Chicago, 1943. Young black American GIs, white middle-aged society types, hustlers, pimps, brokers and dips fill the tables of a seedy club, stuffing bills between the breasts of cigarette girls. At the piano, a turtle-faced, beshaded bebopper improvises on 12-bars and formula standards, killing the minutes before red-light dancers hit the stage to reap boob-bounty and leg-loot from the impatient audience.
One white-on-white-suited customer demands this piano player -- "Sunny Ray," he's called -- cease his playing, a bop that blurs straight tunes into messy derogatory renditions. When the barely red-dressed dancers find their way onto the small stage, Sunny Ray takes his revenge. A Kansas City jump quickly escalates into full-on musical warfare: The piano curls from left-hand stretch to fist-pounding apocalypse; melody and rhythm implode into cirrus clouds of noise. Highball glasses shatter, walls break, clothing straps snap -- soon, the physical hurricane of music has cleared the room but for the pianist and the white-suited customer, The Overseer.
"Sunny Ray," says The Overseer. "You think you're ready for me?"
The pianist, legendary musical iconoclast Sun Ra, one of the under-appreciated founders of modern music, playing himself in the 1974 sci-fi film Space is the Place, pauses only long enough to wet his lips before firing back his own rhetoric.
"Are you ready to alter your destiny?"
Pittsburgh, 2003. Another packed-full, tables-and-waitresses nightclub: more blacks, whites, young and middle-aged -- though perhaps less seedy. Then again, perhaps not: One yuppie couple, with all the apparent danger of a "call the babysitter" home-by-midnight rampage, has stalked a young woman into the club and made hints at things she could join them in doing, perhaps making a profit. Onstage, a wild-haired and chubby-cheeked man has gone from mild-mannered husband, father and schoolteacher to saxophone-wielding Mad Scientist.
Pittsburgh's Opek, the dozen-strong band filling the stage, is an indirect descendent of Sun Ra -- a band dedicated to performing the master's works, as well as launching from them in its own musical directions. As the other musicians' beats and harmonies hold brief anchor to the saxophone's wail, the Mad Scientist blurts and squonks a rhythm of subversion.
Between Coors Lights and whiskey sours, the yuppie couple soon moves from half-joking to far-too-serious in their advances on the siren who led them into this South Side club. Meanwhile, the wife has similarly edged toward serious in the attention her eyes, ears and dancing feet pay to the band.
"I think," says a friend of the siren to the couple, "it'd be good if you left."
Walking with smugness and mock self-congratulation out the door, the husband drags his wife's hand behind him, as she pauses briefly for one more look at the band. There, she sees the saxophonist, Ben Opie, one hand waving directions to the band, the other forming screeching figures on the sax, figures that bear a familiar message.
"Are you ready to alter your destiny?"
There never was a Herman Poole "Sonny" Blount -- at least not according to Sun Ra. Mortal record keepers might disagree. They might argue that it was Sonny Blount who, in October of 1952, acted upon his obsession with outer space and Egyptology and had his name legally changed to Le Sony'r Ra (Ra being the Egyptian sun god), adopting the stage name Sun Ra. (Herman Poole Blount, according to Sun Ra, was a name that "didn't have no rhythm, anyhow" -- a valid point.) They might argue that jazz pianist Sonny Blount had played in Chicago on and off since the '30s, had led bands in the Windy City as well as his Alabama home ground -- where, in 1914, Herman Poole Blount was born, in the city of Birmingham. That's the same city, coincidentally, in which Sun Ra died in 1993.
Or did he? For Herman Poole Blount, there might have been birth and death. For Sun Ra, no such things existed. According to his own mythology, Sun Ra had descended to Earth from Saturn -- was never born, would never die. Death, and its logical predecessor, birth, were simply shackles to Sun Ra, and all shackles of this world were there to be cast off. As his poem "This World Is Not My Home" says: "If you're free, why do you bow to death? / Is that what you mean by liberty? / Stop bowing down to your master called death. / If you're free, prove it."
Whether or not Sun Ra came from another planet, his music, his look, and his ideology certainly seemed to. When Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Arkestra took the stage, it was in shimmering, Pharaoh-inspired cloaks and headgear. The band, numbering as many as 30, made music that combined the contemporary beginnings of "free" jazz -- think John Coltrane's vaguely formed sheets of sound -- with Sun Ra's beloved Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson standards. Added to this mix were the beginnings of Afro-centric musical thought: In Chicago and New York City in the 1960s, Ra encountered black nationalism, Nation of Islam, and other philosophies which helped shape his view of Africa and African-American culture. (Within the Arkestra's revolutionary free sound there was abundant room for African rhythms: To borrow from the liner notes to Ra's 1972 album Space is the Place, "As all Marines are riflemen, all members of the Arkestra are percussionists.")
