The Sun Ra Arkestra was famed for its music, its sonic inventiveness, its vast and varied repertoire, its sense of performance and show, above all its longevity, but for such an important jazz institution, its band members did their talking with their instruments. While Sun Ra outlined his philosophy in poems and polemics, no others members of the band followed him into print, until now.
Trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah, who joined the band in 1975 and remained a member on and off for 22 years, actually wrote this book in the 1990s with the help of the Nuyorican poet Louis Reyes Rivera, but it has remained unpublished until now. It is in every way a revelation, an insightful autobiography about life inside the arkestral world.
Ahmed Abdullah was born Leroy Bland in Harlem in 1947 and under the Muslim influence of Malcom X changed his name to Ahmed Abdullah in 1965, although he later became a Buddhist. He first heard Coltrane at Birdland, and Sun Ra at Slugs, and he is eloquent about both musicians and their importance. Best of all is when he is talking about his own time with Ra and the Arkestra, living inside the Ra jail, as Sun Ra termed it.
“Being on the road with Sun Ra was a lot like travelling with your parents,” Abdullah remarks. “He was as much a protective and nurturing mother as he was a disciplining and lecturing father.” No drugs were allowed in the band, for obvious reasons, and no white women, given segregation. “He was in no way an equal opportunity employer,” Abdullah dryly notes. For while Ra was a musical visionary, his leadership was erratic, and the financial situation of his musicians always precarious. Alton Abraham, Ra’s agent and financial partner, treated them all with “disrespect by association”.
The post-Ra meltdown, although the Arkestra still survives today under Marshall Allen’s leadership, makes for painful reading, as the band struggles on without Ra’s guiding hand, old friendships break up and ageing band members slowly die off. Meanwhile, Abdullah himself is no shining saint, often having polyamorous relationships with white women while his black family get by without him. Protracted drug use made things worse.
Throughout, real gems surface regularly. Abdullah was taught by the enigmatic Cal Massey, and was devoted to drummer Charles Moffett, both of whom strongly feature. He is good on the loft scene in New York, and fascinating about the FESTAC 77 festival of black and African arts and culture in Lagos, at which the Arkestra performed. But what comes across most clearly is Abdullah’s devotion to the Arkestra and to his own music – although he rarely discusses his own trumpet playing – and his adventurous creativity. As an autobiography by a working musician in the troubled forefront of jazz, this book can’t be beaten.
A Strange Celestial Road: My Time In The Sun Ra Arkestra by Ahmed Abdullah with Louis Reyes Rivera. Blank Forms Editions, 540 pp, 64pp b/w & colour photographs. $50 h/b, $30 p/b. ISBN h/b 978-1-953691-18-7, p/b 978-1-953691-16-3.