SUN RA vs. PETER TOSH
A judgment call rarely gets by without being judged again elsewhere. In this case, it was a decision that had absolutely nothing at all to do with anything other than making a decision. It hinged on music without having anything to do with music, and yet the music was absolutely everything. A decision. A choice, made from the heart, and all the rationalization in the world can’t explain why.
Sun Ra came into my life at a very young age, random and free without any known connection to my immediate family, friends, or loved ones. A fellow high school music student and acquaintance from the neighborhood invited me to see a Sunday matinee show at the Village Vanguard, somewhere around the year 1984. He was studying jazz, had heard of this flamboyant and spectacular show, and thought I would be interested in checking it out with him.
It may be he was just purely being considerate because he knew my musical tastes lent themselves to the exploratory. It may also have been because I had more experience with traipsing around NYC at an early age. (My parents had split up years before, which pegged many a weekend between Manhattan and the burbs of Northern NJ.)
Whatever the cause or reason, I will never forget the pomp and circumstance that was the introduction of the band, the music, and the legend. It was Sun Ra and his Arkestra in full regalia. Julian Preister, John Gilmore, Marshall Allen, June Tyson, and a rhythm section beyond compare whose names I may never know. And then came Sun Ra! He wore a purple-sequin robe, an Egyptian crown, and a mask that projected his Third Eye.
Dancing his way onto the stage, he proclaimed: “Some people call me a mystery, some people call me Mr. Ra, but you can call me Mr. Mystery!”
He was all. The Arkestra was all. All of it as is, as is will am be. The Magic City, Other Planes of There, When Angels Speak of Love, a Sunrise in Different Dimensions. A mystery beyond anything I was prepared for or ready to understand at the time, conducted and played magnanimously, illustriously, without flaw or constraint by Le Sony’r Ra; and so I was indoctrinated.
The facts and specifics of that live introduction to Sun Ra on a sunny Sunday afternoon are elusive. I seem to recall that my friend and I were ill prepared for the initial onslaught of cacophony and decided early on that this was not our cup of tea, and so I’m fairly certain we left before the show was over.
Yet in a way, for me the show had just begun. Like time, there was no finite defined for when I would continue to study, learn, comprehend and practice what had been given to me. I could only carry the indelible impressions. The thunderous percussion and rhythms, the dynamic incredible tone of John Gilmore, the bizarrely atonal yet awesome strength of Mr. Marshall Allen, and the barrage of bombastic, well orchestrated arrangements, made wholly by and for improvisation from outer space.
Over time, collections would follow. As I continued to find my way deeper into the tenor saxophone, friends and circles would bring Sun Ra and his Solar Myth Science Arkestra into my life more and more piece by peace. Sun Song, Interstellar Low Ways, Bad & Beautiful, Super-Sonic Jazz, Astro Black, Somewhere Else, Purple Night, Blue Delight, and various Disciplines have all joined a special private place on my shelf full of vinyl records.
For the most part, all of the Sun Ra recordings that I own have established uncanny and specific associations that conjure nostalgic periods in my life. Purple Night really brings back a haunting time. The album was given to me by my first friend and the minister of my wedding, (a former college radio host at UVM and a true aficionado of improvisatory jazz) on a cassette tape of wall-to-wall rare Sun Ra, including the entire album. I listened to the cassettes over and over again while driving around L.A. in my ‘67 Chevy Corvair coupe. This was during the time of the Rodney King riots. I had just moved to Los Angeles, so every road was an exploration. The herbs were stronger, the distance between destinations longer, and I recall the nights feeling a little bit darker and a little bit heavier, reminiscent of a very rich and midnight shade of purple.
Sun Song is another standout. I picked up this recording on CD during my year at CalArts. Originally released in 1957, it is truly one of the earliest incarnations of Sun Ra and his Arkestra. The album’s orchestration is full of timpani drums, which are rarely if ever found in classic jazz, and the eloquent sound of John Gilmore’s solo on a tune called Possession is true to the name, positively possessive. The liner notes contain Sun Ra’s poems and an explanation saying that all of the compositions are meant to depict “happiness”. The notes are full of “free” philosophies, as well as “instructions to the peoples of earth” which said, “Music paints pictures that only the mind’s eye can see”. The beauty this particular statement is apparent in Sun Ra’s brilliant piano work, playing anchor to the lush yet complex band arrangements, I have often recommended this record to those who have only experienced the more Saturnian side of the Arkestra.