By 1993, Sun Ra had left behind a legacy including hundreds of recordings, books of poetry, lectures, and the altered destinies of all the musicians he had played with. What he didn't leave behind was sheet music: Other than a few handwritten scores the composer donated to the Library of Congress, little remains of the original compositions. But that doesn't stop his work from creeping into the world's musical consciousness.
"Sun Ra's goal was to spread his music throughout the planet," says Knoel Scott. "And that goal was accomplished."
Scott has played saxophone with the Arkestra since 1979. Since the bandleader's 1993 "death," the Arkestra has continued under the direction of longtime band member Marshall Allen, himself a highly regarded composer of free big-band jazz in the Sun Ra tradition.
"[Sun Ra's] music is a key part in finding change in people," says Scott. "He came out of a time and an era, a very ugly one in terms of what African Americans had to go through. But in the '70s and '80s, his worldview grew beyond a concern for African Americans to concern for the world. He came to see that the whole planet could change, that he could use [his] music to elevate people."
In the past year, the band has taken the spirit of Ra to Japan (twice), Switzerland, Italy, London, toured California and the East Coast, and is now preparing for an East Coast tour this week with indie-rock icons Yo La Tengo. But outside of the Arkestra, despite a growing appreciation of the already internationally lauded composer, Sun Ra's music is rarely performed live -- it's an irony that doesn't sit well with torchbearers such as Scott and Ben Opie.
"Sun Ra, along with Duke Ellington, is America's greatest composer," says Scott. "But he's not recognized as such because he's so charismatic -- he's so, so much larger than life."
"Part of the rationale for Opek is that the [Sun Ra] repertoire is played by very few people," says Opie. "There are so many recordings out there -- I mean of everything -- it does mean that some things that maybe should get more attention get lost in the shuffle. It's not just Sun Ra. So some of the arrangements, even of other pieces we do, I choose with an eye to not doing just the standards. These are pieces that I don't think are played often enough by enough people."
Ben Opie performing: babyish face, puffed around the saxophone, obscured by that manic hair; serious demeanor disguised by untied sneakers or unkempt shirt. Ben Opie listening: in the middle of a packed South Side bar, surrounded by partiers, sitting in a lone chair, face in hands. It's no stretch to imagine him poring over a Sun Ra record, dissecting sax interplay and improvised percussion, searching for the musical equations upon which Ra's compositions are based.
One reason Sun Ra's music is shamefully underrepresented in the American canon is that much of Ra's music doesn't exist in the traditional written form. So when Ben Opie became fixated on forming a band to perform Ra's work, pore over those records he did, hour after hour, not just studying, but transcribing.
"There are a few pieces Opek does where I've had sheet music -- like the [Charles] Mingus pieces we do," says Opie. "But any Sun Ra we do, I had to sit down with the record and pound out the charts" -- the sheet music for each individual instrument in the band -- "from the record.
"The real challenge of that sometimes is that there's a lot of great performances that were poorly recorded. And the Arkestra plays very loosely at times, too -- it's hard to tell how much of it's on paper for them. There are some recordings where there's a lot of conducted improvisation, but the bulk of what they did, they played charts. And not only did they play charts, sometimes there were three or four arrangements of the same song if it was one of the band's staples -- there're stories of them having a suitcase full of charts for a particular [instrument]."
But Opie, a music instructor at the CAPA performing-arts high school, is no stranger to orchestrated avant-garde jazz, nor to conducted improvisation. In the 1980s, he troubled ears with Carsickness, one of the city's first new wave groups (at a time when "new wave" meant something radical) and the Morphic Resonance Trio. In the '90s, with the Water Shed 5tet, he brought his knowledge of avant-garde jazz to the forefront of a "rock" group, and made the band one of the only bands to transgress Pittsburgh's usually solid wall between musical scenes, equally adept at a gallery opening or barroom. Water Shed cemented Opie's reputation as the city's foremost musical mad scientist. His eminence was acknowledged in 1996, when the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust awarded Opie its "Emerging Artist" Achievement Award.
In the summer of 1998, Opie performed a series of concerts in San Francisco. "For the last one, some friends and I put together a 15-piece Sun Ra tribute, for one night -- we had a string of partial-band rehearsals, and put it all together that night." It was a model he was to replicate with Opek -- whose 12 regular members never practice as an entire band.
