Sun Ra, also known as Le Sony'r Ra and, in one of his former lives, Sonny Blount, died the other day in the human sense, at the perceived age of 79, as these things are figured on this planet. If he were here to object, he might add some 5,000 years to the total before whizzing off again to someplace beyond the Milky Way. He often told skeptics he had arrived on Earth according to a cosmology "outside the division of time that man has."
As our interview nosed into moderate acceleration, I became aware that Sun Ra was aware of my suspicions of an elaborate masquerade. He wasn't the first avant-garde jazzman to invent a celestial origin, though he carried the lie infinitely further than anyone else had as a means of attracting attention to his person and his music.
Neither of us permitted a little thing like skepticism to ruin the conversation. The energy that kept it going was the warmth of that blissful smile, a smile I have rarely seen outside of a museum devoted to Renaissance artwork. How I managed to keep notes of his profuse and enthralling comments on life, music and the pursuit of etymology is a source of wonder to me to this day.
"Every man is a system of words," he said at one point. "He becomes the image of the words he's been taught, whether true or false. If a man finds a greater truth, he will accept it. It is a matter of survival, because he sees that something is trying to destroy him - he is facing total destruction from
himself. But by depleting the number of men on a planet, he destroys people with brains that may be able to help him.
"This is too big a universe for that. The universe does not decrease - man decreases. Music is about the expansion of man's spirit, which is burning low like a candle - almost going out."
As for his music, "the people are the instrument."
"Most musicians don't understand what I mean. The ear is shaped like a harp. There are thousands of strings in there. People need to be tuned up, like an automobile, and it has to be done through vibrations of music. When music is pure, people can get an image of what pure is.
"They have got to know what life is before they can live. They have got to have an image of something better before they can have a better image. They can get it out of music. Music is the only thing man has in which he can detect a mistake. One wrong note, people know it all over the world. In music, you can't lie. You can't fool people with music. They just know."
Sun Ra, who had arrived on Earth in Birmingham, Ala. (and, interestingly, left it from the same place), had lived in Germantown - give or take a few prolonged absences - for nearly a quarter of a century. "To save the planet," he once explained, "I had to go to the worst spot on Earth, and that was Philadelphia, which is death's headquarters."
He had come up in music as a fairly conventional piano player, albeit one with an ear for the unusual. In 1946 he turned up in Chicago in Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra. Some of the musicians complained about his playing.
"I never play a chord the same way twice," he told me. "I invert it. The other musicians were just running the chords they were used to. But Fletcher hired me, and he was a pianist. He had a sense of humor, too. One night he called 'Stealin' Apples,' but instead of coming to the piano to take his solo, he let me keep playing. I played it just as it was written.
"Fletcher always put his songs in difficult keys. That way, his musicians had to be good. Musicians develop when they have a hard way to go."
Sun Ra ran his own "Arkestra" like a cross between a rock 'n' roll band and the Mummers Parade. On the job he dressed his players in robes and sequins, and himself in outlandish headgear suggesting an intergalactic connection.
It is doubtful he ever made much money with it, though he nonetheless managed to maintain a close cadre of players who lived in his Morton Street house in a kind of monastic commune.
We in Philadelphia are the poorer for Sun Ra's passing, but mourning is an empty gesture. "Man's true birthday," he told me, "is the day of his death."