Written By: Adam Levy
Photographer: Michael Johnson
A buccaneer in a smoking jacket, a Rastafarian in a body suit of brilliant color, and a man dressed as a demonic marmot all gyrated to the interplanetary vibrations as the 14-piece band snaked a cosmic conga line through the crowd, bedecked in Egyptian headdresses and spangly regalia.
A strange sight, to be sure, but for the sartorially unorthodox Sun Ra Arkestra, it’s the one night a year when the most conspicuous people are those not wearing costumes. For Sun Ra’s “ghost band” — the term used to describe a big band that continues performing in the absence of its leader — it seemed that the specter of the late space-age prophet, or at least the omniscient Eye of Horus hung over Sullivan Hall, only blocks away from the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade.
“Sun Ra was talking about outer space before they put up the Sputnik,” said the saxophonist Marshall Allen, the Arkestra’s 86-year-old bandleader. “We talk to people about other worlds in order to broaden their minds so they can make a better planet.”
Though they could not literally transport the audience to another dimension, the band did give everyone an unforgettable head trip through their hallmark feral squawks and extraterrestrial dissonances, including such Arkestra classics as “We Travel the Space Ways,” “We’ll Wait for You” and “Fate in a Pleasant Mood.”
Part Cab Calloway, intergalactic explorer, and Tralfamadorian time traveler à la Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five,” the saturnine Sun Ra, whose earthly body ceased functioning in 1993, firmly inhabited the interstitial space between science fiction and science fact.
Born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Ala., in 1914, Sun Ra, the purported victim of an alien abduction, often spoke in gnomic mystical mantras that straddled the line between Jacques Derrida and the inscrutable palaver one might hear in the Times Square subway transfer tunnel. Sun Ra’s eccentric mien features prominently in the 1974 cult film “Space Is the Place,” in which he stars: “The people have no music that is in coordination with their spirits. Because of this, they’re out of tune with the universe.”
“It’s a very deep, inner spiritual thing that goes on when you play this music,” said the trombonist Dick Griffin, who has been with the Arkestra since 1960. And as far as Sun Ra’s Outer Space Employment Agency goes, it’s relevant now more than ever, he said. “You know what? It’s still open.”
One can’t help but wonder whether the alleged Oct. 13 U.F.O. sighting in Chelsea might have been Sun Ra himself returned to Earth from the afterlife. Mr. Allen reported a similar sighting earlier this year. “We were traveling in Oklahoma and out west and a U.F.O was following our van,” he said. “You could see it clean. It followed us and followed us and all of a sudden it turned, and whoosh! Disappeared.”
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