"Vrij Nederland"translation 2

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#1 Sun, 1996-03-10 21:58
John Tchicai
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"Vrij Nederland"translation 2

Here's the second part of a translation of Rudie Kagie's article "The hospice of jazz" as published in the Dutch magazine "Vrij Nederland" of Feb. 3, 1996. Frank Maas sent me a copy of the article. I translated the remaining quotes by James Jacson and some other paragraphs.

Thanks, Frank Maas, for sending the article!

Margriet Naber-Tchicai


(about the Arkestra's house on Morton Street, Philadelphia:)"Everything that could distract from a life in service to music, was forbidden. No drugs, no alcohol and no girlfriends about the place. Ra didn't trust women. He was a homosexual himself, a preference that a couple of his musicians shared with him."

"Sometimes, squeeking sounds of the staircase bring the past back to life in Morton Street. James Jacson, the last inhabitant of jazz's hospice, is not afraid. He has gotten used by now to Sun Ra's astral body, descending the stairs in dignity. Then the "spirit of the universe" speaks: "You have to carry on, Jacson, carry on", demands Sun Ra. He gives a couple of useful advices and then, with a snap of his fingers, dissolves into the air."

James Jacson: "Sun Ra used to compare the arkestra with a disciplined army. Soldiers can only win the war if they believe in what they do; we weren't trained in killing the enemy, but in the spirit of humanity. In order to fathom this, you had to abandon most of the ideas you had had about music before. I thought I was a pretty successful musician when I joined the arkestra, but during the first year I was only allowed to join the rehearsals. It took most of the other musicians two years until they were ready to participate in a concert. He, who infringed the discipline, was being punished subtly. You'd be allowed to sit on the stage in the arkestra, but forbidden to touch an instrument. It even occurred that Sun Ra told the audience what was up. He called me up front and told the people: this is James Jacson. Two months ago he missed 3 of my 4 rehearsals and that's why he's not allowed to participate tonight. You'd be put in your place like a child; it was one of the sacrifices you had to bring in order to work with Sun Ra. By the end of the '70s he became less strict. That was possible, because he had gathered a group of trained musicians around him. Sun Ra had a good eye for musical talent; to him, that was more important than character. He sometimes brought people into the band of whom we didn't understand what he saw in them. Then we complained that the novice couldn't do anything, was drinking too much, using drugs and going after the women - not realizing that we all had been like that before we managed to discipline ourselves. Sun Ra felt who would have the willpower to give up everything and start a new life. He knew who would be able to subordinate himself to him in order to play his music. He was almost always right. One of his lessons was that knowledge can be in the way for creativity to come out. He who thinks he knows everything, doesn't pay attention anymore, he said. One time, in a piece, he wanted a drummer to play in 3 with the left hand on the tophat and in 5 with the right hand on the snare drum, followed by 4 beats with the left hand. The drummer said something like, this was totally impossible and he knew what he was talking about because he'd been in the business for 20 years. Sun Ra stood up and stepped outside without saying anything. A little later, he came back with an 8-year old boy who was playing in the street. The drummer had to leave his set. Ra put the kid behind it and told it what to do. After 4 minutes the boy played exactly as instructed. That was a lesson for the drummer. He had to take an example from a child that had never been behind a drumset before, and still had surpassed him. And why? Because the child was innocent and obeyed!"

Once, when the arkestra was all packed and ready to leave for Japan, Ra told them to place all suitcases next to one another and unpack them. They had to move all luggage from the unpacked case into the suitcase next to it. People got mad - the plane would leave in 45 minutes. Ra watched the panic quietly. "If we miss the plane, there will be another one leaving afterwards", he said. The group arrived too late to make the flight schedule. "But the plane was an hour and a half late, so nothing was wrong", Jacson remembers. "He 'd taught us a lesson in obedience."

(about Sun Ra's cosmic philosophies:) "At the beginning of each rehearsal, Sunny talked about it, sometimes for many hours. But nobody was obliged to agree with him. He forced us to understand his philosophies, but that too was a training in discipline, and after all, they weren't that strange. Almost all jazz compositions and songs are about love, but Sun Ra wanted to communicate an emotion that people don't know. That's what he chose the cosmos for. Music is the language of the universe. Imagine you meet a creature from another planet. You won't be able to communicate in language, but you will be able to tell something in music. That's what Sun Ra meant when he said his music came from "outer space"."

About Ra's premonition, there's a quote from Leo Feigin, owner of Leo Records in London, who visited the Moers jazzfestival in 1979, before he'd ever thought of starting a record company and had only heard of Sun Ra vaguely: "The Arkestra arrived an hour and a half late for the concert. I happened to be standing outside, when the bus finally arrived. Sun Ra looked at me penetratingly. In a hurry, the musicians took their stuff and got out of the bus. He said we had to talk. In the dressing room he told me I was going to help spreading his music among humanity. I had no idea what he meant. He told me to sit down and began reciting poems from his collection "The Immeasurable Equation". I couldn't make head or tail of it. It took almost a half hour and all this time, the audience was waiting for the concert to start. Only many years later, I understood what happened there. Sun Ra knew something I didn't know yet: that I was going to start a record company and put out his music."

"An unwritten "law" was that rehearsals automatically led to concert bookings. Jacson: "When we had finished a tour through Europe, everyone got a week off in order to recover from the culture shock. During that week, the telephone would hardly ring. But as soon as we'd started the first rehearsal at eleven in the morning, it would ring. Usually Sun Ra would answer himself. He noted where and when we'd perform and then we could continue rehearsing. But after 3 minutes, the phone would ring again. And a little later, again. According to us, this was the reward of the Creator, proving he was listening to us. It is weird, but in the times when we rehearsed a lot, work kept streaming in. When Sunny got ill, things became sloppy, because we got together to practise less and less."