| Excerpts from A Strange Celestial Road (Traveling
by Ahmed Abdullah with Louis Reyes Rivera
A Strange Celestial Road (Traveling the Spaceways) is a memoir recounting Ahmed Abdullahs experiences growing up in New York City and developing into a respected musician. Central to the book are the rewarding influences and experiences Ahmed garnered from working with Sun Ra. Still in manuscript form, this autobiographical account of one of today's living legends runs slightly over 300 pages and features a host of photographs never before released.
Ahmed Abdullah worked with Sun Ra, on and off, from 1975 until the latter's departure in 1993. Ahmed continued with the Arkestra until 1997, first under the direction of John Gilmore (93-95), then under Marshall Allen (95-97). His experiences with Sun Ra include participation in well over 25 recordings, extensive travel around the world, and numerous club engagements throughout the United States.
In 1998, Ahmed Abdullah formed the Sun Ra All-Star Project in an effort to feature many of Sun Ras former collaborators, while also allowing more musicians opportunity to perform Sun Ra's music. In February 2000, the first Satellites of the Sun Festival was produced by Abdullah at Sistas Place in Brooklyn. The Festival, an annual event corresponding to Black History Month, presents band leaders who worked with Sun Ra and who tend to include in their repertoire selections from Sun Ra's original compositions. The objective of the Festival is to showcase the fact that Sun Ra has indeed influenced many highly talented musicians.
Since February 2001, Ahmed began teaching a Sun Ra Ensemble class at New School University. This course has successfully introduced a number of young musicians to the music, philosophy, lyrics and poetry of Sun Ra.
Inquiries about the manuscript or workshops should be directed to Ahmed Abdullah
Aaburg, Switzerland, March 29, 1992.
The hotel lobbys wooden decor makes you feel at home immediately. For me, its a rare pleasure to be in a comfortable dwelling while on the road. Were to wait in the lobby until all of the rooms are ready. While in the very relaxed and laid back setting of this area, I receive a page for a long distance call from London, where the new love in my life, Monique Ngozi Nri, is living. Its her birthday today. I had intended to call her as soon as I'd settled into my room. Its great to hear her voice, a blend of the Nigerian, Barbadian and British backgrounds into which shed been raised. I notice a hesitancy in her voice as I jubilantly wish her Happy Birthday. While on the phone I am given my room key, and she suggests that I might want to go to my room as she has something important to tell me. What she said weakens me at the knees, a punch for which I would have no defense.
Are you sitting down? she asks.
Why do I need to sit down?
I couldnt reach you for the last couple of days. There was no way to contact you in East Germany. I dont know how to tell you this but... Ahmed, your mother passed away.
I say nothing. Then, Oh, no!
Twelve days before, on St. Patricks Day, just as the Arkestra was to leave from New York, at Moniques urging I had made a special trip to visit my parents. On my way to the airport, I stopped by to say hello and to give them some photos Monique had taken of them when last she visited New York during the Christmas holidays. This was to be the last time I would see my mother alive.
After hanging up the phone I somehow manage to find Sun Ras room to tell him I want to cut the tour short due to these unexpected circumstances. Sitting in his wheelchair, he says little these days in comparison to years gone by. His condition now is one that has made me deeply anxious as it has created such a profoundly new relationship between us. My mentor, my musical and sometimes spiritual teacher, the person who could talk to me for hours on any subject known and unknown to man, woman, or Angel, is now someone I only play music with. His illness has given me an overwhelming sense of impending loss.
For many years, Sun Ra had taught us that we had to do the impossible, which hed say was to give up our death, our ownership of it, our submission to it. His philosophy was about expanding possibilities, of envisioning cities without cemeteries. It was a philosophy of eternal things and immeasurable equations. Now, faced with the reality of my own present dilemma, that philosophy meant little to me, and the person who could have best explained it and walked me through this moment of extreme personal tragedy is unavailable. He has nothing to say, not about death nor about my early departure from the tour.
I turn to leave his room and go outside to be in the open air in need
of sunlight and natures beauty. I turn left, walking toward the
castle in the mountain, unable to hold back the tears streaming down my
face amid the pathways and beautiful flowers. Red, yellow, purple flowers
on either side of a running brook. I walk across a foot bridge, heading
toward the castle, wondering how such a structure could have been built
into a mountain. It is peaceful here, yet, Im lost and abandoned.
In some ways I know I should be in better control, but I have no full
understanding of whats now transpiring and its impact on my life.
We were to record on this night, and it would be Sun Ras last recording,
appropriately called Destination Unknown.
Excerpts from CHAPTER 1
"So its not easy to play in this band because theres certain stuff you have to have. You have to belong, you have to be rated by Superior Beings as suitable, and if youre not rated...
I be telling everybody, its not my band; its the Creators band, and if theyre not suitable for the future, they wont be fit for the present..." Sun Ra
The Call never seems to come when I expect, but it always comes when its supposed to. This one came on a Sunday morning in April, 1975. I was laying in bed with Iyabode, who was pregnant with what would be our twin sons. She answered the phone. Ill never forget the incredulous way she handed it to me as if the Creator Him/Herself were on the other end. She whispered while cupping the phone with one hand, Ahmed, its Sun Ra!
Now this was pretty amazing to me as well. I tried to calm myself enough to say, Hello.
The voice on the other end was deliberate, matter of fact and very southern. Somehow I had the feeling that in the years to come I would become very familiar with this voice.
This is Sun Ra. I been tryin to get a hold of you.
An intense sense of excitement ran through me. Sun Ra had been trying
to find me?
