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The night I met Sun Ra

Jez Nelson

Radio 3 Presenter

Sun Ra was like no other person who walked this planet. Unsurprising perhaps when you consider that he was in fact from Saturn.

Or so he informed me, one June night in 1990 when he made a visit to Earth - London in fact - and deigned to come in to my radio show for a midnight chat.

Jez Nelson recalls his interview with the jazz musician and composer Sun Ra in 1990.

I was 26 and had only recently 'gone legit'. Until recently I’d been running a jazz pirate radio station with Chris Phillips (now of Jazz FM) and Gilles Peterson (6 Music). 
As far as I was concerned I had the best job in the world. Four nights a week from 10pm until 2am, I sat in a state-of-the-art London radio studio and played all my favourite records, from Public Enemy to John Coltrane and all steps in between.

Most nights of the week I’d invite guests in to sit and chat and maybe play some live music. None of the bosses listened at night and so I could do what I fancied, and I did.

So when I was offered the chance to interview Sun Ra I jumped at it.

From a young age I’d been drawn to the avant garde and experimental. My favourite band at 13 were Devo and when in the 1980s I fell under the spell of black music I was quickly drawn to the surreal psychedelia of George Clinton. I could sit and stare at Parliament album covers for hours. 

What drew me to Ra was his weirdness for sure. Strange music, amazing clothes and out there album covers. But nothing could prepare me for that night and the impact he would have on me.

Ra arrived just before midnight wearing gorgeous robes, a bling-before-bling gold chain and a lush fur hat from a recent trip to Russia.

It’s fair to say he shamed me, dressed as I was in the acid-jazz garb of the day.

The late jazz composer Sun Ra talks to Jez Nelson in an interview recorded in 1990.

It soon became wonderfully obvious that this wasn’t to be a traditional interview. He relaxed me immediately and I went with it, discussing the value of his music way beyond planet earth.

The late jazz composer Sun Ra talks to Jez Nelson in an interview recorded in 1990.

Since that night I’ve learnt a lot more about Ra, his music and his philosophy: seeking out the records, seeing him live whenever I could before he died a few years after our meeting and reading everything I could get my hands on.

I’ve made radio and TV programmes about him, but you can never know all there is to know about this most mysterious of men, this great genius of music.

Of course genius is a greatly overused word - no more so than in talking about jazz musicians. But I truly believe Ra was just that.

He was an extraordinary pianist, a wonderful arranger and a composer genuinely like no other. His range was equally unmatched - from traditional big band swing and doo-wop, through free jazz to electronic funk and proto-rap.

Often the weirdness that first attracted me to Ra has got in the way of his genius. It’s also obscured the depth of his thought.

He was a moral philosopher whose often strange and sometimes contradictory declarations were largely disregarded as a clever ruse to drum up PR.

It was far more than that. I recommend anyone with an interest in the real Ra to read John Szwed’s excellent biography Space Is The Pace - The Lives And Times Of Sun Ra. 

On that 1990 night Ra gently introduced me to some of his thought which decades later I’m still trying to un-tangle and appreciate. The hour and a bit I spent with Ra in the studios of Jazz FM form the basis of my documentary for Radio 4, Travelling the Spaceways: the Cult of Sun Ra.

If you don’t know his story, I urge you to listen to learn why so many people - fans, promoters and musicians fell under his spell and became devotees of what in some ways, was and is, a cult.


(Photographs by Phil Levene)

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