The live shows are there, too. I was blessed to catch one of his last performances, after the stroke. Reading The Village Voice, post collegiate, I spied an ad for The New York Swing Society’s Annual Ball, featuring Sun Ra live at the Cat Club! Scratching my head, I called a good friend and free spirit. When I told her of the show, she was equally curious and agreed to go. Unbelievable! The Arkestra laid down the best big-band swing I’ve ever had the pleasure to witness. Le Sony’r Ra wheeled himself to the piano and proceeded to tinkle the ebonies and the ivories with the grace of the Duke, the pizzazz of the Count, the stride of the Lion and the freeness that was ALL all his own.
My friend and I were absolutely astounded. The swing society dancers went to town, jitterbugging (and I mean “bugging”), lindy-hopping and working the floor in full regalia like it was 1949. I’ll never forget it. Someday if technology ever allows, I will play back the memory on a big holographic flat screen monitor… just to say, “see!”
So what in the heck does any of this have to do with the one Peter Tosh? Where did the battle to make a decision arise?
Fast-forward, through my transitions and responsibility (as found in an early poem of mine “Then Toil”) to 2003. The Suite 903 office where I was working at the time received a package of postcards from Remix inviting us to an exhibit called The Black Chord, the photography of Mr. David Corio. Although I missed the show, I never surrendered the postcards of spectacular B&W photos featuring so many of my all-time favorites: Afrika Bambaataa, Public Enemy, De La Soul, Lee Scratch Perry, and Sun Ra! I promised myself that one day should I come into money that wasn’t already spoken for (never), or had the sudden urge to splurge a pretty penny for just me, I would buy a print of that portrait of Sun Ra.
Fast-forward again and I am working at Frank 151. A colleague is cleaning out a desk space and asks if anyone wants the various items found therein before he proceeds to give them away elsewhere or feed the recycling bin. The “one-man’s-trash” in me can never say no to perusal, and there was the book The Black Chord, by David Corio. Hell yeah. (I would later meet David in the office and we would publish a few of his photos in a chapter of The Frank Book, but that is irrelevant to the choice that still hangs in the balance.)
One more little leap of time, exactly eight years after I first saw the photography of David Corio—call it an octave—and I am turning 40. It’s time to buy the portrait of Sun Ra that I covet. I go to the book and look again at all of the amazing (I really mean it) amazing photographs of so very many many incredible musicians. Name one of your favorite legends and there is a good chance David has a brilliant shot for you. And then I’m struck, caught cold as if Ali dropped an anchor on my chin and I’m knocked the fuck out, by a photo of the Peter Tosh.
Here I had all of this connective tissue with Sun Ran, but what did I know about Peter Tosh? Not a damn thing. Although I’ve smoked much more than my fair share of the good lord’s ganja; and I love me some good roots, rock steady, and reggae; my knowledge of Peter Tosh’s musical legacy was sorely limited at best. No Bush Doctor, no Equal Rights, No Nuclear War, or Mystic Man. I can sing the chorus to Legalize It, but that’s about it.
Still, two main things came to mind looking at that photo. First – I remembered sitting around our communal loft/rehearsal space in San Francisco with a few killer musicians, smoking killer Cali-green and listening to The Wailers, when a friend (and phenomenal guitarist) commented on the perfection of Peter Tosh’s solos. How every note was spot-on, the epitome of calm, cool, and collected, without any wasted energy or flaw in his timing. Second – the more I looked at the photo, the more I felt as if it completely captured that essence of perceived perfection – without his guitar, without any other musicians present, just a spotlight, a microphone, and Peter Tosh on stage in a state of grace.
Flipping back and forth between the portrait of Sun Ra and the portrait of Peter Tosh, I had to make a deeply difficult but not protracted choice. If I had been flush with cash, I would have purchased both without any hesitation; better still a triptych including Afrika Bambaataa. Yet I could afford only one. I emailed David Corio, negotiated a deal, and ten days later a package arrived from London with a signed 8×10 print of… Peter Tosh. The reason for my decision, not that it matters much in the physical realm, was that I own Sun Ra records, had experience with his performances, and possess many great associations with his music. What do I possess of the legendary Peter Tosh? An image as musical as any notes ever played, pure and beautiful. No winner or loser. Just a decision made.