Herman "Sonny" Blount (1914-1993), the Afro-futurist jazz composer and bandleader who renamed himself Sun Ra after visiting Saturn in an interplanetary vision, would have turned 100 this year.
To celebrate the centennial, Strut Records has released Marshall Allen Presents Sun Ra and His Arkestra: In the Orbit of Ra ( nolead begins ***1/2 nolead ends ). This double-CD collection culls gems from a sprawling catalogue that takes in big-band swing, electronic noise, stride piano, and otherworldly doo-wop in one of the most astonishing oeuvres in 20th-century music.
The songs were selected by Allen, the nonagenarian avant-garde reed man who plays alto sax, flute, oboe, and an electronic instrument called an EVI. He has directed the Arkestra since 1995. And he still lives at the "Pharaoh's Den," the house on Morton Street in Germantown that his father sold to Ra for $1 in 1968. It's been band headquarters ever since.
Smoking cigarettes on the porch and sitting in the kitchen dressed in a resplendent red-and-gold vest, Allen talked about his life in music and with the Arkestra, who are in the midst of a European tour and will wind up a busy 2014 with a date at Nublu in New York on Dec. 6.
Q: You're 90 years old, you lead an experimental big band that tours the world, and you're standing here smoking American Spirits. What's your secret?
A: I just smoke a little. I got little aches and pains. When I went on that tour this year, I really got some pains, riding planes and trains.
How's your wind?
Oh, I blow. I blow as hard as I want. I'm playing music for my well-being, to tell you the truth. So if it does me some good, I can give some to the people. I play from here [pounds his chest] and also here [points to his temple].
You grew up in Louisville, Ky. When did you start playing music?
When I was about 9 or 10, I wanted a clarinet, but I got an oboe. I got a clarinet when I went in the Army. I signed up in 1942.
Where did you serve?
I was in a Buffalo division. The 92d. All black soldiers. We freed Sicily, then up through Italy. I saw when people were let out of concentration camps and prisons, in Germany and Austria. I was in the Army for 10 years.
Did you play music while you were in the Army?
I was in the 201st Army band. We played in Reims, France, on VE Day for Eisenhower and Montgomery. We had a 28-piece band. We played dance music in camps all around Europe. That was our job.
In 1949, I was in an officers club, and a general said, "Oh, I like the way you play. Let's see if we can get you in the conservatory." Then I went to Paris to study clarinet and saxophone. All the American musicians were there: James Moody, Don Byas, Coleman Hawkins, Annie Ross.
When did you meet Sun Ra?
I came back in 1952 and went to Chicago. . . . I was working at Revere Camera company, and there was a record store around the corner. Joe Segal was the owner. He said, "I got a nice record for you." It had Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor on it. I thought, "Man, I like that band!"
I went back the next day, and he told me, "Sun Ra lives on the South Side. There's a ballroom up there, he rehearses every day." So I went, and he was wearing a crazy outfit. I stayed with Sun Ra all night long. He was talking about the Bible, outer space, and spacemen. I said, "Aw, man, when am I going to play?"
I came back the next day and the next day. John Gilmore was there. Sun Ra said, "Do you play flute?" I said, "No, I play clarinet." He said, "Well, John plays the clarinet. You play flute?" I said, "No." He said, "Get a flute."
So I learned. I went over to John's house, and the first tune we did was "Spontaneous Simplicity." That was 1958.
What was Sun Ra like as a leader?
He was like a psychic. He could look at you, and listen to you, and know your potential. If you were jiving, or if you were sincere. He was a character who could read character.
Was he a genius?
[Nods.] He was gifted. And he could read you like a book. You had to be honest with him.
For "In the Orbit of Ra," you had to pick 20 songs out of thousands. How did you narrow it down?
I could have picked anything. It was just how I felt that day. It starts with "Somewhere in Space." I always liked that song. I used to play it on flute. "Angels and Demons at Play," I wrote that one. He put lyrics to it.
What are your five favorite Sun Ra songs?
Any one of them. [Sings] "The sun is in the heavens . . . ." That's "Sun-ology." Each day a Sun Ra song comes to me, and that's how I feel today. So when you say, "Name your favorite Sun Ra tune," I like all his stuff. I can't say which is my favorite, because every day I change, and the vibrations change, and so does the song.
Sun Ra believed he went to Saturn.
He said he "trans-moleculared" himself there. So who am I to say he didn't, if I don't know?
Did you have to share his beliefs to stay in the band?
You believe it or you don't believe it. But everything he said was in the future came true.
Like he said, "You fellas who play drums, don't be late and don't be sloppin' around. Because one day they're going to have electronic drums, and then they'll do without you."
And now it's all come to pass. They got electronic everything. The lesson is you need to have the discipline, and create. The creator gave you the creative spirit, and each day you have to create. Create, create! Because each day is different. And I live my life that way.
The band is known for its futuristic style, but you've maintained emphasis on tradition, going back to Sun Ra's playing with Fletcher Henderson.
You can't play in one particular style, or just swing one way. We're playing all the beats, the rock, the rhythm, the blues. Some rap, too. Sun Ra was a poet, too. We need to tell people all these things, and wake them up. They say God won't let you go to the moon, but you can go to the moon. The space age is here.