He had become a legendary folk hero in the Black community, especially among the people who considered themselves aware of African American culture. Iyabode and I were among those people. By owning his own record label and publishing as he did, Sun Ra rendered himself a very unique artist. His independence was both an asset and a hindrance. The asset was that he played where he wanted, how he wanted, with and for whom he wanted; the hindrance was lack of popular recognition. So, in the early 70s, when Sunny (as he was called) and business partner Alton Abraham had licensed ABC-Paramounts Impulse Records to distribute several of their 50s recordings (which up to that point had been modestly available), things began to change. Sun Ra was well on his way to becoming a major international star. By 1975, when I received the call, he was already there.
When I hung up the phone on that Sunday in April, I immediately turned to the face of a person whose bright eyes revealed the same mixture of surprise and joy that I was experiencing. The potential birth of our sons, moreover, endowed Iyabodes ebonic skin with a radiance reserved for those among us who bring forth the young. She had been favored by the Creator, who appeared not to want any to be unaware of this fact. She had been blessed with full lips and a nose just flat enough, along with almond shaped eyes and an elongated neck that gave her an aura of royalty (I had written a song for her called Ebony Queen). The pregnancy had affected her in another interesting way. She had lost weight everywhere except in her stomach. Her shoulders had become so thin she almost looked undernourished. It was as if all of her food went to the babies while making her stomach seem incredibly huge. A moment ago, she had been trying to hear my conversation with Sun Ra by putting her chin on my shoulder. Now she wanted a report.
Ahmed, was that really Sun Ra? Whatd he want?
Yes, it was really him, I said.
Well, whatd he want? she repeated excitedly.
He wants me to play with him.
Where? she asked.
Here in Brooklyn, at The East.
At The East! When?
He didnt say exactly when, but it seems like its gonna be sometime this month. He said he wanted me to come to Philadelphia to rehearse with him.
To Philadelphia? I could feel her enthusiasm dampening. "I thought you promised that you wouldnt go out of town until the babies were born.
I know I did, Sugar, but its only going to be for a day and the babies arent due until next month. And besides, this means I can earn a little extra money. I could probably earn more in a night than I do in a week working at that copying job.
This seemed to reanimate her and bring back some of her initial joy.
Ahmed, she said as if she were thinking out loud. You know, I never really thought that Sun Ra called people. I always thought hed simply transport himself into somebodys living room.
Yeah Yabo, I can dig it. But you know, Im just happy he called me. I was so happy in fact that I hadnt been completely honest with Iyabode about the phone call. I happened to have noticed a few weeks back that Sun Ra and the Arkestra was going to play in Brooklyn. Sun Ra, however, had not mentioned the gig. I didnt even know whether he actually wanted me to play with the band. All he said on the phone was how he had gone about getting my number from someone in Brooklyn, and that he wanted me to come to Philadelphia to rehearse.
Philadelphia is 90 miles from New York. Iyabode and I had two children
on the way. I had a job copying documents at night in an office building
in downtown Manhattan, yet I didnt think that what I was being asked
to do was crazy.
Excerpts from CHAPTER 2
"Question: Do you think of yourself as a preacher, a teacher,
or just a musician? Answer: Im a destiny maker... change the destiny
of planets, change the destiny of countries. Everybody cant do it,
you have to have the authority. You get it from the Creator, the one who
this planet belongs to.
From our Harlem apartment on 131st., we moved into the Jacob Riis Housing Development, at 118 Avenue D near East 8th Street. We were my mother, Anna Townes Bland, my father, Lubia Bland, my sister, Helen Bland, and me, Leroy Bland. We had left one sister, Lorraine Bland Logan, at our old Harlem apartment.
After school, I sometimes walked through the Harlem streets enjoying the life, sights and sounds of that neighborhood. As I would walk south on Lenox, I might stop at the Countee Cullen Library (named for the Harlem Renaissance poet), at 136th Street right off Lenox. Around the corner was the Schomburg Library (named for the Afro-Rican reseacher, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg) which housed African American historical books and artifacts. Usually I would walk east on 135th Street, passing the place of my birth, Harlem Hospital. One day when I was coming home from school, there were picketers at the site of the construction of a proposed new wing of that hospital. Apparently, this construction was going to proceed in Black Harlem with no intention of employing Black workers. On the south side of the street observing the picketers was a tall man in a suit.
As I walked toward him, I noticed his penetrating glare focused on the activities taking place across the street. I stopped, struck by his regality and seeming importance (other people had stopped to observe him too). I heard people murmuring, Thats Malcolm X!"
It was indeed the powerful Muslim Minister I had seen on television giving reporters hell and making me feel so proud. I walked closer to him and stood around for a long time. Even at that age I could feel there was something he possessed that was unique....
A little man walked up to the microphone to announce the proceedings. Welcome to Birdland, ladies and gentleman. My name is Pee Wee Marquette. For your listening enjoyment, we are proud to bring you our second set this evening. We have the John Coltrane Quartet. Elvin Jones on the drums, Jimmy Garrison on the bass, McCoy Tyner on the piano and John Coltrane on the sax. Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together and give a warm welcome to the John Coltrane Quartet! Thankya!
There was nothing that I had heard at the library or in my brother-in-laws collection or anywhere in the world that prepared me for what I heard from this group of musicians. The sound lifted me up out of that space to a place I somehow believed in but never knew when and where I would find it.
The first song was I Want to Talk About You. John Coltrane played like a baptist preacher turned saxophonist. His sound was startlingly familiar, mesmerizing and powerful. It was sound that came from deep within the ancient part and touched the core of ones heart. It was the Holy Ghost experience in the Harlem chuches transformed and crystallized into some magnificence beyond my understanding. But I could feel it. And I could see and hear that John Coltrane was possessed of something incredible. He played sometimes doubled over as if he were extracting the last possible bit of music from that saxophone.
