Sun Ra Scandaleux: Early Reactions of French Critics

by Adam McDaniel on April 28, 2015

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Standout jazz artists and performers make their mark by harnessing the spirit of individuality and freedom to diverge from tradition. With their radical and highly stylized performances, Sun Ra and his Arkestra characterized the opportunity for innovation within jazz. The unknown and unfamiliar often cause defensive hysteria or curious fanaticism. Early accounts and reviews illuminate the curiosity (and dismay) surrounding Sun Ra. Of particular note are the confused tones of many critics’ reviews of his early performances in France. That critics were jostled may in itself have been an early indicator of Sun Ra’s future status as a jazz icon; it spoke to his dismissal of restraints.

Sun Ra was born Herman Poole Blount in 1914 in Birmingham, Alabama. Beginning at age 11 (when he received his first piano from his great aunt Ida), Herman visited black theatres and clubs, gaining exposure to thrilling and innovative jazz performances.[1] The future Sun Ra performances would display characteristics of some of the more notable musicians and bands that he saw as a young boy: the brilliant choreography of Duke Ellington and his big band, the commanding presence of Ida Cox, the elaborately dress of Ethel Waters, and the animation and authority of Fats Waller.[2] As Sun Ra developed as a performer, he incorporated ever more flamboyant displays into his stage theatrics; his stage productions were sensational, which can be seen in video recordings such as Sun Ra and his Arkestra at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976.

Before Sun Ra had ever performed in France, a French panel of critics had already discussed his work, characterizing his 1965 album The Heliocentric World of Sun Ra as “violently aggressive.”[3] His earliest performances in France were met with amusement and confusion. He choreographed surreal narratives through the music and props. Given the jostling compositions and rambunctious stage presence of the Arkestra, the cosmic themes of his shows no doubt came across as cryptic and disjointed. Was it genuine expressionism? Was it a complex commentary on so-called reality? Jazz Magazine (of France) published a discussion between critics regarding two of the first performances. One critic suggested inauthenticity of African influence, calling it “drugstore-style Africa.” Another detected clichéd stage production and themes, saying, “Sun Ra uses very old practices.”[4]

It is interesting that French critic Francis Marmande regarded Sun Ra’s work as “a deconstruction of the music.”[5] Deconstruction is an analytical concept popularized in 1967 by Jacques Derrida in which the meaning of a text, philosophy, or art is taken apart to find a subtext.6 Deconstruction of music and performance, therefore, would consider not what is in the forefront, but the ideas and/or contradictions beyond the apparent. Given the influence of such awareness, it is possible that some French critics (and audiences) may have lacked the inclination to compartmentalize Sun Ra and his Arkestra. But he was already trying to buck the system; no critic (on this planet) could categorize him, which was his whole point. But perhaps it is safer to say that he was preaching a bit more to the choir in France.

Sun Ra’s place in jazz history is similar to that of other musical innovators before him: unsettling at first to many, and later familiar and welcomed by most. This is a longtime trend in the arts, and especially in jazz. If jazz audiences today and those to come welcome forth rule-breakers more readily, could jazz be graced with more out-of-this-world artists?

[1] John F. Szwed, Space is the Place (New York: Pantheon Books, 1997), p. 11.

[2] Ibid, p. 12.

[3] Ibid, p. 291.

[4] “Un Soir au Chatelet,” Jazz Magazine 196 (January 1972) pp. 14-17.

[5] Reynolds, Jack. La Trobe University. http://www.iep.utm.edu/derrida/

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Miklos Billings April 30, 2015 at 8:05 pm

Sun Ra is an interesting character indeed. Believed he was not from this planet and was one of the first musical pioneers to go out of this world of jazz with synthesizers. It stands to mention also that he was socially conscious, despite the sci-fi and mythology, and wanted to promote the embrace of new technology. I wonder: what kind of music would he make with today’s technology?

Your last question is an important one. I certainly think it can happen. But it brings me to yet another pondering. Thinking back on the most out-there performances I’ve witnessed personally, I wonder how they’ll be viewed 40 or 50 years down the road. I don’t know if I’ve unknowingly happened upon the next Sun Ra and not given them a second thought. Sun Ra himself would be proud maybe, it makes me want to be more diligently open minded as a listener, perhaps especially when I don’t ‘get’ the music I’m hearing at first.

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Tyler Fisher April 30, 2015 at 6:25 pm

I really didn’t know much about Sun Ra prior to reading this, I think that you did a good job of providing an image of what experiencing Sun Ra would be like and also highlight the cultural impact that his presence had on French critics. The links included all lead to information that expounds upon the topic further.

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