John Passmore is the Archives Manager at WNYC.
Listen to Sun Ra's complete January 7th, 1981 Whitney Museum concert, broadcast on WNYC.
This rare recording was part of a three-day festival that also included performances by the composers Steve Reich and Louise Talma. Listen to the entire show as well as an interview where Sun Ra talks about jazz improvisation and his own unique approach to music making.
Sun Ra was certainly one of the more colorful characters in the history of Jazz. His band, the Space Research Humanitarian Myth Science Arkestra, put forward music in a wide range of styles, from ellingtonia and blues to avant-garde electronica. Live performances were often multimedia events that included dance, magic tricks, home movie projection, and Ra's unmistakable otherworldly costuming.
The title of Ra's 1979 album Omniverse (premiered as a live piece at the Whitney later that evening) refers both to the Persian world for Sun, Om, and the Latin root Omni, meaning all or everything. His band's name, Arkestra, references Sun Ra's cyclical cosmology (the word starts with AR and ends with RA —the beginning is the end). The name is also a reference to Noah’s Ark: to Sun Ra, music, like the Ark, is the great vehicle which moves people in the direction of greater cosmic unity.
WNYC's original broadcast of Sun Ra's concert was part of a series at the Whitney Museum of American Art called Composers' Showcase. The series began in a small gallery in Soho in the early 1960s but quickly grew in popularity and in 1968 relocated to the museum, where it remained for the next 20 years. Composer, author, and promoter Charles Schwartz spearheaded the Whitney series, whose participants include a veritable who's who of 20th century jazz and New Music: Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, and Cecil Taylor in 1969; Iannis Xenakis in 1971; Terry Riley in 1973; and Rhys Chatham in 1981, among many others. Even Duke Ellington played a show with a trio, in 1972.