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This city is the Universe
Because it is that city of all natural creation …
For the Magi is the miracle Magic of it all
The Magi is all
The All-Magic citizen of the Magic City
Of the Magic universe.
— Sun Ra, “The Magic City”
In January of 1946, Sonny Blount left Birmingham for wider horizons; it would be more than four decades before he’d return. He would make his name, both figuratively and literally, in other places: in Chicago, his first base of operations, he became “Sun Ra” and immersed himself in a range of musical activities — as sideman, arranger, composer, record producer, and bandleader.
In Chicago, Sun Ra founded the first incarnation of his band, the Arkestra (it, like its leader, had “many names,” billing itself variously as the Intergalactic Arkestra, the Solar-Infinity Space Arkestra, the Outergalactic Myth-Science Arkestra, the Alter-Destiny 21st Century Omniverse Arkestra, the Cosmo Jet-Set Arkestra and so on) and he resettled, briefly, in New York. Finally he landed in Phildelphia, where he and the band spent the bulk of their career (and where Arkestra members continue to live communally and perform today).
A 1960 letter to Sun Ra’s old bandmate Fletcher “Hootie” Myatt reveals an interest in arranging some dates in Birmingham, though no evidence of such performances has survived. Even if he kept his hometown at a distance, Sun Ra did engage often, during his long absence, with his Birmingham roots. As biographer John Szwed points out, a few of his compositions — “Magic City Blues,” “The Place of Five Points,” “West End Side of Magic City” — referenced Birmingham, at least in title and by association. Later, his 1990 album Purple Night included his take on his home state’s classic anthem, “Stars Fell on Alabama,” a song with almost autobiographical overtones which in that era he often included in his live performances. A poem dated 1972, “The Magic City” (excerpted above), borrowed the familiar nickname to envision a celestial city of transcendent experience.
Sun Ra’s most notable tribute to Birmingham, though, was his landmark 1965 album, also titled The Magic City. A revolutionary recording, it took Sun Ra and the band into the wildest extremes of explosive free jazz. A decade later, jazz critic Harvey Pekar (a writer known more widely for his American Splendor comic book) declared the album’s title track “one of the most important jazz performances recorded in the past 15 years.” “It’s clear,” John Szwed wrote in his biography, “that 1965 was a turning point [in Sun Ra’s music], and that the recording of The Magic City was the clearest signal of the change.”
If Sun Ra had already played at the outer limits of jazz, he now stretched his soloists and listeners further into unmapped experience. The album’s title track swallowed the entire first side of the record, sketching for nearly a half-hour a sonic landscape that is, perhaps, part Birmingham and part outer space: long before Sonny Blount returned (physically) home, The Magic City represented a kind of homecoming in its own right, but a homecoming on Sun Ra’s unique terms — a cosmic re-visioning of the city in which the man and his music were born.
Sun Ra would also, throughout his career, maintain a special kinship with other Birmingham musicians. During his Chicago years, he reunited with Birmingham brothers Paul and Dud Bascomb, arranging — and, most likely, performing on — a number of their 1950s recordings. A lifelong friend and collaborator, trumpeter Walter Miller, represented perhaps his most consistent personal tie to home. According to Arkestra member and Sun Ra archivist Michael D. Anderson, Sun Ra paid Miller the ultimate tribute, a testament to the pair’s long personal history and to Sun Ra’s estimation of Miller’s abilities: though Sun Ra typically played only his own arrangements, for Walter Miller he made an exception, directing the Arkestra in performances of Miller’s charts. Another, younger Birmingham player, saxophonist Arthur Doyle, got his start as a teenager under Walter Miller and played with Sun Ra briefly in the 1960s. In the last decade of his life, Sun Ra was joined in the Arkestra by another notable Birmingham musician, Jothan Callins, who would ultimately accompany Sun Ra on his final return home.
Sun Ra did not return to his hometown until 1988, when he was inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame (his early bandmate, Frank Adams, was his nominator; alongside other local musicians, Sun Ra is featured in a permanent exhibit at the Hall of Fame’s museum downtown). That homecoming seemed to mark a kind of reconciliation of Sun Ra to Birmingham: he returned the next year, and again the year after that, to play the brand new City Stages festival, where he created a sensation parading with giant puppets. After the 1989 performance, the band passed the hat for a show at Southern Danceworks, where they played, among other things, exuberant, extended renditions of Disney songs (“Zip-a-Dee-Do-Dah,” “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and others). The band picked up other local gigs, too — performances that are now the stuff of local legend — at Grundy’s jazz club and at the Nick, whose flyers announced: “THE VOYAGER RETURNS.”
Meanwhile, Sun Ra’s health was deteriorating. He suffered from a series of strokes. In April of 1992, he came back to Alabama for a three-night, sold-out engagement at Tuscaloosa’s the Chukker. A reporter caught up with him in the parking lot of the Moon Winx Lodge, where (appropriately) the band was staying. The jazz legend sat in a wheelchair and spoke of his Alabama childhood days — “always running and leaping up to the trees, always thinking about space” — and humored the interviewer’s questions (“They say I was born in Birmingham,” came the usual explanation, “…but I don’t remember”). When his voice wore out, he alternately whispered and silently scribbled his responses into a notebook. Asked, preposterously, why he had no wife or children, he wrote: “They neither marry nor is given in marriage but are like angels that shine forth like the sun.”