Elvin Jones had more hands and rhythms going than seemed humanely possible. He was as much the drum as he was the sweat that rained profusely from his brow. Those were African sounds he made with that instrument! Once Jimmy Garrison got started he seemed never to look up again. He too was on a mission to merge with his axe. Even when Elvin Jones was playing at his most intense volume Jimmy Garrison was there cutting right through. McCoy Tyner played in that hypnotic-repetitive way I had heard on record but here stretching out way beyond the boundaries of what I would have imagined a pianist capable of. His playing set you up for Coltrane to return to deliver his final invocation. An unaccompanied cadenza. The force of John Coltranes playing and the completeness of the four of them as an ensemble seemed to drive him and me to the brink of both stage and ecstasy.
I stayed for the next set with Dizzy Gillespie, and as great a musician as he was, I cannot remember anything about his set. I was so opened up by that Coltrane music that it took all of Dizzys set to return me to Earth.
The next day I was back to work at the library, and Mr. Wessells and I were in conversation about our favorite topic. So, Lee, did ya go to Birdland last night?
Mr. Wessells, I gotta thank you for tellin me about that. Man! That music was great! I couldnt believe what I heard!
Shhh! Keep it down, please! Ms. Hutson had just walked into the room. I really had to be on my best behavior considering the hot water I was in.
Sorry, Ms. Hutson, I said quickly, but I continued excitedly in a low voice to tell Mr. Wessells about my first Jazz club experience. After I told him all about my impressions of the Quartet, he asked the predictable question.
So whadya think of Diz?
He was really good, man, but Im so into Coltranes music, I could hardly hear where Dizzy Gillespie was coming from.
But, Lee, I thought you wanted to play the trumpet? Diz, man, is
Excerpts from CHAPTER 3
"In a sense, Sun Ra means Solar and Sol means Sun. You got it
over in the Solar System. Solar=Sun Ra. Its about the Solar System.
Its about the Universe. Its about things that are not of this
planet. Its about a great test for humanity. Its not Judgment
Day. Its Examination Day, as to whether man has a brain....."--Sun
There is something about the transformative nature of this music we call Jazz that puts it into a separate realm, a spiritual endeavor. This occurs whether or not even the musician understands it that way. But when there is both a recognition of the spiritual nature of the music and an effort made on the part of the musician to develop spiritually, one gets a music like that of Sun Ra, John Coltrane or Duke Ellington.
Sun Ra was clear about the source of his inspiration and often spoke on it. On one occasion he said, Leading a large band is an impossible job, and I would have given up some time ago, but Im under the jurisdiction of other forces that want to help the planet, and they keep certain musicians with me.
After the initial gig at the Five Spot, June, 1975, the band was asked to come back for two weeks at the end of August. This gig was billed as Sun Ra and his Humanitarian Arkestra.
During my first few months with the band, traveling was at a minimum. There was a memorable performance which took place in Pittsburgh right after the second Five Spot gig. This was the first time I had actually traveled with the band by bus to an engagement.
Sun Ra usually sat at the front of any bus, whether it was a sleeper or a passenger vehicle. This may have been the Creators band but he was definitely the leader. There was no other fixed seating arrangement, except that whatever seat you took going you were expected to take returning. I would enjoy positioning myself close to John Gilmore because I did idolize him and because of a new discovery. John was a chess player and I was into the game. I had a magnetic set which was good for road travel. Saxophonist Pat Patrick and drummer Thomas Bugs Hunter were also chess players and would participate when they were around. Johns chess playing was as incisive as his tenor sax and clarinet playing. I didnt really mind losing to him because he was so humble in his victory. With Pat Patrick, Marshall Allen, Danny Thompson or Bugs Hunter, one could also expect a good card game on board.
Sun Ra never took part in any of these games; he would be busy writing music, listening to music, reading from one of his philosophical texts, lecturing to anyone who cared to listen or catnapping (he was a master at that, as well).
Loading up a bus was an experience before and after a gig. The main responsibility for packing equipment seemed to fall to bassoonist and percussionist Jack Jacson. This was not only because he was good at it, but because his instrument, the Ancient Infinity Drum, really a tree trunk, no one else dared touch. You couldnt pack a vehicle properly before that drum was in place. Horn players like myself, carrying little, were expected to help with the loading and unloading of instruments. This was one of the unstated laws of the Arkestra. Since seats on the bus were never assigned, one had to quickly secure a seat for oneself because it was never known how many people might be on any engagement.
Sun Ra was known for getting a job that might be a really good paying gig for 15 performers and then have 25 performers on stage. He was playing music for the Creator and could not be bothered with Earthly material things such as salaries or group size. This philosophy was facilitated by having a core group of musicians who lived with him and therefore bore the bulk of whatever spontaneous creative urge he might imagine. From the beginning, I too marched in locked step with his philosophy in that I rarely asked Sunny what a gig paid before I performed with him. This, of course, was not good business practice. I never did it in any other context. Intuitively, I knew that my relationship with Sun Ra was not merely gig related, even though there were times when I balked at the paltry payment received.
There was a correlation between the lack of financial demands placed on Sun Ra by a willingly exploitable core group and his actual public earnings, in spite of his rising star status. To a musician like myself, being with Sun Ra, life was not easy in the finance department. I had an opportunity here by associating with the ensemble that I didnt have elsewhere. But I also had bills to pay and people to feed. With Sun Ra you just never knew. And most folks didnt bother to ask.
For the performance that we did in Pittsburgh, Sun Ra had found a dancer who thought like he did. Bob Johnson was a fabulous dancer and the leader of a dance company in Pittsburgh. The first time I saw BJ was at the second Five Spot gig. The song that made me take notice of him was a Sun Ra original, Discipline 27#1. At the time, this song was played in an incredibly sensuous way, and Bob found the hook in the dance. It was all about a shoulder movement that was so suggestive of bump and grind that one couldnt tell whether Bob was trying to turn on the men or the women. The gig in Pittsburgh was at a Masonic Temple that looked like the Blue Mosque of Istanbul. It had a circular dome and was wonderfully spacious inside. When we entered the Temple, we met Bob with at least 50 dancers who had been hip enough to Sun Ra to have come prepared complete in space gear. The gig was two months before Halloween, but that didnt seem to matter to the dancers who came to the event costumed.
During the performance a particularly excited dancer found a moment of silence in the middle of the concert an opportune time to yell out, Im catching stars yall. Im catching stars!
The trumpeter, Ahk Tal Ebah, had also made this one. The first couple of gigs prior, he acted as though I was some sort of threat (probably with Sun Ras coaxing) and had attempted to set up his music stand on the other side of the room from me. Now that he had decided I was not out to take his gig, we actually became a brass section sitting side by side.
Charles Davis, the great baritone saxophonist, was on this gig too, adding a second baritone to the Sun Ra traditional section of two alto saxes, one tenor, a bass clarinet, and one baritone. Davis inclusion here was an echo of Ras innovative Chicago Arkestra recording dates back in the 50s. Charles had made the Five Spot performance and stayed on for Pittsburgh. The band was really playing together after two weeks' work. With the heightened inspiration transmitted by BJs dancers, this was one of the many legendary performances I would experience with the Arkestra over a 22-year period.
The show started with whomever Sun Ra deemed appropriate for tuning up the audience, be it June Tyson doing Sunnys space lyrics, Cheryl or Wisteria doing their space dance, or Jacson on percussion, or one of the horn players, or any combination of individuals Sunny might imagine at the moment. Master musical-painter that he was, he would choose the instrument that he wanted for whatever the particular color desired. When Sun Ra appeared on stage there would invariably be applause. He told us that we would know when we became masters because people would applaud just because we had appeared on stage.
Sunny had an innovative musical concept he called the Space Chord, a collection of extraterrestrial sounds designed to jar a persons sensibilities and jolt him out of complacency. The Space Chord was always directed by Sunny. Sound, he would explain, could change things because sound was used to run things. Accordingly, sound was, in fact, the origin of all creation, as in Om, Nam, I Am, or as, In the beginning was the word...
Sun Ra, like any great bandleader able to stay on top, had a special gift for choosing talent. On the Pittsburgh gig, he had invited a couple of rhythm and blues crooners from Philadelphia to be part of his space world. Philly has a reputation for its R&B singers, and these fellows didnt disappoint. I had taped the show and it is interesting hearing the Arkestra sing, theres only twen-ty-five years before the century of twen-ty one/ twen-ty first cen-tury, in 1975. We served up a pretty funky rendition of that song as well as What do you do when you know that you know that you know that youre wrong? By the end of this gig I had become much more familiar with the repertoire as varied as it was.
One really bizarre financial debacle happened at the Montreux Jazz Festival in July, 1976. Montreux, Switzerland, is one of a couple of dreamlike places I have been to. The Swiss Alps surround this rich smelling, immaculate town. The hotel we stayed at was fabulous. I had a huge room with a bathroom large enough to have been mistaken for a bedroom. I even used the tub as if it were a bed, especially after that long trip from Paris. Laying in the tub, I could open the window and stare out at a most breathtaking scene of snow capped mountains. It was better than National Geographic. However lovely, this was not a vacation. It was work.
When it was time to hit, the band had over 20 members on stage, all recorded with one overhead microphone. Sun Ra was in rare form, even for him; consequently, the band was turned on and played beyond itself. John Gilmore, Pat Patrick, Marshall Allen (the big three) turned in amazing work. The two Dannys, Thompson and Davis, as well as Jack Jacson and Eloe Omoe completed the sax section. Sun Ra had also brought along a fellow named Reginald Hudgins, a soprano sax player from Philly. There were three dancers, Wisteria aka Judith Holton, Cheryl Banks, and Raymond Sawyer, someone else new to me who was every bit as great as Bob Johnson. June Tyson was present with her voice from another planet. My former trumpet teacher, Chris Capers, Al Evans and myself were one part of the brass section that was completed by trombonist Craig Harris (just out of college) and Vincent Chancey, both relatively new to the band. Ahk Tal Ebah had been left in Philly, so even though both Al and Chris had played in the band before, they hadnt played with Ebah, who basically knew the arrangements. So, in a sense, things had rapidly fallen on my shoulders. I was kind of amazed at how quickly everything was moving. I had joined the band a little over a year before, and now I was leading a section in one of the prized Jazz festivals of Europe.
Richard Wilkenson, Junes mate, was our road manager. After the concert was over, everyone was flying high from the music. Richard had given me a padded shoulder bag to hold. I hardly noticed when he did it and certainly did not know its contents. I stopped somewhere on the festival grounds to hear another performing group and placed the bag under my chair. There were several stages at Montreux, and in each arena there was another group performing. At some point the people in the band were notified that the Arkestras bus was taking off. I quickly left to join the group and boarded and proceeded out of the dream town in high spirits befitting a band of conquering heroes.
Half a mile out of town I heard Sun Ra ask, Richard, wheres my bag?
Richard was sitting in the middle of the bus. I was near the back of the bus. Richard called out, Ahmed, wheres the bag I gave you?
