Born Herman Poole Blount in 1914, Sun Ra was a unique being who created his own bizarre sonic omniverse. The adventurous keyboardist/composer/arranger and his massive Arkestra did to jazz what NASA did to aeronautics—took it to the extremes of human consciousness. Ra and his comrades did this over 120 albums and prodigious touring, most of the time existing as a self-sufficient unit that released their own records and lived communally.
In a 2015 interview I conducted with renowned trombonist Julian Priester—who played with the Arkestra from 1952 to 1956—he noted that they would rehearse eight hours a day. "Although I didn't understand why if we were putting together music for a performance, why didn't we rehearse it, memorize it, and go on to the next [piece]? But Sun Ra's approach was different. The music would change every day. I had no clue as to why." Whatever the case, Ra's mysterious working methods resulted in some of the wildest and most euphoric specimens ever to be filed in the "jazz" section of record stores.
After Sun Ra's death in 1993, his band continued to purvey his avant-garde legacy, led by saxophonist/flautist/EVI player Marshall Allen, who's now 94 and still full of fiery inventiveness. He will guide the 14-member Sun Ra Arkestra at a Seattle festival called Space Is the Place, named after one of Sun Ra's most beloved compositions, a piece that combines earworm chants and fierce melodic beauty. Like much of the Arkestra's most fascinating output, it's always on the verge of toppling into chaos, yet it maintains a sense of revelatory progression.
Organized by local musician Nathie Katzoff (aka Drama Bahama), Space Is the Place "was the culmination of cosmic energy, and like all things cosmic, beautiful timing," he said in an e-mail interview. "We are in a slum of darkness and ignorance in the human leadership on earth—politically, environmentally, and culturally. Same with art/music events in Seattle: Classic-rock cover bands often pull a bigger audience than some of the most incredible musicians here."
Katzoff laments the dearth of "big, abstract" musicians touring through our city and our lack of attention to it. "We have all this beautiful abstract music being created in Seattle, mostly hidden, hosted in small cafes, houses, and galleries," he said. "Curating [this] festival is an attempt to bring some otherworldly and cosmic and abstract energy from Saturn and other places in the universe to shine light on our sweet town of Seattle. I am hoping that this visit from the elderly legends of Sun Ra Arkestra and the Space Lady will help all of us local artists and art lovers to celebrate uniqueness in sound, time, and space."
Originally, the Space Is the Place Festival was going to happen at Southgate Roller Rink, but a scheduling conflict forced it to move. Columbia City Theater stepped in and offered both of its stages to the inaugural fest. While it would have been a trip to catch the Arkestra in a roller rink, a venerable venue such as CCT seems like a more appropriate spot to experience their transcendent transmissions.