From the Editor

Conditions and Appreciation

Nate Wooley

Appreciation has conditions. In other words, I like a thing because the conditions of my appreciation, whatever they are, have been met. These conditions act in different ways for different people on different objects. Sometimes the conditions are negligible, because the object of appreciation is just plain likable. For example, only a few conditions must be met for the vast majority of the population to enjoy a piece of pie. Sometimes our love of something has conditions added to it over time, even though our initial experience of it was free and clear. I remember eating the chicken livers my grandmother would prepare. Now, I have to overcome an accrued knowledge of what a liver is and what it does to be able to eat the same dish. 

Finally—and this is the basis of the writing to come—there are objects that we recognize as worthy of appreciation but the individual conditions we’ve placed on them are almost impossible to meet. My wife hates olives but, for some reason known only to her, she tries to eat one about once a month to see if she can overcome the brininess and unlock the passage to its culinary wonders. Our conditions for appreciation in these instances are, essentially, obstacles that have to be overcome before we can appreciate something ; one keeps trying—like my wife eating her monthly olive—because they intuit that the appreciation they are trying to develop is worth the work. 

Since I was in my early 20s, I have grappled with my conditions for appreciating Sun Ra. Dozens of people have tried to help me—their goal being to bring me into their global community, as in “how do we convince Nate to stop being an idiot and start loving Sun Ra like the rest of us ?” The result, while unsuccessful in that I haven’t yet overcome my obstacles, has been positive : I’m learning to, at least, define these personal conditions of appreciation. 

Sun Ra Has Conditions

As I wrote in my introduction to SA2 : The Networking Issue, I have a hard time understanding the beauty of belonging to any organization. The faintest whiff of a group’s hierarchy will have me quietly backing out the door long before I’m able to appreciate what could be gained by its structure and feeling of community. I recognize this is a neurosis built on a lot of historical experiences and my own special brand of irrationality. But, because of that neurosis, some of the most widely accepted signifiers of Sun Ra’s greatness—the Arkestra, its communal aspect, his hierarchical place in it—are the greatest obstacles to my appreciation.

Among the other obstacles I have to overcome is my relationship to overt performance. What do I mean by that ? I guess I would define it as any action done that is extra-musical and prioritizes dramatic effect over music. While this has become less of a factor over the years, I still harbor a certain distrust of anything that has this performance element. This has historically been an obstacle to Sun Ra’s music for me. But recently, I saw the Arkestra perform live—my monthly olive—and I could not deny that the costumes and stage performance create a fairly universal feeling of joy. While watching the group parade through the aisles, I understood the sincerity of the spectacle. I turned a corner and now feel like this performance condition is within my grasp—proving to myself that these obstacles can be overcome with persistence.

These are the two large hurdles I have to overcome, and there’s a lot of work ahead if I’m going to develop my appreciation for Sun Ra. The interesting point to me, however, is that I continue to feel the need to try. If there was something truly distasteful, or even banal, to me about Sun Ra and his music, I wouldn’t waste my time articulating conditions and trying to overcome obstacles. So, the question is : what is it, exactly, that keeps me coming back ?

Sun Ra is Culturally Inescapable

For sixty-plus years, the Arkestra—led, since the death of Sun Ra, by the superhuman saxophonist Marshall Allen—has educated and thrilled musicians and audiences. People have been writing about Sun Ra’s music, the history and social structure of the Arkestra, and the effect they have had on a strong and vibrant Afrofuturist movement in art and music for decades. There are festivals that celebrate Sun Ra’s music, bands that are dedicated to playing his repertoire, re-issues of classic recordings and, of course, the ubiquitous “Space Is The Place” T-shirt found on one in ten jazz festival attendees.

But this saturation doesn’t act like viral PR, creating appreciation through saturation and attrition. I don’t feel the need to understand Sun Ra’s music just because it’s there, but because I recognize that it is something special that I should be paying attention to. I may not find that special something in the costumes or cosmic back story. It may not even be in the music for me, but there is something glowing under the surface and I want to know what that is. 