In the post-gig excitement I had all but forgotten it. The bag had all the money from the gig, one of the best paying festivals in Europe, and I had left it under my seat inside the Montreux festival grounds. The driver was asked to make a U turn. I could feel my heart pounding like a piston as we ran up the stairs to where I had been earlier. There, under the chair, exactly where it had been left, was a bag with several thousand American dollars in it. I have never felt so relieved to see some money.
The concert itself must have put out such powerful vibes that no one would dare touch that money. We were thus well protected. The music on Sun Ra Live at Montreux, released on Inner City and Saturn Records, is a most fitting musical description of what I had actually experienced in that city and on that stage. The Montreux performance stands as one of the high moments in my recorded history with the Arkestra. The recording captures John Gilmores incredible solo on Take the A Train, accompanied by Clifford Jarvis on drums. The intro that Sun Ra plays on piano shows he now owned the song written by Billy Strayhorn, one of the Ellington Orchestras standard signature pieces. In the wake of Ellingtons passing (1974), he also now owned the position that Duke once had as the preeminent big band leader. This was Sun Ras first recording in a few years, and even though his Earth years were advancing (now 62), his sense of showmanship seemed heightened as he, dressed in platform shoes, colorful robe, and pseudo-space-helmet, played the organ with his hands behind his back.
The sound of Sun Ras piano introduction to El Is The Sound of Joy still sends chills up my spine. Before I left to go on that trip, the record that I had been listening to a lot was the great Massey Hall concert. I loved the way Dizzy (I finally got around to studying him) and Bird were playing with the incredible rhythm team of Bud Powell, Charlie Mingus and Max Roach. I believe Dizzys approach influenced my concept and approach to El Is The Sound of Joy. Clifford Jarvis, drummer on the Montreux recording, kidded me about our being a Clifford Brown-Max Roach hookup. In my estimation it was one of Sun Ras best recorded live concerts.
The flight to Lagos, Nigeria was full of anticipation. Here we were,
a plane load of Africans being brought back to our spiritual homeland
by the Nigerian government. We had just come through the era of the Black
Power slogan, but this was a most remarkable demonstration of that reality.
It was overwhelming to think that this would be actually happening after
400 years and all of these generations of Black folks being in America.
Enslavement. Lynching. Rape. Jim Crow. Civil Rights. I was going back
to Africa to play my trumpet. I couldnt believe it until the plane
landed. How would we be welcomed? What were the people like? What if the
After immigration, we were taken by bus from the airport, carrying our coats, luggage and instruments to what would be our home, FESTAC Village, for the next two weeks. The hot, humid, tropical climate was a shock to my body, which still had New Yorks winter chill upon it. Gradually I was adjusting. We were driven along a road filled with people. Long slender palm trees dancing from the heat, women balancing baskets on their heads, wearing bright material with unimaginable color schemes and patterns, children running barefoot alongside, in front of or behind the bus, men waving to us as we waved back to them, happy to be here in Africa.
The road that we were on led into the town of Lagos, a bustling busy city, where cars were driven faster than I had ever seen in a city, and with no traffic lights. The city sounds were exciting. But wait! Wasnt that someone laid out in the street? And another person and yet another? Was this the Bowery of Lagos? I didnt dare ask these questions out loud, but people sleeping on sidewalks became more common to these surroundings as we got further into the city. In 1977, pre-Reagan times, homelessness was still fairly uncommon in New York, except on skid row. Here it was rampant.
As we rode through Lagos and into the outskirts, getting closer to FESTAC
Village, I began to see more of a constant military presence. Men were
standing along the road at attention and at ease with high powered weaponry.
Machine guns. Bazookas. Barbed wire fences everywhere. In fact, the gates
surrounding the village were incredibly barbed wired. This was both shocking
and exhilarating. The question arose: who is the enemy here? I had never
been in a country where everybody looked like me. As great a source of
pride as it was to see Black people uniformed and apparently in control,
there was also a feeling of contradiction immediately evident in what
appeared to be a well financed military and homelessness coexisting so
My sociopolitical background had given me some understanding of what Neo-colonialism was. Consequently, even though I saw black hands and faces running things, I had a pretty good idea that the major factor here was about keeping control in the hands of the colonial powers that had allowed for independence to a native elite. Nevertheless, there would no longer be simple answers to difficult questions.
Back at the airport I had met up with Milford Graves. He was heading
back to America after having done two weeks in FESTAC Village. Milford
pulled me over to the side and gave me a 30 minute course on survival
in the village. While others in the Arkestra had been engaged in immigration
procedures, I was being informed of the need to be attentive to the meal
times and the importance of finding a room with proper plumbing facilities.
I half understood what he was talking about. Now I was wondering. Milford,
by the way, was well on his way to becoming a spiritual healer and knew
of the relationship between fundamentals often taken for granted and the
ability of an artist to create. He is one of the true priests of the Music
of the Spirit.
The village we were to live in was a small town built primarily to house the artists during the festival. After this event, it would become housing for local residents. Built by the Nigerian government, FESTAC Village was only partially completed when we arrived two weeks into the festival. Some rooms had no plumbing, no running water. The village was about a mile long with two-story houses on either side of a wide dirt road. There were no phones or any of the other modern conveniences that people from North America were used to. In-person communication was obviously the form here. The government fed us three meals a day served in a large tent that had been set up in the middle of the village. Here we could eat, meet and talk to other artists from all over the Diaspora taking part in this amazing event.
Sun Ra was in a rehearsing mood the moment we arrived, which was not unusual for him. But here he didnt know what to do because there wasnt the usual matching of room vibe and musician or any other form of room assignments. With no phones, the Arkestra was spread out throughout the village. Meanwhile, I had found lots of other musicians to freely improvise with and was having a great time of it. Some of the musicians were African and some African American. I met up with a bass player named Clarence Seahy, along with a drummer whose name I cant recall, and we formed a trio and played right through the day. Our playing in the room attracted enough attention that we were asked to play a gig at Lagos City Hall. Our trio played opposite a Senegalese Kora Trio on what was an African and African American fashion show.
