Cover image of A Strange Celestial Road by Ahmed Abdullah (Blank Forms Editions, 2023)

Cover image of A Strange Celestial Road by Ahmed Abdullah (2023) | Blank Forms Editions

Prior to the April 1975 concert with Sun Ra, I had worked at the East several times with different groups. Besides working with the Master Brotherhood, I had performed in 1970 with baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett in his New York debut as a band leader. The concert with Sun Ra and the Arkestra was going to be something of special significance to me. One could feel the electricity in the room. Iyabode, who was just one month away from delivery (we were told she was due in May), seemed to know everyone in Brooklyn, and Sun Ra was Brooklyn’s folk hero.

The stage was set for fireworks. I was ready. Sun Ra had me sit next to him, as he was still figuring out where I would fit in as far as my solo capabilities were concerned. The horn players were arranged in a row at the front of the stage. The song we started with was “Discipline 27.” I was hearing it for the first time. The trumpeter, Ebah, did show up for this gig, as did about ten other people I had not rehearsed with: Danny Davis and Pat Patrick on reeds, Brother Ah (Robert Northern) on French horn, Charles Stephens playing brass, John Ore on bass, Jimmy Johnson playing drums, three dancers, and a singer. Ebah knew the music, but he and I were separated from each other by the sax section, which made it difficult to pick up the trumpet parts from my position.

The next song was the 6/8 African-flavored “Watusi,” and Sun Ra pulled out all the stops. This song brought on four dancers: Judith Holton, who went by the name Wisteria el Moondew; Cheryl Banks; Ted Thomas; and June Tyson (who doubled as the band’s singer). The audience was totally with the band. Jacson put down his flute, picked up two long curved sticks, stood on a chair and played the Ancient Infinity Drum. Soon everyone onstage was playing a drum. People in the audience were playing drums. I looked at Sun Ra as he rocked from side to side, smiling, listening, engrossed, shaking his head to the rhythms. The dancers leaped across the stage to the polyrhythms of the drums. This was no longer a concert. It was some kind of sacred ritual, akin to a Yoruban bembé.

On the wall behind the band, another person had set up a slide projector and was showing pictures of the Sun Ra Arkestra in Egypt. You could feel the audience and performers together lifting the energy of the room. Sun Ra let this go on for quite a while and then abruptly shifted gears. He played a melody on piano and suddenly the band broke out into a song led by the tall, graceful June Tyson: “This song…is dedicated to…dedicated to Nature’s God…to Nature’s God.” The audience went wild.

Next, I could hear the melody of “Images” being played on piano. My palms started sweating as I gripped my trumpet. John Gilmore kicked off the melody for the band. This was my moment. I stood up to take my first solo with the Sun Ra Arkestra!

When I finished, the applause was deafening. For the rest of the gig I played on every song that called for improvisation, at Sunny’s command. He had a way of signaling you so that you knew he was talking to you and no one else. It wasn’t rehearsed, but it was something you comprehended quickly. It was a form of telepathy. Suddenly I understood why he didn’t count off tunes in rehearsal. Onstage he just played the piano to introduce the song and the band would come in. When he played “El Is a Sound of Joy” on piano it sent chills through me. This was my song and this was my audience.

The East was our Carnegie Hall; it was our Lincoln Center. The people were with the band from the moment we arrived. Applauding and encouraging with “Go ahead brother!” “Right on!” The audience was educated to appreciate the importance of the culture we represented. I always played beyond what I thought was possible in this environment.

While onstage with Sun Ra, I felt as if I had been transported to a magic land where everything seemed right. When I improvised on a song, with Sun Ra and the band accompanying me, I felt there really was no such thing as a wrong note or mistake. I confidently felt that Sun Ra was there, supporting and leading me all the way. I began to think there was something about my ability as a soloist that he had found attractive. We played for at least three hours. After several encores, the band was allowed to leave.

Late that night, when we were home in bed recounting the amazing event that had transpired, Iyabode told me how Sun Ra was rocking back and forth when I played, as I had seen him do during “Watusi.” This inflated my self-importance to no end. In the years ahead, however, as I saw him doing this with a number of different players on their initial gigs with the Arkestra, I would come to understand that there was a profound methodology at work. Sun Ra was a genius who allowed a person to exhibit the full breadth of his capabilities before he decided where that person would fit best for maximum impact. This was real leadership.

