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Travel

Space Is The Place: Exploring Sun Ra House, Philadelphia

@SamWKemp

Nestled on a quiet street in Philadelphia is a grey-brick house with windows painted in forest green. Passing by, you might not even turn your head. The houses in this part of the city – all cut from the same stone – tend to blur together. But look again, and you’ll notice that the door of this particular dwelling has been decorated with strange iconography. Pharaohs sit among celestial bodies glowing with a pale green flicker. At the centre of it all: the ancient symbol of the Ankh, signifying life. This is the entrance to one of the most important creative spaces in America: The Arkestral Insitute of Sun Ra, otherwise known as Sun Ra House.

The music of Sun Ra hums with the history of American jazz. Featuring elements of early ragtime, Dixieland, swing and bebop, albums like Liquidity and Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy are both indebted to the past on which they’re built and ferociously enthusiastic about the future. Ra’s life was a process of self mythologisation that began with a transcendental experience in 1936. He claimed to have been transported to Saturn by a Godlike alien race, shedding his human form. He returned to earth with a mission: to save humanity not through words or protests but through music.

You’d expect a teenager with that kind of self-belief to grow into an all-out narcissist, but Sun Ra was never interested in individual glory. For Ra, the collective came above all else. Creativity could not exist in isolation. His commitment to this principle saw the teacher, poet, philosopher, and musical innovator revolutionise American jazz and lay the foundations of Afrofuturism in one fell swoop. Sun Ra House, where the self-named sonic explorer lived with a continually evolving group of musicians called the Arkestra from 1968 until his death, is the perfect place to explore his unique and refreshing approach to creativity.

The Arkestra was experimenting with communal living well before it became a staple of hippiedom. After relocating to New York from Chicago in 1961, the group took up a residency at Slug’s Saloon in the East Village. To save money, the group hauled themselves and their instruments into the same apartment. The set-up allowed them to rehearse spontaneously at any time, but the high cost of living in New York eventually forced the Arkestra to move west. They landed in Germantown, Philidelphia, where they set about searching for a new headquarters, settling on a three-story townhouse on 5626 Morton Street. They quickly began filling the modest home with a stunning selection of artworks, bringing a shot of extravagant colour to Philidelphia.

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By this time, the group consisted of fewer than a dozen musicians. That’s not to mention the various dancers and fire eaters (yes, fire-eaters) who would join the group during live shows. The Arkestra’s activities on Morton Street must have seemed utterly bizarre to the local residents, not least because the collective travelled everywhere in shimmering robes. Although their rehearsal occasionally invited complaints, Sun Ra and his Arkestra gained a good reputation around town. Noted for their friendliness and drug-free policy, they weren’t just working musicians but active members of the community. Danny Ray Thompson, one of the collective’s saxophonists, ran a convenience store in the neighbourhood called the Pharoah’s Den, and Sun Ra himself appeared regularly on WXPN radio, occasionally giving lectures to community groups and visiting the city’s libraries. The Arkestra was also known to play free Saturday afternoon shows in Germantown park near their communal home.

In Memories of a Jazz Child, Paul Combs remembers growing up near Sun Ra House: “One thing about having Sun Ra as a neighbour was the possibility of running into him in everyday situations, like shopping at the supermarket,” he said. “One day a friend of mine and I did just this. Sun Ra and John Gilmore, the great tenor saxophonist and Ra’s right-hand man, were taking care of the shopping for their household (many of the Arkestra members lived in a big house together with their leader). I have always had the impression that life was one big cosmic game for these folks, one that involved serious dedication and a deep sense of humor.”

“Both musicians were wearing robes, although less elaborate ones than they would wear on stage,” Combs continued. “Gilmore had a small, brimless North African cap on, and Ra a small turban. Gilmore pushed the cart, and Ra followed behind directing him to the various things they needed. My friend and I followed them at a respectful distance. Finally, they got to the meat counter. This was a small neighbourhood supermarket and it was customary to have a butcher on duty behind the counter in those days. As they parked themselves in front of the counter Sun Ra said, ‘John, tell the butcher that Sun Ra would like five pounds of hamburger,’ and, although the butcher could hear Ra at least as well as we could, Gilmore relayed the request. The butcher served up the meat with a straight face as if he were either in on the play or it was a normal scene to him.”

When Sun Ra died in 1993, Marshall Allen was charged with looking after The Arkestral Institute of Sun Ra. He and the surviving members of Sun Ra have continued to live there ever since. In 2021, Allen Allen revealed that the building had partially collapsed, and on May 13th of that year, the Philadelphia Historical Commission unanimously voted to grant the property protected status. The Historical Commission will ensure that any adjustments to the building adhere to historic presentation standards, and will advise on the restoration and maintenance of the property, meaning that with any luck the house will still be standing in another 50 years.

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