Sun Ra (1914 - 1993) had a healthy regard for the jazz tradition.
Anyone who heard his Arkestra from the mid-1970s onward knows that
Fletcher Henderson numbers from the 1930s like "Yeah Man!" and "King
Porter Stomp," with arrangements (and sometimes solos) transcribed
right off the records, were featured nightly. But Sunny and the
Arkestra were playing and recording jazz standards well before this
time. It's just that Sun Ra wanted his Saturn records, which he and
Alton Abraham were putting out independently at considerable expense,
to feature his own compositions first. Consequently, Sun Ra did not
release any of his performances of standards until 1972, by which
time some of them were more than a decade old.
"Can This Be Love?" is a duet recorded in Sunny's Chicago apartment
during the days when, after experimenting for a few years with
various-sized ensembles to play his experimental music, he was
putting his Arkestra together. His partner is the famous Chicago
bassist Wilbur Ware (1922 - 1979), for whom Sunny always had a high
regard (in 1973, when everyone involved had relocated to
Philadelphia, Ware visited the House of Ra on Morton Street and
jammed with members of the Arkestra in a performance that is
preserved on tape). Ra plays pretty and Ware gets in a substantial
The other selections on this CD come from Ra's musically fertile but
financially disappointing early years in New York City (the Arkestra
had wound up there in October 1961 after a few months in Montreal).
With the help of drummer Tommy Hunter (1927-1999), who also
engineered these sessions on his battered Ampex tape machine, Sunny
and the band found a reliable rehearsal space at the Choreographers'
Workshop; from late 1961 through 1964, the rehearsal rooms also
served them as an informal recording venue. Until the beginning of
1966, live performance opportunities for an avant-garde ensemble like
the Arkestra were terribly sparse, and calls from other record
companies were nonexistent, so these sessions became Ra's main
opportunity to preserve his music.
Sunny still enjoyed programming standards, though, and several of the
sessions at the Choreographers Workshop were given over to them.
"Sometimes I'm Happy" was made toward the end of 1962 or the
beginning of 1963, during a highly productive period for the
Arkestra. "Sometimes I'm Happy" was probably made at the same
session as some of the wilder fare for which Sunny was known (perhaps
"When Sun Comes Out"). Here, though, Sunny just wanted to relax and
play a favorite tune. After Sunny's unaccompanied, rubato-laden
prelude, the piece belongs to John Gilmore (1931-1995). John's tenor
saxophone solo is a lyrical tribute to his first idol, Lester Young,
who memorably recorded "Sometimes I'm Happy" for Keynote in 1943.
The drumming sounds like the work of Lex Humphries (1934-1990), a
Philadelphia-based musician who occasionally participated in the
Arkestra from 1962 to 1971. Sunny and the Arkestra would record
"Sometimes I'm Happy" again in 1982, with a vocal by June Tyson and
another classic solo from John.
The other four standards all stem from another session that took
place during the same period. Sun Ra had left several excellent
trumpet players back in Chicago when he arrived in New York, and he
had trouble finding replacements. While brass players of the caliber
of Al Evans, Eddie Gale, and Clifford Thornton appear on Arkestra
recordings from 1962, none of them were available on a regular basis.
But toward the end of the year an unexpected opportunity arose. A
musician from Sunny's home town, Walter Miller (1917- ) took a job
with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra that frequently brought him to New
York City between 1962 and 1966. Sunny couldn't pretend to be from
Saturn when Walter Miller was around; they had both attended
Industrial High School in Birmingham, Alabama. What's more, both had
worked in bands led by local music mentor John T. "Fess" Whatley, and
Walter Miller had played trumpet in the Sonny Blount Orchestra (he
was in the last edition of this Swing band, which broke up in January
1946 when Sunny bought a one-way train ticket to Chicago). Miller
was listening carefully to musical developments in the 1940s, and
came to model his approach on the bebop acrobatics of his exact
contemporary, Dizzy Gillespie. But he had family obligations that
prevented him from leaving the Birmingham area, and by the early
1960s most Birmingham musicians knew him only as the pianist in a
Realizing that Walter Miller had lost none of this trumpet technique,
and that he was willing to push beyond bebop into regions farther
out, Sun Ra scheduled recording dates whenever his favorite trumpet
player was in town. The last four standards on this CD appear to
have been recorded at the same session (judging from the sonics, the
first version of Sunny's "Dancing Shadows" was cut on the same day).
For the occasion, Sun Ra put together a quintet with Miller, Gilmore,
stalwart bassist Ronnie Boykins (1932-1980), and drumming phenom
Clifford Jarvis (1942-1999). This was also Jarvis's first recording
with the Arkestra; recognizing his musical gifts, especially his
ability to supply rhythmic inspiration to John Gilmore, Sun Ra would
put up with the drummer's massive ego and combative attitudes for
many years. The lineup that Sunny had assembled for this session
would, in fact, have been entirely competitive on one of the bigger
jazz record labels of the time, had Sunny been interested in going
"Time after Time" is played quite a bit more briskly than usual; it
gets characteristic Ra arrangements for the opening statement and the
out-chorus. Walter Miller is the soloist and Clifford Jarvis gives a
drum clinic in his support. The Arkestra would re-record "Time after
Time" in 1990.
"Easy to Love" features John Gilmore, whose solo is full of reminders
that the impossible leaps of "Dancing Shadows" were committed to tape
that same day. The out chorus includes a wispy trumpet commentary by
Walter Miller. For reasons unknown, Ra rarely programmed this tune
Ra was naturally partial to titles that made reference to the sun--or
to other heavenly bodies. He had included the perky "Keep Your Sunny
Side Up" on a June 1960 session in Chicago and would feature it again
on a live recording from 1974. At this fast tempo, Jarvis opens;
there is a tight chorus featuring Gilmore and Miller; then solos by
John Gilmore, Ronnie Boykins, Gilmore again, and Walter Miller.
"But Not for Me" is a previously unknown version of a piece that Sun
Ra featured for years. (He used to complain in interviews that Ahmad
Jamal's hit version from 1958 was stolen from him--not at all
plausibly, if you compare Jamal's piano stylings to any of Ra's).
His first recording of the piece had been done two years earlier in
Chicago, on the same session as his first version of "Keep Your
Sunnyside Up"; the 1960 rendition uses a bigger front line and a
quite different arrangement. He would record "But Not for Me" again
in 1986, though the released version is a pale shadow of some of the
live performances from that year. Here Sunny solos on piano after
the opening chorus (in the somewhat drier manner typical of his early
New York period), there are solos by John Gilmore and Walter Miller,
then after a quick interlude for the piano, we get some
honest-to-goodness trades: between Gilmore and Jarvis, between Miller
and Jarvis, between Gilmore and Miller, etc., before the nicely
arranged out-chorus. Trades were widely employed during the bebop
era, and not much favored by Sun Ra, but one of the great live
performances of "But Not for Me" (from Dayton, Ohio, February 9,
1986) features tenor sax trades between John Gilmore and Ronald
Wilson--maybe in unconscious homage to this 1962 recording?
Now that we're entering the 21st century and so much of Sun Ra's
legacy is on CD, there's no longer any reason to fear that Sun Ra's
distinctive renditions of standards will induce anyone to ignore his
huge portfolio of original compositions. Nowadays, performances like
these can be equally enjoyed by hard-core Ra aficionados and lovers
of more traditional jazz.
Robert L. Campbell
Robert L. Campbell is the co-author, with Chris Trent, of *The
Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra* (2nd edition, 2000, published by
Cadence Jazz Books).