My encounter with Sun Ra was so fleeting it was like a shooting star crossed my path. He had just finished a stunning set at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival in 1989. It was like experiencing a psychedelic Fletcher Henderson big band, with Ra’s Arkestra dressed in luridly coloured, sequinned KKK hooded caftans. But it had its own irresistible, mad groove, and turned into a parade that was the highlight of the day. Afterwards I ran into Ra backstage and he obliged with this picture; note the way his pet cobra is captured by his symbolic baton.
I was reminded of this while watching the 1974 documentary Space is the Place. It can be injested in several excerpts on YouTube. A newish site called The Documentarian provides a one-stop noticeboard for documentaries streaming on the web, many of them on roots music by people such as Les Blank. Included is the hour-long Sun Ra – a Joyful Noise by Robert Mugge. Space is the Place shows Ra had at least one foot on terra firma: watch him patiently parrying the ripostes of these sceptical soul sistahs. The clip below shows the Arkestra at its most accessible.