May 22 of this year is the 100th anniversary of the arrival to this planet of Sun Ra. As a piano player, composer and bandleader Sun Ra’s terrestrial incarnation was one of the true innovators in jazz; a bridge spanning the beginnings of big band jazz to a distant world that only exists now in Afrofuturist science fiction.
He was a piano prodigy who as a young man found work with the Fletcher Henderson orchestra, among other bands. His career got really interesting, though, after his trip to outer space. The story, which I can’t entirely disbelieve, is that he was taken by benevolent aliens to the planet Saturn, where he was delivered a prophetic message of peace and hope.
From then on his shows were more than just concerts, they were testimony of a utopian musical future. His band, the Arkestra, included singers, dancers and fire-eaters, and wore costumes that combined the styles of ancient Egypt and sci-fi film. They were among the first to use electronic keyboard, electric bass, and extended freeform improvisation. And they always toured with the Cosmic Infinity drum.
Sun Ra’s message of immortal space travel might seem outlandish, but when his band would lead a conga-line through the audience chanting “Space is the Place,” their artistic conviction made their alternative reality seem as real as any other.