Sun Ra is a Generative Influence

The indefinable quality that makes Sun Ra inescapable seems to also be responsible for creating inspiration for expression in others : from a fan announcing their taste by wearing Sun Ra’s picture on a T-shirt through the continued creative work of Allen and the Arkestra to keep Ra’s influence alive and relevant to all those that take his example as a jumping-
off point for saying something new with their own work. Take, for example, Taylor Ho Bynum and Naima Lowe’s writing in this issue, both of whom have used Sun Ra’s generative influence as a way to push themselves out of their literary comfort zones and onto a new path.

Sun Ra Makes is Reevaluate What We Already Know

He wrote a kind of big band music, that after hearing for the first time, irrevocably changes our base knowledge of what big band music is and can be. He even prompts us to take a fresh look at him and his music. In this issue, Ken Vandermark talks about the compositional, economic, and cultural similarities of Sun Ra and Duke Ellington. It’s an apt comparison : both are musical figures with compositional voices that were too strong to be contained by the tradition of jazz music. Luke Stewart also talks with Thomas Stanley about his incredible book, The Execution of Sun Ra, which asks the overlooked question : “What was Sun Ra trying to tell us ?”

Sun Ra Continues to be Present

Very few artists have an active effect on culture and music long after their passing. Yes, the Arkestra could be viewed as a repertory band, but anyone who has seen them live knows that the feeling is deeper than that. Somehow the spirit of Sun Ra still seems to be in our heads and on the streets. He’s found a way to transcend his death by presenting us with an option of being that moves within and beyond the clothing, the intergalactic origin story, and the music. Sun Ra remains a gravity that you either embrace or you fight. John Corbett goes into this in his book Vinyl Freak, part of which is reprinted in this issue. 

After a rehearsal a couple of months ago, I was riding home with a friend. He was playing memory sticks in his car, one of which was jammed in the stereo giving us two options : ALL Sun Ra or nothing. My friend knows about my obstacles to, and conditions for, the appreciation of Sun Ra, so he began to half apologize/half convince as we drove down the West Side Highway. And, maybe because I wasn’t trying so hard, I started to hear Sun Ra’s music for the first time. A burning John Gilmore solo here, synths bordering on hard noise there. An indescribably funky off-kilter groove or song lyrics that made me laugh. I was discovering all the conditions that his music had met while I was obsessing on which conditions it hadn’t. I still hadn’t overcome all my obstacles or met all my conditions, but now I could hear the music, and that gives me energy to keep on trying. 

In this issue

Marshall Allen
Sites of Formation 1924

Marshall Allen and the Creation of a New World

Jessie Cox
Reg Bloor
Sites of Formation 1948

Glenn Branca's Symphony No. 13 "Hallucination City" for 100 Guitars at the World Trade Center Plaza June 13, 2001 (Excerpt from a memoir in progress)

Reg Bloor
Taylor Ho Bynum

My Teacher's Teacher — Tales of Chief Dee

Taylor Ho Bynum
Duke Ellington

Sun Ra and Duke Ellington: Parallels in practice for the 20th-century large ensemble

Ken Vandermark
Sun Ra in Philadelphia

According to Sun Ra, None of Us Are Real

Naima Lowe
Sun Ra Thomas Stanley

The Execution of Sun Ra (Volume II): A conversation with Thomas Stanley

Luke Stewart
Sun Ra DX7

Anything Can Happen Day: Sun Ra, Alton Abraham, and the Taming of the Freak

John Corbett
On the Corner
Sites of Formation 1972

Four Thoughts About Miles Davis's On the Corner

Chris Pitsiokos
Derek Bailey
Sites of Formation 1992

Derek Bailey's On the Edge: Improvisation in Music

Peter Margasak
Nate Wooley
Sites of Formation 2020

Social or Mutual Aid Music

Nate Wooley
Freya Powell

A Conversation: Audra Wolowiec and Freya Powell

Moor Mother
Exquisite Corpse

2020 Part One: Quantum Black in the Moment

Moor Mother