The Kora players in their long beautiful white robes plucked the celestial stringed instrument that they had made themselves. Generations of instrument makers and players had been their teachers. The women displayed their cultural dress with regal presentation gliding to the sound of the great grandparent of most stringed instruments. I was able to work with our trio of bass and drums in a free and exploratory way that was different for me. No directives from Sun Ra. No big band restrictions. Here we were presenting our collective experiences in music to a receptive African audience. Our models were showing off designs that expressed the results of their investigations into the traditional while also being informed by the present. That gig was really different!
Late at night we would sit out in front of our respective houses or go watch other groups rehearse or just sit around and talk. One of the rehearsals I saw that has been powerfully embedded in my memory was performed by a group of drummers from Burundi. Their drums, positioned on stands, allowed the African night to be filled with the full sound of this ensemble of ten drummers getting right to my heart. On another of these nights I met a fellow trumpeter, Rasul Siddik, who was at FESTAC working with the Troy Robinson Big Band from Los Angeles. Rasul, a brother with locks, and I talked and found we had a lot in common by way of influences. He was from Chicago, a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), who had moved to Los Angeles. Being nearly the same age and, as his name implied, sharing many of the same developments culturally, socially and politically had helped to connect us quickly. When he came to New York, years later, he would work in the ensembles of several cutting edge musicians like Henry Threadgill and David Murray.
Sun Ra had been told about the politics occurring behind FESTAC and had heard that Fela Ransome Kuti, the popular Nigerian musician, was in opposition to the government in power. He had also heard that Felas Shrine was a kind of a smoke den. He had therefore warned the guys in the band to stay clear. Sun Ra was always tongue-in-cheek critical about how rebellious people were, so I guess he understood that if he said to stay away, some of the guys would go anyway, even while he expected strict obedience. One, however, did not have to venture to Felas to find marijuana. The local people who came out to the village had it in large supply and were pretty much giving it away. The smoke was so powerful that less than half a joint would do you as compared to what you might smoke back in the States. This was another problem that vexed Sunny. While we were in Nigeria, I frequently heard him comment, I dont know what happened to the fellas since we got to Africa; they just seem to want to sleep all the time. Little did he know what the stimulant was. .......................
When the band finally played, we were in one of the larger venues, the National Theater, easily holding 5,000 people. The Sun Ra Arkestra had played in Africa before, having performed in Egypt, in 1971. For me, however, it was a very exciting premiere. We played our usual set, which meant that anything could, would and did happen. We could tell we were getting to the people, which momentarily made us feel good. After about 45 minutes, Sun Ra signaled that we were to get up and march around. This we did. Before we sat down again, however, the audience had all but left the theater. The reason for their leaving will probably never be explained. We took it as a very embarrassing moment. One explanation later given was that the audience, being new to Sunnys music and style, saw us get up and thought the performance was over. Some, however, thought the music just wasnt appreciated. Others thought that the buses taking people back and forth to concerts were leaving, and that those having to get back home did not want to be left behind. Whatever the reason, many of us were really disappointed. I mean, you dont come to Africa and have your audience leave, you know.
All in all, most of us just chalked it up as one more mystery of Mr. Ra.
The next day I was able to get back into the same National Theater to hear a performance from the acknowledged Queen of Africa, Miriam Makeba. During this period she had been banned in America for her marriage to activist Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), which, in Africa, probably made her all the more popular. There were swarms of people trying to get in to hear Ms. Makeba, and once inside there were swarms of people attentively listening. She put on one magical performance. You could tell she was in her glory. African people love them some Miriam Makeba. It was impossible to get anywhere near Stevie Wonders performance, though I heard it too was pretty amazing.
I met the South African alto saxophonist, Dudu Pukwana, in Lagos, as well as many other people from that area. Some questions which I had been thinking about for years were answered while socializing and observing my brothers and sisters from Azania. I began to realize how deeply these Africans, much like the African in America, had internalized self-hatred to the level of toxicity. I could also understand how the music from South Africa was a Music of the Spirit, a transformative music, designed to rise above an oppressive condition, similar to that of the African in America. Over the years, I have always included a South African song (usually by Miriam Makeba) in my bands to further symbolize that connection.
The most curious thing I saw during my two-week stay was the sight of men dancing with each other unself-consciously and with total confidence. This was pretty deep. There would be times when I saw nothing but men on the floor dancing together. I also saw men who didnt necessarily appear to be gay walking together down the street holding hands. Years later, I would travel to Turkey and Georgia, in the Soviet Union, and I would also notice that same outward expression of emotion shared between men, which was obviously part of the cultural mores in those societies, not the taboo that it is in America.
Our initial engagement had made several of us feel uncomfortable. And it probably served as the jolt we needed to know that we were not on some anthropological expedition. We were actually there to play music and in some way represent the African in America. Sun Ra had to pull out the whip to get us out of whatever stupor we were feeling. The next time we played, Sunny was able to bring out the drum in all of us. We knew the language spoken here. We were children of Africa returning after centuries of captivity to express that longing to be home every child instinctively has. Our cry reached out and grabbed those who were most receptive. The others soon came around and before you knew it they were all waiting for the next sound of embrace that the Arkestra had to offer. Yes, we knew the language spoken here. When Sun Ra wanted to get to an audience, you better watch out, 'cause he could put that band in gear and rev it up at a moments notice. On this night we got much house!