Opie returned to Pittsburgh with a head full of inspiration, and luggage full of live tapes. Among the people he gave copies of the tapes to was local jazz musician Diego TK Pokropowicz, who had the contacts in the jazz community to help Opie organize a sizable group capable of performing Sun Ra's music: five saxophones, two trumpets, two trombones, two guitars, drums, bass, percussion -- mostly professional jazz musicians, many of whom Opie had never worked with before.
"I don't think that those guys knew Ben, but of course once they heard him play -- Ben is a good jazz musician, in addition to squonking and stuff," says guitarist Daryl Fleming. As guitarist for Water Shed 5tet, Fleming was used to the left-field sounds Opie was looking for with Opek, but didn't know that so many other musicians would be quite so eager.
"I'm shocked that some of the guys that are in this band would do it," Fleming says. "These guys that play all these straight-ahead gigs -- guys that play in the Balcony Big Band and other [regular jazz jobs]." Among Opek's members are Ian Gordon and Chuck Austin of the Balcony Big Band, the former Maynard Ferguson (and current Beam) rhythm section of drummer Dave Throckmorton and bassist Paul Thompson, rock and jazz guitarists Fleming and John Purse, locally legendary percussionist George Jones and others. "That's the first indication to me that there's a place for this band in Pittsburgh," Fleming says. "As it is now, it's kind of the West Coast of Pittsburgh jazz -- or some bad analogy like that. But we make a place for the band."
There are a few reasons why so many seasoned jazz veterans might latch on to Opek. For one thing, the freeness that Sun Ra's music and philosophy brings to Opek offers a chance to stretch that most gigs could never touch. Fleming, for example, takes time out from his solo project and gig as guitarist for orchestral rock group Boxstep for Opek because, among other things, it gives him a chance to freak out.
"I've gotta have three projects running all the time," says Fleming. "Some kind of songwriting thing, and then two where I play guitar -- one, a more structured outlet, and then Opek is the outlet where I get to freak out a little bit. You've got to remember, there's always a second guitarist in [Opek] who's usually playing in a more traditional fashion. I just don't play straight-ahead very well. I get to kind of play the wildcard -- everyone does a little bit, but maybe more so for me -- I get to play the outer space thing."
"There's a lot of history in Opek's lineup," says Opie. "There's a lot of different approaches in this band, and part of the development of the band has been me learning who plays really well on which songs. Because I think with the scope of the repertoire we play, it gives everybody a chance to shine."
"He once said to me, â€˜Jacson, play all the things you don't know! You'll be surprised by what you don't know. There's an infinity of what you don't know.'"
In his inimitable biography of Sun Ra, Space is the Place, anthropologist and historian John Szwed cites many stories such as that one from bassoonist James Jacson. Like the personal history that he attempted to psychologically and physically erase from memory, Sun Ra wanted his musicians to make their music from outside the box, outside the culture -- from outside the planet itself.
"He didn't want your training," says Knoel Scott. "You had to get past your musical training to get to the real you, and that's hard to get past -- it's instinctive to most musicians: You hear chords, you want to play the chords. But he didn't want you to play that -- he wanted the pure music."
Ra's philosophy -- that of unlearning and relearning -- is one that Opek carries on. For some of the veteran players, such as trumpeter Chuck Austin, the non-traditional structure of Ra's music didn't come naturally.
"Opek was a shock to me," says Austin.
At 76, Austin is a 52-year veteran of big band playing. He prefers it, in fact, because "I learn more about listening to whoever's playing with me, more about playing as a unit, than I would as, say, a soloist in a quintet." But although he's been a lifelong professional jazz musician during the same eras Sun Ra lived and played in, Austin had never even considered playing the composer's works before.
"When I was coming through, I didn't listen to Sun Ra. I didn't listen to Ornette Coleman. I'd play at the [Crawford] Grill and all the clubs in the Hill [District], and when they'd start talking about â€˜playing free' -- well -- I just didn't want to hear that."
But when Ben Opie asked him to play in Opek, Austin acted on the attitude that served him through a half-century of professional musicianship: "When I first started playing...one of the older musicians told me, try not to get pigeonholed, because that'll restrict you. So I made it my policy that whatever they'd call me to do, I'd do it." Austin went to the library and took out Szwed's biography of Sun Ra, and began reading about the man's life -- about how Ra, like Austin, had started out making a living in the so-called "society" bands, playing black-tie functions. About how Ra, like Austin, had turned his ability to adapt into his greatest musical asset, allowing him to sustain himself as a musician. About how Ra had struggled with the business's inherent racism -- the ramifications of the 1966 merger of Pittsburgh's black and white musician's unions affect Austin to this day.
