Byron Coley on Amiri Baraka & Sun Ra's A Black Mass
A Black Mass CD (SONBOY 001CD)
Sometime in the latter part of the ‘90s, I started noticing a guy at the WFMU Record Fairs. He may have been there before, I dunno, but his presence caught my attention since he was identified as the gentleman who was proudly displaying a copy of the Sun Ra/Amiri Baraka LP, A Black Mass. He was a welldressed middle-aged dude, named Tom Porter, and both Sav X (who was visiting) and I approached his table to ask how much this record would cost.
By that time, Hartmut Geerken’s Omniverse Sun Ra had appeared and vanished, but those who’d been lucky enough to grab a copy now knew exactly which Ra LPs we were still lacking. There were three titles that appeared on pretty much everyone’s want-list of the era: The Antique Blacks, Celebrations For Dial Tunes and A Black Mass. The first two were Saturn LPs from ’74, and as far as I know, it’s still unclear if the latter of them was ever actually issued. A Black Mass, on the other hand, was a well-documented release by Amiri Baraka’s Newark-based Jihad label.
Baraka was a much-lauded writer, editor and publisher as “LeRoi Jones” before he took a Muslim name and became one of the era’s best-known proponents of uniquely Black culture. Following the assassination of Malcolm X, Baraka distanced himself from the Nation of Islam, but his Nation-themed play A Black Mass, debuted in May 1966 (more than a year after Malcolm’s death), with musical accompaniment by Sun Ra’s Myth Science Arkestra. Ra had been a regular lecturer and performer at The Black Arts Repertory Theater School in Harlem, which Baraka had helmed, and he subsequently followed Baraka to Newark for the founding of Spirit House. As an adjunct to this performance space, Baraka also created Jihad Press and Jihad Records in order to better document the scene’s various artistic endeavors.
Jihad Records produced three albums, and a rumored single, which I’ve never seen. The LPs are Sonny’s Time Now by Sunny Murray, a brilliant quintet session featuring Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, Lewis Worrell, Henry Grimes & Murray, with Baraka reading his poem, “Black Art.” It is one of the most blasted sessions in the history of Fire Music, and was reissued (without permission) in 1990 by the Japanese DIW label, both as a CD and as an LP with a one-sided 7”. The generally-acknowledged third LP on Jihad (the exact chronology of the label’s releases is pretty muddy) was Black & Beautiful…Soul & Madness, which features Baraka’s words set amongst the vocal stylings of a classicist East Coast vocal quintet. The resulting session is a mind-boggling form-gloop, part doo-wop, part harsh polemicism. It is a crazy and compelling record, not exactly like anything else around (comparisons to The Last Poets and The Watts Prophets notwithstanding). It feels as though Baraka’s sprawling intellectual conception of Black Music provides strict aesthetic guidelines, giving the set a very special otherness. The single on Jihad reportedly comes from this LP.
Which leaves A Black Mass. The basis of the record is a Baraka play, telling the Nation of Islam story of “Jacob” – a deranged scientist who creates an evil race of white people out of the original Black inhabitants of earth. The sonics are ragged enough that it’s not all that easy to follow the saga’s specific narrative trajectory even if you want to, so most people will probably choose to let the words flow as bridges between the Myth Science Arkestra’s musical segments. Most researchers seem to agree that Ra was leading a tentet on the date. Ra scholar Robert Campbell identifies the players as Ra (Hohner clavinet, organ); Marshall Allen (alto sax, oboe, piccolo); Danny Davis (alto sax); John Gilmore (tenor sax, percussion); Pat Patrick (baritone sax, percussion); Robert Cummings (bass clarinet); Ronnie Boykins (bass); prob. Nimrod Hunt (percussion); prob. James Jacson (percussion); prob. Clifford Jarvis (drums). But questions regarding the recording date persist. The album was first issued in 1968 and many people
Regardless, the CD reissue
of A Black Mass on Tom
Porter’s label, Son Boy, is
far more listenable than
any copy of the actual LP
I’ve had my ears on.
|have posited that this year is also the date of the recording session. The play was first produced in May, 1966, however, and Baraka went out to teach in San Francisco that autumn. So it seems plausible that the recording was done in 1966. And I don’t believe anything in the presumed Arkestral line-up would negate that possibility.
Regardless, the CD reissue of A Black Mass on Tom Porter’s label, Son Boy, is far more listenable than any copy of the actual LP I’ve had my ears on. The incidental music the Arkestra provides, although played at low volume to accommodate the actors, is a mix of sound effect-y blurts and huge transitional flourishes all bearing the hallmarks of the master’s great work of this period. It’s totally worth buying the thing to hear the material. And the same is true of Son Boy’s reissue of Black & Beautiful… set, originals of which have routinely been dogged by noisy pressings. The master tapes have been used for both reissues, and it makes a huge difference, even though the basic sonics are still pretty lo-fi. Porter is also talking about plans to do a Son Boy reissue of Sonny’s Time Now, which would be boss. He also mentioned some of the other proposed recordings for the Jihad label.
One piece that has been particularly vexing is a legendary, chimeric album supposedly recorded under the leadership of Don Ayler. Rudolph Grey swears he saw an ad for its imminent arrival in an old issue of Jazz & Pop magazine (surveys of my file issues turned up nothing), and I first saw it mentioned in Walter Bruyninckx’s Progressive Jazz discography in the
|mid-‘80s. But I’d never been able to learn any further details about it. Mr. Porter says he has access to the session tapes in question, and, while he’s not certain, he thinks it has Charles Tyler and some singers on it. “It didn’t kill me,” Porter says. “But it has to come out, since it’s part of the history.” No shit, man.
Back at the FMU fair, Mr. Porter finally said the copy of A Black Mass would be available for $1,000. Sav tried to talk him down to $700, but he was firm. On the last day of the fair, having sold a goodly bunch of junk, I decided to pull the trigger and went over to Porter’s table with $1,000 in hand. In the meantime, however, he had decided he didn’t want to sell it. “I’m going to be reissuing that record soon,” he said. “Once I do that, I’ll be ready to get rid of it.” Unfortunately, I never had a loose grand handy at the fair again, so I’ll have to content myself with the reissue unless something big & sweet happens to fall into my lap.
But it remains a very cool album in any format, as do all the other known sides released and/or recorded for the Jihad concern. Tom Porter seems dedicated to the idea of getting them all out into the free air. And if he does, you’d be well advised to snap them up like candy. That way we may yet goad him into releasing that Don Ayler session at long last. Rudolph Grey cannot fucking wait. Neither can I. And neither should you.
................................................................. --Byron Coley
But it remains a very cool
album in any format, as do
all the other known sides
released and/or recorded
for the Jihad concern. Tom
Porter seems dedicated to
the idea of getting them all
out into the free air. And
if he does, you’d be well
advised to snap them up