CALLING PLANET EARTH: CLOSE ENCOUNTERS WITH SUN RA by Bob Mielke

 

Calling Planet Earth: Close Encounters with Sun Ra pulls us into the quirky world of the jazz musician known first as Herman Blount, then as Sun Ra (1914-1993), the Arkestra leader who claimed for most of his life to have come from Saturn. The book opens with an introduction to Ra’s “sub-underground” music, a sound which fascinated the author and turned him into a fan almost fifty years ago. Introductory sections set up key questions, like, “But is it Jazz?” and “Where is Sun Ra Coming From, Besides Saturn?” How did a black kid from Birmingham, Alabama, wind up proclaiming himself a Pharoah? After the introduction comes Mielke’s play, Discipline 27-II: A Cosmo-Drama in Two Acts. That’s followed by a thorough analysis of an enormous number of recordings, starting in the 1930s and continuing for the rest of his life. Posthumous releases form a separate chapter. (Most of the introductory material and analysis of recordings originally appeared in Mielke’s 2013 Adventures in Avant Pop, though it has been updated.)

 

In the play Discipline 27-II, which premiered in St. Louis, MO in 2015, Mielke makes Sun Ra’s claim to have come from outer space not an artist’s Afro-futurist proclamation but a statement of fact. The cast includes Saturn Aliens, a NASA official, and Gaia the Earth Goddess—all watching an elaborate Sun Ra concert. Ra’s actual life story is dramatized in short scenes against this concert background. We see him growing up as Herman Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, and bantering with the racist judge who sent him to prison for refusing to serve in the Army in 1942. We see him recruiting, teaching, and sheltering the musicians who became—and still are--the Arkestra. We watch Space Aliens as they comment on racism, estrangement, and music as healing. Scenes in a bar, in a strip club, a recording studio, are watched by observant aliens and NASA interrogators as well as by the play’s audience—and the cumulative effect is respectful of the man who says he’s “Mister Ra, … Mister E, but most of all, Mister Mystery.” Sun Ra claimed that his true nature was cosmic, that he had come to enlighten Earth and to teach peace. He and the Arkestra became known for futuristic costumes, musical experimentation, and performance art. The play’s notes includes extensive comments on costume options, sets, and performance alternatives—even a recipe for “Moon Stew,” to be served or sold at the concession stand twenty minutes before the play starts. Audience involvement in Discipline 27-II begins immediately, in the theater lobby where Arkestra members sit at random tables doing improvised riffs of increasing intensity. It continues as we listen in on conversations about philosophy and ethics and music, and watch exotic dancers and amazing singers and space aliens interact.

 

Dr. Bob Mielke is a professor of English at Truman State University. He has taught courses in early American lit, film studies, African American literature, and assorted topics in popular culture. His Adventures in Avant Pop includes chapters on Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, James Brown, Frank Zappa, Yoko Ono, and Sigmund Snopek as well as on Sun Ra. His Riddles of the Painful Earth: Suffering and Society in the Fiction of William Dean Howells looks at the ethical codes of Howells’ characters. His book of poetry, Kirksville, demonstrates his keen eye for significant details. He’s currently working on a documentary about Sigmund Snopek III.