It was one of the most peculiar landings of the Sun Ra Arkestra.
Time: 7 December 1986, Polish People’s Republic, still separated from the West by the Iron Curtain. It's a grey and poor twilight of a real socialism era. In three years the Eastern Bloc would collapse, but what still occupies the minds of Poles now is mostly the martial law imposed by the Pro-Moscow regime in 1981, when the country wanted to free itself from the influence of the Soviet Union.
Place: Kalisz, one of the oldest Polish cities dating back to the 10th century, historically connected with the first kings of Poland, grew into a multinational centre with time as not only the Czech Brethren escaping the Habsburg monarchy found refuge here, but also prominent rabbis known across Europe used to operate and expound in the local Jewish community. In the 20th century, Kalisz became a provincial city and its presence in the cultural life of Poland was most significantly marked with the International Jazz Piano Festival. It was during the 13th edition of the festival that Sun Ra Arkestra performed.
What turned out to be most memorable for the concert-goers was the closing procession of musicians who left the stage to walk around the audience, circle the venue, and return. Researchers of the Sun Ra mysticism recognized such gestures as rituals of passage corresponding to the cosmic cycles of death and resurrection. From a European perspective, Sun Ra's work turns out to be a dream come true for Wagner and Stockhausen. His music brought the myth to life. The myth connecting the past with the future – above the unfavourable present – which created a sphere of freedom. However, Ra used to say that it was not freedom that was at stake here, but precision and discipline.
Sun Ra was one of the greatest and least known jazz artists of the last four decades, whose influence on diverse musicians is little known to the general public. A pianist and band leader, his style ranged from retro swing to avant free, and often in the same piece. His band could play a swinging Gershwin tune and almost imperceptibly soar into their free cosmic equational tones as if they possessed a single mind.
Ra was a keyboard improviser of great originality, but his foremost talent was for inspiring and teaching creative musicians to improvise freely but together. This tension between freedom and coherence was something he explored with abundant energy and skill.
Sun Ra died in 1993. The Arkestra performs today, under the direction of alto saxophonist Marshall Allen.