night. A replacement was found in Philadelphia jazz bassist Jymie Merritt. But on the morning of the concert, the student organizers received word that Merritt’s father had died, and he canceled, too.
“[Stuff] happens,” Lupoletti thought, resigned to putting on a Walt Dickerson solo show. “That’s life.”
When Ra showed up at Roberts Hall, “It was a complete surprise,” Lupoletti recalls.
“I guess he felt guilty. He probably felt bad for Walt, his old friend. So maybe he showed up to try to salvage something out of the situation. Which is awfully nice. ... The problem was, we didn’t have a piano for him to play.”
The plan had been for Ra to play a new Bosendorfer grand piano recently donated to the school. But when he canceled, the organizers didn’t bother to have it tuned or moved onstage.
With no professional piano movers, the panicked word went out “by bush telegraph” to the bi-college community of Haverford and sister school Bryn Mawr: “Does anybody have a piano that Sun Ra can play?”
Someone did. Tim James, a student who lived next door in Barclay Hall, had a Fender Rhodes.
Ra got acquainted with the instrument backstage. “I didn’t have a meaningful conversation with him,” says Lupoletti. “What did we have in common? I was a 20-year-old kid. And he was ... Sun Ra!”
Dickerson went on first. After an intermission, the curtains opened. Ra, the interplanetary explorer who had traveled the spaceways to arrive on the Main Line, was revealed.
Chusid had known about the Haverford show for years but never heard it until John Szwed, the Yale jazz historian and author of the 1997 bio Space Is The Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, sent him a copy of it on CD-R last year.
Chusid had some sonic cleanup to do. “The audience was pretty quiet during the performance, except for this one [person] who kept coughing. I thought, ‘Why didn’t that guy leave the hall?’ ”
With 98% of the coughing removed, Chusid posted Haverford 1980 on the Sun Ra Bandcamp page (it’s also available on Spotify and other streaming services). The reaction was immediate. Rolling Stone wrote about it, and it’s been far and away the most popular among the 102 Ra albums currently posted on the page.
A physical release hadn’t been planned. But now, the album — featuring six Ra tracks, including his own “Love in Outer Space” and George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue,” as well as a Dickerson vibes performance with Ra sitting in — has taken on a life of its own.
CD and LP versions are in the works on the Modern Harmonic label, which released June Tyson: Saturnian Queen of the Sun Ra Arkestra last year.
Chusid counts Haverford 1980 among his favorite Ra releases. Those include 1979’s God Is More Than Love Can Ever Be and The Magic City, the 1965 album credited to Sun Ra & His Solar Orchestra that he describes as “ferocious” but “not an entry point. It’s difficult listening.”
When he first encountered Haverford 1980, by contrast, Chusid thought, “Wow, this is magical. Sun Ra playing a Rhodes? I’ve never heard this before. It’s really gentle. It’s not him pounding on a keyboard — which is part of his style, to play this beautiful passage, you know, to play ‘Rhapsody In Blue’ and start pounding on a keyboard. But this isn’t that at all. This is something almost meditative. I thought, ‘This is really special.’ ”