"Most of us, most black musicians that are 50, 60, 70 years old, came out of that common background," says Austin. "I figured, â€˜Hey, I'll give it a shot.' [The first gig] at Club Café, it went over so well I just thought, â€˜Well, maybe it's me!' And now, I dig it. And I play differently now because of Opek. I'm usually a safe player -- I know what I can do, and stick within that. But with Opek, you kind of have to stretch, that's the premise of the band. Thank heaven for Opek because, here I am again -- 76, and I'm still not pigeonholed. Coming out of this â€˜old' shell, whatever I have to contribute that fits with what they're doing, I'm happy that I can contribute it."
Sun Ra would see Austin's contribution as a vital part of Opek's equation. But at the same time, he might see Opek's mission -- to interpret his own works and keep them alive on the bandstand -- as foolhardy. After all, the most important aspects of the music's equation are missing.
"Sun Ra wrote music in equations," explains Scott. "The parts that he [wrote], he gave for specific individuals, for their spirit -- no one else could really play that part. Marshall Allen had to do new arrangements for the [Arkestra] we have now -- Sunny's parts don't fit anyone else. You really cannot duplicate those equations. While it's very good that people are approaching those compositions, the key element is going to be missing."
A recent Opek set list points to a new direction for the band: Alongside the Sun Ra compositions sit Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk pieces, but a good third of the set is comprised of Ben Opie's own compositions. Drummer Dave Throckmorton isn't sure that some of the band's followers will notice.
"Even if we weren't playing any Sun Ra, just Ben's compositions, that thing that makes Opek work would still be there," says Throckmorton. "If you heard his tunes and Ra's back and forth, you'd be hard-pressed to tell sometimes -- is this Ben? Sun Ra?"
"I'd like to see the day that we have the flexibility of not having to play his pieces," says Opie. "But I've always thought of those works as not just the musical but the philosophical backbone of the band; his music points the direction that this band should be taking."
Until recently, that direction was entirely upwards, in terms of artistic and more earthly successes. Opek's monthly residency at Club Café regularly sells out the club, with audiences that might otherwise be prone to purely social concert-going held in rapture by the band's dynamic performances. But with a dozen mouths to feed, and with rehearsals a logistical nightmare that usually proves unsolvable, the chances of taking Opek outside of its South Side base seem slim. To some of Opek's musicians, being in arguably the best band in Pittsburgh yet unable to leave the city's atmosphere is a conundrum.
"It's very frustrating," says Throckmorton. "I hope I don't come off sounding down on music making, but I think we all realize that, if you're playing creative music to make a living -- that's brave to begin with. It's frustrating that you can't get out there and tour, because I think there is a market for Opek -- we could play any major jazz festival and people would eat it up. But, like [Throckmorton's live drum and bass group] Beam, I feel like we have the product, but not the business end to get it out there."
"I'm concerned about it," admits Opie. "It's a lot of work for me to get the gigs that we do have together, but I do think I need to be a bit more ambitious -- we're looking towards doing recordings, additional work. But on the other hand, it's a pretty good thing for what it is -- as long as everyone has a good time and we have a good audience. Unless someone offered me some substantial money, I can't see taking this [large] group on the road for any length of time. That possibility exists, but I can't see it anytime soon."
Earth, 2003. Ben Opie admits the near impossibility of taking Opek into the beyond, but he knows his Sun Ra; he knows that Ra's music, like Opek's, isn't about the possible, but about the true nature of life -- about myth. "Myth speaks of the impossible," Szwed quotes Ra as saying, "of immortality. And since everything that's possible has been tried, we need to try the impossible."
In November, Opek will begin the next ambitious stage of an already ambitious existence, playing a weekend-long stint at its Club Café home with Beam, with which Opek shares a rhythm section. Soon the band hopes to begin recording some of its performances, looking for potential gigs; it will also continue to intersperse its sets with more of Opie's Ra-inspired concoctions. Mostly, it will continue to alter its own destiny, and that of its members, by trading in the little deaths within reality for the true voice of myth.
"Farewell, Earthlings," Sun Ra says at the end of Space is the Place, the 1974 part-blaxploitation, part-sci fi, part-music film he stars in. "You just want to speak of realities -- no myths. Well, I'm the myth talking to you."