Moon Ships and Mardi Gras: Sun Ra and the Arkestra in the 1970s

I have been listening to the music of Sun Ra since the mid-1970s.  His Arkestra performed somewhere in Washington, DC right around that time.  I didn’t attend the show (I was broke), but a few friends did.  I believe it was at a church.  My friends who attended maintained a certain ecstatic energy for a few days.  One of them insisted Sun Ra and his music had released this ecstasy within every concertgoer.  Although I was skeptical, I understood what he meant when I finally did see Sun Ra and the Arkestra a couple years later.  A new release from the Jazz Detective label reminded me of those times.  Simply titled Sun Ra at the Showcase Live in Chicago 1976-1977, this recording comes awful damn close to unleashing that same ecstasy.

The first disc opens with birdlike melodies sung by flutes.  The melodies become questions.  Percussion and some winds grow louder.  To some it might be a challenge.  To me it’s an invitation.  Sun Ra and Hi Arkestra call it a New Beginning.  This is the listener’s intro to a brand new release from the late Sun Ra.  It was the listeners in the concert audience at Chicago’s Showcase Lounge in 1976 and 1977, too.  These sounds retreat as a percussive rhythm reminds one of a dance and drum circle that shifts into sounds not described by any conventional scale.  Music of the spheres.  As the music continues, I find myself focusing first on the horns then the organ, the percussion just moving it all along.

Dixieland gone mad and the madness of bebop.  Soundscapes unafraid (indeed, intended) to bend the human ear and mind.  Bending both in a manner heretofore hidden behind highways and houses lit by conformity and sold as freedom.  I ain’t buying.  I’m sticking with Sun Ra.  These two discs unbind the mind (Frank Zappa said that).  The production quality created by the master Zev Feldman in his studios somewhere between now and then elevates the songs and enchantments revealed in the Arkestra’s performance.  Ethereal yet solid, otherworldly and out of sight.  The next thing you know, you feel like dancing.

I’m not the first to wonder.  Was Sun Ra a being from another galaxy or is he an earthling?  If he was the former, what was his mission?  If he was an earthling what was his mission?  As far as I can tell, no matter what his origin story, his mission was to expand our minds.  Through music and performance, poetry and costume.  He remains an ultimate if not the ultimate psychedelic musician.  There’s calmness and chaos, cacophony and rhythm in his composition.  There’s melody and madness.  A church revival, a free jazz carnival, Mardi Gras dance party and Dixieland jam combined only begins to describe the festival that is a Sun Ra show.

Fifteen or so years ago I wrote an encyclopedia entry about Sun Ra.  While writing it, I was reminded of a show of his I attended sometime in the 1970s.  The details are foggy, but the impact remains.  This recording brought it all back.  What might seem to be random sounds become compositions that include catchy melodies that invite the listener to dance.  It’s not Motown, but it makes the foot tap and the body shake if you let it.  Then, the next thing you know you’re at a clinic on twentieth century “classical” music.  It could be Messaien or Hindemith, but it’s Sun Ra.  Like his contemporaries in the avant-garde jazz world, Sun Ra and his band reveal the music we haven’t taken the time to hear. Then the song chants arrive.  “Journey on the moon ship…..”

As the title suggests, these two shows took place in early November 1977 (Disc 1) and in February 1976 (Disc 2) at Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase in Chicago.  Thanks to producer Zev Feldman and his team of collaborators that included Michael D. Anderson, Joe Lizzi and Matthew Lutthans in the transfer and remastering of Richard Wilkerosn’s original reel-to-reel recordings, an audience well beyond those who fit into the Showcase almost fifty years ago can experience Sun Ra and His Arkestra performing live at one of their peak periods.  As always, Feldman and the rest of his CD production team have created packaging as exquisite as the musical production it encloses.  Reminiscences of the performance and of Sun Ra himself fill out a booklet of photographs reproduced in a beautiful format befitting the musicians and the music.  This music transcends human life and its temporality.  It lifts us all into a place we might not deserve, but can certainly benefit from.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: