Dig That Crazy Jazz

It's easy to judge someone sick in the head from reading off a list of the subject's eccentric behavior, but—as every good shrink knows—you have to bear everything into account. Take jazz composer and Prince Hall Freemason, Sun Ra (born Herman Poole Blount, 1914 - 1993), who was diagnosed by a psychiatrist as a schizophrenic when the musician's mythological theo-philosophy was presented in jest. It wasn't until the good doctor looked into Sun Ra's personal details that he noted no schizoid could organize their life—and as many musicians as Ra had—in the orderly fashion done so far in his career.

It's odd that society so easily marks anyone doing their own thing as a mental case, but here the diagnosis couldn't have been further off the mark.

There are a few mentions in John Szwed's Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra on how much the jazz legend trusted in the traditional African belief that music could heal ills—especially of the mind.

One story told in example was of back when he still played under the simple name of "Sonny" (mid-'50s), and Blount's manager got him a gig inside a Chicago mental hospital. The ward brought out some of their toughest cases (such as catatonics) as he thrashed his keys and tickled the ivories throughout the evening. It was said that a woman who had not spoken in several years got up in the middle of his set and stood next to him at the piano. After a few minutes, she leaned over and almost screamed, "Do you call that music?"

Sun Ra often repeated that story, and—in commemoration of that interesting event—later penned "Advice to Medics" on his 1956 LP Super-Sonic Jazz.

Sun Ra's interest in mental health grew, and he later released Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy—an album he believed could bridge the gap between therapy and medication. Recorded in 1963 and released in 1967 under the band name Sun Ra and His Myth Science Arkestra, the record predated—and possibly inspired—psychedelia. Julian Cope wrote that spinning the LP was as if "listening to a lost kraut/psych classic inspired by [Syd Barrett and Tangerine Dream]."

The first track, "And Otherness," opens with an unsettling drone until each musician blasts a cacophony of brass, but the trip really begins on "Thither and Yon," which is a spacy jazz number full of reverb and echo.

Things start a little weirder on "Adventure-Equation," though they level out to produce a tribally funky jam by the end.

"Moon Dance" would probably be seen as the record's single, though it is no hit by pop music standards. The organ and bossa nova style bring to mind the lighter works of Ernie Freeman, Billy May, or even Martin Denny—until it almost falls apart near the end.

The album closes on "Voice of Space," which mirrors the roar, repetition, and reverberation of "Thither and Yon," yet somehow sounds more surreal.

Well, what else but all that could anyone expect from someone whose motto was, "I use music as a medium to talk to people," and whose manager was fond of repeating, "Music is the healing force of the universe"?

Sun Ra had no problems with being seen by the public as a senseless psychotic, but never mentions—unlike his contemporaries in reggae (Lee Perry) and funk (George Clinton)—that he was a madman. If anything, Sun Ra had more issues with reality than with insanity.

In his 1974 Afro-futurist sci-fi film, Space is the Place, when asked by a group of black youths if Sun Ra is "for real," he replies, "I'm not real. I'm just like you. You don't exist in this society. If you did, your people wouldn't be seeking equal rights. You're not real. We're both myths. I do not come to you as reality. I come to you as a myth, because that's what black people are: myths."

Damn! The man may have been from Saturn, but he certainly wasn't nuts.

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