For each of his three nights at the Chukker, Sun Ra performed according to a different theme, under titles he had advertised in advance. The first, “Homage to Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson,” indicated his lifelong dedication to the roots and pioneers of jazz; the second, “Homage to the Flowers and Trees,” embodied what his manager Spencer Weston called the “praise of nature,” each song bearing some reference to the plant world. The final night was titled “From Saturn to Alabama: Travels in Outer Space.” As John Szwed notes, the shows “were the closest thing to a retrospective Sun Ra would ever give”; they marked also as close a reconciliation Sun Ra would ever make between his earthly and spaceways homes.
Shining ships of gold
Finally, in January of 1993, suffering from the effects of a stroke and rapidly deteriorating physical health, Sun Ra came home to Birmingham for good. John Gilmore, legendary saxophonist and longtime member of the Arkestra, told a reporter, “I guess that’s where he came into this world and that’s where he wanted to leave it.” Elsewhere Gilmore indicated a less symbolic, more practical reason for the move: “We had no central heat,” he explained of the band’s communal home; it was winter in Philadelphia, and Ra had just suffered his third stroke. So Jothan Callins accompanied Sun Ra by train to the city of his arrival, to live out his last days in the home of his sister.
Mary Blount Jenkins was herself in poor health by now, and — her son Tom Jenkins explains today — she took in Sonny “to the detriment of her own health.” According to Jenkins, his mother could never come to terms with the fact that Sonny refused, all his life, to acknowledge an earthly family — “but,” he adds, “she loved herself some Sonny,” and she took him in, despite the personal and financial strain.
(After Sun Ra’s “departure,” niece Marie Blount Holston placed an ad in the Birmingham World, seeking donations from the public to help pay off Sun Ra’s medical expenses; later, the Birmingham family and members of the Arkestra — the only “family” Sun Ra ever really claimed — would quarrel over the ownership of Sun Ra’s estate and name. Holston gained copyright control over “Le Sony’r Ra,” but the more familiar “Sun Ra,” derived after all from ancient Egyptian mythology, remains in the public domain.)
Sun Ra’s condition worsened steadily, and after further complications — pneumonia, heart attack, paralysis — Sun Ra finally departed this planet, just five days after the 79th anniversary of his arrival. The funeral program announced the “Homegoing of Sun Ra” (“Not a homecoming,” writes Sun Ra scholar John Corbett, “but a home-going — Birmingham was both Ra’s landing spot and his launching pad.”), and at Elmwood Cemetery members of the Arkestra, led by Jothan Callins, performed their first tribute to their late leader, heading next to New York City for a memorial concert there.
Sun Ra lay in a powder blue coffin, bedecked in his characteristic robes, a giant Egyptian Ankh resting in his arms. “They banged the drum slowly,” reported The Birmingham News; Marshall Allen, Sun Ra’s close associate since the 1950s, played with tears in his eyes. The band played, chanted and paraded, fingers pointed skyward, singing “Space is the Place.”
“He’ll come back in shining ships of gold,” the Arkestra sang as Sun Ra’s body was laid finally to rest. “He was in touch with every person on the planet,” drummer Samarai Celestial told a reporter, adding that “Birmingham has to be blessed,” having introduced “an intergalactic music master” to the Earth.
The Birmingham World printed a rhapsodic obituary: “Sun Ra,” it ran, “left a legacy for musicians to study, ponder and aspire to for years to come. He has pointed the way and so now the weary old space traveler has moved on to the next galaxy. … Sun Ra will never really find peace,” the tribute concluded, “because he will always be searching to find the key that will unlock the coded mystery of life, as he continues his journey back to the future.”
In Birmingham, Sun Ra has never gotten his full due. The occasion of his centennial, though, offers an ideal opportunity to right that wrong. Local musician and artist Hunter Bell — who has hosted Sun Ra tributes in Birmingham off and on for several years — continues to raise money for an appropriate cemetery headstone and a downtown monument. Earlier this year, Vulcan Park hosted a musical tribute to Sun Ra, and on May 24, the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame will present several former Arkestra members in a special tribute performance. UAB art professor Doug Baulos has coordinated students and local artists in the creation of a centennial mural that will be making the rounds at events throughout the year, and the brand new T-Rex tiny gallery will open its doors on May 30 with an exhibit of twenty pieces of collage and painting by artist Craig Legg, all inspired by Sun Ra’s 1988 show at the Nick.
As I write these words, in fact, I’m listening to a recording from that night. The whole thing is pure exuberance: blaring and brassy horns, swinging guitars, a chanting ensemble of call-and-response vocals. “In some far place,” Sun Ra half-sings, half-chants, “many light years in space — I’ll wait for you.” The Arkestra, billed that night as the Cosmo Jet-Set Love Adventure, repeats each phrase in hilarious unison. “Where human feet have never trod!” Sun Ra continues; “where human eyes have never seen! I’ll build a better kind of world — a different kind of world — of abstract dreams.
“And,” he declares, and declares again, promising cities more magic than ours: “I’ll wait for you.”
The “hometown” crowd erupts with applause.