The closing ceremony was yet another magic moment in artistic presentation. Every performer and group at the event marched in full costume around the huge National Stadium. Here we could see the range of colors worn by our Caribbean and African brothers and sisters. Those Africans from the States who understood the ritual of dress, as we in the Arkestra under Sun Ra's direction did, fit right into the amazing flower garden of humanity.
This is why I am disappointed in Mr. Szwed's reportage of FESTAC in his otherwise excellent book on Sun Ra, Space is the Place. The story he told suggested that our Arkestra resisted going to Nigeria because we weren't going to be paid; as well his account of our arrival and our levels of performance are not those that I had experienced. The most remarkably inaccurate tale was that of the closing ceremony. Szwed's story was that we did not participate because of Sun Ra's refusal to give the clenched fist salute of Black Power. No such demand was made. And Sun Ra did not refuse! The slogan was actually popular in America in the late Sixties to early Seventies. Here in Nigeria, in 1977, there was no need of sloganeering beause the event was Black Power. Thousands of performers had created a moment together in a show of unity, the likes of which one could only dream about. I am told that somewhere there exists a video of this incredible event. In either case, I was there; and we did march.
The political side to this cultural event was brought home when the newly appointed African American Ambassador to the United Nations from the Carter White House, Andrew Young, paid a visit to FESTAC. His arrival, three weeks into the festival, made it clear that the event had its impact on the western world. No doubt, the idea of getting some form of American support was also one of the motivational factors behind this whole cultural event. The major thing is that if the government of Nigeria did get any support as a result of the festival it did so on its own terms. Overall, FESTAC had been mounted with tremendous integrity, in spite of the fact that historians have attempted to ignore the decade of the seventies and or rewrite history when it comes to the African impact on this period of time. FESTAC was, in fact, a major historical event quite fitting to the seventies as the decade of self-determination.
When I left Lagos, Nigeria, at the end of February, 1977, I was a changed man. The essential spirit of that experience is something I have carried with me ever since.
"We must not say to ourselves
The efforts and combined impact of work done by several key players of the 1960's greatly influenced the Seventies. Included among these movers and shakers were Bill Dixon, Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp and Sun Ra with the Jazz Composer's Guild, Amiri Baraka with the Black Arts Movement, and John Coltrane.
Bill Dixon, organizer, trumpeter, composer, writer, had a vision based on a solid analysis of the Jazz industry to form an integrated musicians' cooperative, the Jazz Composer Guild. He encouraged Sun Ra, Shepp, Taylor and white musicians Paul Bley, Carla Bley, Mike Mantler, Roswell Rudd, etc.to join forces in order "to protect the musicians and composers from the existing forces of exploitation." The Guild was researched and founded by Dixon based "on the principles of the medieval guilds, so that one person couldn't have something that this other one didn't get a part of." In the book Dixonia, the bio-discography of Bill Dixon, by Ben Young, Dixon is quoted as saying, "We were politically aware, meaning that we knew that what we did--whether we were paid equitably or not-- affected the entire industry." The musicians involved in the Guild would agree to work in a club only if the owners of that club would hire other musicians from the Guild. The desired effect was intended to turn a single event into a series of concerts designed to benefit all.
The Guild had by-laws and two primary objectives: (1) to arrange a better agreement with club owners and record producers, consolidating drawing power and allowing for collective exposure and better contracts; and, (2) to develop venues to independently produce concerts by and through the Guild.
New York has long been the mecca for musicians intent on realizing fame and fortune. The grim reality of it is that one person's success might often mean another's failure. The choice is usually an arbitrary one very infrequently decided by talent. The musicians who were at the core of the Guild did not have major reputations or recording contracts. Those affiliated with major labels, such as John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, were informed of the workings of the Guild, but neither of them were members. From the very inception of this music there had been a need for some organization of musicians to address the artist's condition. James Reese Europe, by organizing the Clef Club in 1910, had become the first documented visionary to understand the importance of unionizing. Inspired by his association with W.E.B. DuBois and the formation of the Niagara Movement and its prodigy, the NAACP, Europe's organization did for Ragtime what Bill Dixon had envisioned for the Free Music of the sixties.
Since the turn of the last century musicians were prey to hotel, cafe and cabaret owners who had little respect for them as Human Beings but would use them, exploit them in every way possible. Europe's all-Black Clef Club existed for a few years functioning as a symphony orchestra and a union. It significantly celebrated the uniqueness of African people. In its first concert, May 27, 1910, at Harlem's Manhattan Casino, on 155 and 8th Avenue, the orchestra comprising 100 musicians included ten pianos. It was Mr. Europe's desire to hear the rich harmonies characteristic of the music. Besides the traditional symphonic instruments of strings and brass, he also used multiple drums, banjos, the large harp guitars and dancers as well as minstrels.
The Clef Club had clearly established itself. People who wanted to hire African Americans musicians would do it through this union. As a union, the Club set up a precedent for musicians of African descent. Until the recent publication of Reid Badger's A Life in Ragtime, James Reese Europe's name and the story of the Clef Club, in spite of the need that it spoke to, was a liitle known fact of history. By 1964, Bill Dixon had apparently come to understand that the effectiveness of a union at that time would mean the inclusion of white musicians. Jazz was, in fact, played by white musicians too, and even if they were not as exploited, it was important to forge an alliance. While the Clef Club lasted at least four years, the integrated Guild, noble experiment that it was, had lasted less than a year. Nevertheless its impact was felt. The Guild had produced over 30 concerts in lofts and concert halls during its shorter tenure. Its most publicized affair was a series of concerts produced at Judson Hall (now Cami Hall, on 57th Street across from Carnegie Hall), titled, "Four Days in December," 1964.
