Over the years, of all the musicians I’ve seen perform live, the one I’ve seen more than anyone else is Sun Ra. Wherever I was, if he was coming to town, I went to see him. There was never any question about it. Even one time, in New York, when I was in the middle of some horrible flu, I went to see him play, and by the time the show was over I felt completely fine. He and his music had that kind of effect on me.
In fact, one of the few things I actually regret—and, since I consider every sort of misstep, error, or wrong turn a learning experience, I don’t regret much—was that time in New York when Sun Ra was set to play at the bandstand in Central Park. It had been a stormy summer day, and I just assumed the show was going to be rained out. Of course, later in the day things cleared up a bit—still I didn’t think it was enough for the show to have gone on. Then, in the early evening, when I stepped outside for the first time that day, I ran into one of the guys who worked at the Nuyorican Poets Café, which was just down the street from me. He was heading into work.
“Man, I just saw the greatest show,” he said.
“What?” I said, incredulous. And I’m sure I must have been pissed and said something like, “Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Things cleared up uptown, and he went on. Of course it’s going to clear up for Sun Ra.”
I, of course, felt like such a fucking loser, for not having faith in the power of Sun Ra. I did manage to catch him in a club in New York at least one more time before he left the planet on May 30, 1993. When he died, WKCR played his music non-stop for about a week, and so for about a week, whenever I was home, I listened to Sun Ra and nothing else. There aren’t many musicians I could listen to exclusively for a whole week without eventually wanting to hear something different.
When my daughter Maggie was born, it wasn’t long before I played Sun Ra’s music for her. I probably started with something easier, like Jazz in Silhouette. Though by the time she was four she was already asking me to play her “some of Sun Ra’s weirder stuff” when I picked her up from school. So there we were, riding around our new home—this conservative small town called Front Royal, Virginia—playing Sun Ra’s Disco 3000 record in our mini-van. For a little while, anyway, when we first moved here, it was pretty much just Sun Ra and P-Funk that Maggie wanted to hear when we were making our way around town. And, naturally, when Julien was born, it was probably just a week—or maybe even a few days—after we brought him home that one night I played for him “The Conversion of J.P.” from the Sun Ra record, Space Probe. It’s this deceptively simple piece from Sun Ra, starting with percussion and flute for several minutes before Sun Ra comes in playing these halting, broken chords on the piano. Subtly and beautifully, he builds on this as the notes start to come together and move forward. By the time the piece is over, you know and you feel that Sun Ra has taken you somewhere. And in a way that no one else could.
Today, May 22, 2015, marks the 101th anniversary of the arrival of Sun Ra on the planet. About two and a half years ago, on the occasion of his second birthday, Julien seemed to take a few moments to channel Sun Ra. That’s what you see in this photograph—Julien, at his toy keyboard in the evening on his second birthday, wearing a wild pair of sunglasses and gazing up at the heavens. It’s very much the sort of pose Sun Ra would strike in the midst of a performance. And just looking at this photograph, I start to hear the sounds. At first, it’s Sun Ra’s music. But then, it becomes something else—something for which Sun Ra laid the foundation and upon which Maggie and Julien will be building, using whatever art forms they see fit.
Photograph by Jose Padua