The boy in the cape appears out of a corner of the screen to run down the walkways of a public housing complex Another appears doing a loping walk-run on the grass. Once joined together, they’re no longer random oddballs. With instruments lifted and steps synchronized, they’ve become members of a spirited unit: The Solar Flare Arkestral Marching Band. The explosive jazz-funk piece the band is playing is “Where Pathways Meet,” a 1978 composition by Sun Ra, a former resident of the housing complex.
In the project formerly known as Eclipse—now morphing into several separately titled strands including the marching band appearances—filmmaker Cauleen Smith’s central concern is the Unidentified Flying Object that is cultural innovation. Specifically, black cultural innovation. Ultimately envisioned as the second of three film projects linked to historic hubs of African-American musical expression (New Orleans, Chicago, and Kansas City), Smith’s current work centers on jazz musician Sun Ra and the radical reshaping both he and his music underwent during the years 1945 to 1961 that he spent on Chicago’s South Side.
When Sun Ra traveled north from Alabama at the end of WWII he was thirty year old Herman ‘Sonny’ Blount, a jazz pianist and respected Birmingham band leader, He was also a conscientious objector who had spent time in both prison and conservation camps. By the time he died in 1993, he had been internationally celebrated (including a 1969 cover-of Rolling Stone) as a visionary composer and performer and an influential Afro-futurist.
Not only a pioneer of free jazz and electronic music, he was a showman whose Arkestra might contain two dozen musicians, singers, and dancers wearing anything from satin robes to beanies with lighted propellers on top. By the early 1950s he had also created an elaborate and enduring persona. By renaming himself after the Egyptian sun god and claiming to be a member of the Angel Race born on Saturn, he pulled questions of race out of confining stereotypes and into buoyant, imaginative space.
Tracing Sun Ra’s transformative Chicago years leads Smith to two streams of questions. One: What was it about that place and time that spurred Herman Blount to reinvent himself and his music. Two: How can similar artistic transformations take place today?
Next month at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Smith debuts a dual-screen projection inspired by her research in Chicago. Titled “A Seed is a Star,” it includes video portraits of the last living members of Sun Ra’s Arkestra, some of whom first played with him at Chicago’s Wonder Inn in 1960—gigs which saw the Arkestra’s first use of costume: capes and doublets acquired from a local opera company.
Over the past two years, Smith has produced flash mob touch-downs in other parts of the city, including Chinatown Square where the Rich South High School band, brilliantly uniformed in reds and blues, materializes before visibly intrigued onlookers to play Sun Ra’s “Space is the Place.“ This and other filmed appearances will be part of Smith’s installation at Chicago’s threewalls gallery opening in September 2012
Sun Ra, according to his biographer, said that his space-inspired costumes, began as a message, a sign to people “that there are other things outside their closed environment.” And, he stressed, other cultures. For Smith, the marching band appearances serve a similar purpose. Providing what she calls “fleeting ecstatic moments of visual and aural incongruence,” they are like otherworldly beings or inspiration itself, interrupting ordinary life and proposing a new patterns. What if the city were not just, as she writes, “grey and gritty,” but “awash” in sparkling brilliance. Not just a cluster of separate spheres, but an interdependent galaxy. Not just what we expect, but what we might imagine.
San Pedro, CA