According to Dixonia, the attention that was being given to individual Guild members as a result of the collective organizing effort meant that some musicians were being offered individual contracts that were not being brought to the collective body. This is finally what ended the Guild and certainy what prompted Bill Dixon to leave.
Without Bill Dixon and its founding Black members, the Guild would quickly evolve into the Jazz Composers Orchestra Association, producing concerts and recordings with a variety of artists. The JCOA established New Music Distribution Services, thus becoming an outlet for many of the independent labels of the seventies.
Amiri Baraka's BARTS, occurring the year after the founding of the Jazz Composer's Guild, was also significant as an organization in which artists produced other artists. The position of the venue was even more important because there was a decided attempt to bring cutting edge artists back into the Black community itself with an understanding of the connection between culture and politics.
It was probably the combined impact of the Guild and the BARTS which helped to determine the choice of venue and politics for John Coltrane's last concert at Olatunji's school, a loft on 125th Street in Harlem, April 1967. Because of Trane's influence on the musicians of the seventies, that concert certainly was viewed by many as one of the major events inspiring the Loft Movement.
Hawkins, the father of the tenor, seemed happy to hear this modern day tenor madness. I watched him as he sat on the sofa by the door, leaning back and kicking up his heels in utter delight as he listened to the music of Trane and Co. The group Hawkins had with him featured Barry Harris on piano, Major Holley on bass, and Eddie Locke on drums. Major Holley had a way of making his voice another instrument while he bowed the bass, and Eddie Locke would often play the trap drums with his hands. No one had ever played tenor sax like the Hawk, hence his other nickname B&O, the Best and Only. Harris, who had been influenced by Bud Powell, also had a style of playing that was uniquely his own. Their syle of playing as well as their concepts made the entire affari an immaculate conception. A great double bill.
When Trane extended his set a little past the allotted 45 minutes, the club's management rudely blinked the lights, even while he was in the middle of some incredible music. One could also hear the breaking of glass during bass solos and the noise of the cash register as a distraction from the business of making music by the business of making money. It was no wonder to me that the next couple of times I heard Coltrane, it was entirely outside of the club venue. He was an artist with a vision who apparently could not be dictated to by market limitations, even while enjoying great success in the marketplace. A Love Supreme is said to have been a gold record, yet, the next year after its release he had gone into a completely different direction, leaving some fans and critics behind as he explored this Music of the Spirit.
Later that year in December, 1966, Trane and Ornette Coleman were playing a double bill at the Village Theater ( late known as the Fillmore East) on 2nd Avenue and 6th Street, on the Lower Eastside. Coltrane had the same band I had seen several months before augmented now by a few more people. Rashied Ali, Coltrane's drummer at the time, spoke recently of Trane's magnetism as a beacon for younger musicians whom he would allow to sit in. As a result, there would always be musicians around, horn in case, ready to play -- cats like Archie Shepp, Marion Brown, Frank Wright, Carlos Ward, John Tchicai and Dewey Johnson.
At the Theater, Trane opened up his set with The Father, the Son and Holy Ghost. The experience of listening to it live immediately reminded me of when I had first heard it at Jack Harris' (now Ptah Hotep) house in Queens. Harris wanted us to hear it on earphones to get the full effect. This live set at the Village Theater proved even more so the fullest effect. Jimmy Garrison, who would be with Trane until the end, began the set with one of his long Flamenco-like bass solos and the journey was on. Amiri Baraka's statement on the album cover of Ascension spoke for me as well: "Trane is now a scope of feeling, a fixed traveler whose wildest onslaughts are gorgeous artifacts even deaf people should hear."
The other group, Ornette Coleman's trio, with David Izenson and Charles Moffett, was also incredible. Ornette, in fact, was a hero of mine in a different kind of way from Trane. With his unique style, he too provided me with a path and was someone to whom I would also be indebted, when developing concepts of my own.
I recall that Sun Ra and some of the members of the Arkestra were present in the audience for this concert, a significant event for the avant garde of the Lower Eastside. As well, Sun Ra would later record his Atlantis album at the very same venue Coltrane had performed in Olatunji's Cultural Center.
Located in Harlem, Tunji's Center was the site in April, 1967, of John Coltrane's last appearance in New York. In distinct contrast to the Village Vanguard (where there was a small audience) and very similar to the Village Theater concert, the place was packed with people wanting to hear the music. Olatunji did not have an exclusionary policy at his center, but Harlem, post-1964 rebellions, was not a place that too many people besides Africans wanted to frequent. There were standing-room-only lines of folks waiting to get in to hear Trane play a concert billed as "John Coltrane in Africa."
Before he passed (July, 1967), Trane was taking steps to do two noticeable things in relationship to his art: (1) he had taken his music out of the clubs and was now working in areas where there was tremendous support for what his spirit demanded he do (the story is that he and Yusef Lateef were working on a partnership that would ensure the creation of more venues such as Olatunji's); and, (2) he had made a move toward starting his own record label. These things moved him closer to Sun Ra in philosophy and action, and were probably influenced by the Jazz Composers' Guild as well.
In one of Trane's last interviews with Frank Kofsky, published in Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music, Kofsky posits, "Yes. Sun Ra is quite bitter, and claims that you've stolen all of your ideas from him, and in fact that everybody has stolen all of their ideas from him (laughter)." Coltrane responded with, "There may be something to that. I've heard him and I know that he's doing some of the things that I've wanted to do."
Speaking personally, from the time I had first heard Trane at Birdland until he passed I was under his sway; much of my foundational interest in the music and movement of the Seventies came from John Coltrane, which, in turn, eventually led me to Sun Ra.
This jazz site is part of