Even though we had been told that the twins would arrive in May, the month came and went and Iyabode continued to get larger. The next time I was called to Philly for a rehearsal was right around the time my sons were about to be born. It was on the morning of June 6, 1975. I was feeling a little anxious, as I had taken a few Lamaze classes with Iyabode, but I had a real fear of hospitals and of watching childbirth in general.

It would take years of introspection and therapy for me to see how this fear was related to my oldest sister dying of a botched abortion and practically bleeding to death in the house for days before my sister Lorraine took her to the hospital, where she died shortly thereafter. Consciously, I was not able to explain to Iyabode why I was ready to provoke an argument with her around whether I should go to Philly or stay in New York, even while understanding full well that she was due any minute.

Unconsciously, I knew I had to go, and right then. I had to run as far away from a hospital as I could. My sister’s death at the age of twenty-four was the point in my life when I turned to music to transform the pain. But because I never truly dealt with the grief her death left me with at the age of thirteen, the wound hadn’t healed. But then, it had never been treated.

One of the great attractions of the Sun Ra Arkestra was that one could avoid all responsibilities, if one were so inclined, and just make music. Sun Ra, in fact, encouraged this. I am sure it was also a part of the mystical charm that the band had on audiences wherever we went.

If a musician does nothing but work on his music four to five hours every day, that person will become really good after a while, if he or she has any talent. The Arkestra rehearsals were some times ten to twelve hours daily. That, of course, did not leave a lot of time for relationships or anything else in one’s life. But this is what made the Arkestra great.

On the morning of June 6, after an argument with Iyabode, who probably intuitively knew that she would be giving birth in a couple of hours, I set off for Philadelphia to rehearse with Sun Ra. At that time, the philosophy of Sun Ra was one that was totally meant for me. The two things I was most confused about and feared, birth and death, were completely covered by Sun Ra’s philosophy, in that I could admirably avoid both of them with out worry.

I followed the routine of picking up money from Western Union and purchasing the round-trip Amtrak ticket. Pico once again met me at the station and took me to the house. Once inside, we started rehearsing. We’d barely gotten through one song before the phone rang. Pico answered the phone. “Hey, Pops, it’s for you.” He handed me the phone. “Oh man!” I jumped up and did a little dance. “I’ve got two sons who are four pounds and eight ounces!” “Look out now! Ahmed and the boyz!” This, said by Marshall, as if by proclamation, was, of course, a name that would stick.

“All right, Ahk,” John said. “Well, they didn’t become May sons, but they are Geminis. Now you know us Geminis are a little different.” Sun Ra made the understatement of the moment. We rehearsed all day into the late afternoon. After that, I had to get back to New York to work with dancer Dianne McIntyre’s group Sounds in Motion. This forced me to arrive at the hospital at midnight, a full twelve hours after my sons were born. I was able to see them, even though there was a bit of opposition to a father showing up so long after his children were born. This was going to be something difficult for me to live with and would create many problems and much tension in my relationship with Iyabode. It was nevertheless a choice I had made that I would have to deal with.

The rehearsal in Philly was for a two-week stint at the Five Spot Café in New York. The Five Spot, still a major venue for Jazz in 1975, had a reputation for featuring cutting-edge music. Sun Ra was cutting edge at that time, as he was throughout his career. The Five Spot was owned and operated by Joe and Iggy Termini and had been in existence for a number of years. This was Sun Ra’s first performance at this hallowed Jazz club, which said something about his status in the music world at the time.

When I was a teenager in the 1960s, coming to the Lower East Side from Harlem, as I walked home from school along St. Marks Place, I would take note of the names of the musicians on the marquee of the Five Spot. People like Charlie Mingus, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, Randy Weston, Thelonious Monk—they spent months working there during the 1950s and 1960s. Now groups were booked for shorter periods. In the 1970s, the vanguard groups who played there included Sun Ra, Sam Rivers, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Betty Carter, and Don Cherry. It had been the home of a couple of important events in Jazz history. John Coltrane played there with Thelonious Monk. Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry made their New York debut there. Eric Dolphy had one of the important engagements of his life recorded there with Booker Little, Mal Waldron, Richard Davis, and Ed Blackwell in his live At the Five Spot

In June 1975, I had my first extended engagement with Sun Ra at the Five Spot. My sons, Rashid and Shahid, and their mother had just come home from the hospital and I was on another planet. Things were coming together in a crazy way. Here I was, the father of twins, and working at a major New York nightclub with the great Sun Ra.

Excerpted from A Strange Celestial Road: My Time in the Sun Ra Archestra by Ahmed Abdullah. Copyright 2023. Published with permission of Blank Forms Editions.