Tag Archives: Elmwood Cemetery Birmingham

A Joyful Noise

Sun Ra

“Calling Planet Earth – I am a different order of being …”

So says Sun Ra in Robert Mugge’s 1980 documentary, “Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise.” I was inspired to view the movie by Richard Brody’s recent spectacular review in the New Yorker, a review that is arguably as thoughtful and well-crafted as Mugge’s film itself.

Mugge’s hand-held cameras sometime follow Sun Ra around in random sequence; sometimes the musician walks ‘round and ‘round the camera. Occasionally, Sun Ra leaves the frame as the camera stops to ponder some detail in the room. In one memorable sequence, the camera is stationary, focused on a cityscape, as Sun Ra walks back and forth, in and out of the camera’s view, giving his thoughts on what is important to him as an artist of the universe.

He has a lot to say. “They say that history repeats itself,” he says, “but history is his story; it is not my story … Nature never repeats itself. Why should I repeat myself?”

Sun Ra was a son of Birmingham. Born Herman Poole (“Sonny”) Blount, he was a prodigious musician at an early age, playing Birmingham clubs. In the 1930s, he spent a year as a music education major at what is now Alabama A&M University.

Somewhere along the way – and the accounts vary – he had a transformative experience that convinced him that he had been transported to the planet Saturn and returned to planet Earth in a space ark to spread a new and forward-looking philosophy to the delusional Earthlings. He legally changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra, began to call his band the “Arkestra,” and the living myth was born. Sun Ra had the privilege of largely creating his own mythology while arguing for a “mythocracy opposed to your theocracy and democracy.”

He is critical of human inhabitants of Earth, arguing that “Man has failed – spiritually, educationally, mentally.” Standing in front of the White House, Sun Ra says that “you can’t have justice if you penalize people for doing wrong and don’t do anything for them if they’re doing right.”

Sun Ra’s philosophy often makes sense and shows an acute wisdom; occasionally, it might seem a little absurd. Either way, one should always watch his eyes. He seems conscious of exactly what he’s doing and saying and playing all the time, no matter how outrageous it may seem in the moment. It has been observed that sometimes Sun Ra felt that too many musicians take themselves too seriously; his music and philosophical observations seem to be both a response to his innate intelligence and a reaction to taking oneself too seriously.

In an early sequence of the film, vocalist June Tyson sings of Sun Ra as “the living myth, the living mystery.” Those words “myth” and “mystery” recur often throughout Mugge’s portrait of the man. Sun Ra is little known outside certain circles, but he retains a devoted following and immense respect among serious jazz aficionados. I was surprised when two novels I read recently featured cameo appearances by Sun Ra.

Mugge’s film does not deal with biography. It is most concerned with Sun Ra’s present, around 1980. Much of the film is shot in Philadelphia environs and clubs and in the communal rowhouse in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood where Sun Ra lived with much of his band – a band that taps into his musical vision and his taste for wild and outlandish garb and adornment that appear to be a fusion of the Space Age, Egyptian Africana, and psychedelics.

When I was first exposed to Sun Ra and his Arkestra’s music, sometime during my college years, I didn’t “get it.” Much of it sounded like untamed cacophony with minimal focus or forethought. Over time, the more I listened and got to know musicians with an interest in jazz, the more I appreciated Sun Ra.

“A Joyful Noise” lends credence to testimony of Sun Ra’s virtuosity. Saxophonist John Gilmore, a long-time member of the Arkestra, comments that he finds Sun Ra’s technique “… ahead of Bird and Monk” and later evokes Charles Mingus, too. Sun Ra’s knowledge of intervals and harmony, he says, are so “highly advanced” that he decided to “stop” and devote his career to the Arkestra. He stayed with Sun Ra from the 1950s. Gilmore led the group after Sun Ra’s death, and until his own death in the ‘90s.

Gilmore is one of many examples of the quality of musician Sun Ra sought and attracted. At one point in the film, Sun Ra states that he chooses musicians who believe in “arkestration, precision, and discipline.” In rehearsals captured by Mugge, Sun Ra is a diligent and precise task-master. His musicians – in rehearsal and performance – show both attention and awe. Sun Ra’s choreographic conducting in performance appears surreal and spontaneous while simultaneously controlled and conscious.

The concerts feel trance-like – in observation of both the musicians and the audience experiencing the music. In his lifetime, Sun Ra was called a “catalyst.” “A catalyst,” he says, “changes everything, but remains the same.”

I don’t always understand Sun Ra and his music, but I always enjoy the effort.

The title of Mugge’s film comes from a story Sun Ra tells in the documentary. When he and members of the Arkestra lived communally in the Philadelphia rowhouse, they would rehearse any time – day or night – that Sun Ra had the urge to create. Once, when the police came to the door in response to a complaint, they told Sun Ra that neighbors had complained about the “music.” He informed them that he wasn’t playing “music” – “I was making a joyful noise – that’s what the Bible said.”

Sun Ra had strokes in his final years and was brought back to Birmingham to be cared for by family members. He died in 1993. I was surprised to learn that he is buried at Elmwood, the 120-year-old Birmingham cemetery where my father is buried. Out of over 130,000 plots at Elmwood, I discovered that Sun Ra happens to be buried in the block just across the way from my father.

Occasionally, I spot license plates in Elmwood from far-flung places with people looking around for something in that vicinity. Occasionally, those people look like forward-thinking musician-types. If they’re looking for Sun Ra, I am happy to point out the place where his Earthly remains are resting.

“The American Way …”

dscn0522 There was a joke back in the 70s that went like this:

Q: When will we know that the Baby Boomers are getting old?

A: When “New York” magazine runs a cover story on “The Hottest New Funeral Homes.”

I think we’re there. I’ve done my last will and advance directive documents. I’m an organ donor. But I haven’t gotten around to making arrangements for disposal of my remains when the inevitable happens.

One reason for my hesitance may be that I read and never forgot Jessica Mitford’s brilliant expose of the American funeral industry, The American Way of Death (1963), and her updated revision, The American Way of Death Revisited (1998). In both volumes Mitford addresses the ways in which the funeral industry exploits the grief and shock of the bereaved to charge jacked-up prices for often unnecessary services. The 1998 update asserts that things have gotten even worse with the conglomerates swallowing up the local mom and pop operations which once dominated the industry.

It’s like this: The corrupt and sadistic medical insurance industry plays games with our mental and physical health and then, at the end, the funeral industry delivers the final punch in the face.

This comes to mind because I’ve had to think about death and dying more than usual this year. And, as I commented to my mother recently, I’ve spent more hours in cemeteries this year than I ever imagined spending in my entire life. My mother visits my father’s grave every day and when I’m in town I go over there with her.

My parents have four plots in Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham. Dad is there and Mother will be beside him but the two extra plots haven’t been claimed. Mother’s hints that she wants me to take one of the remaining plots have become gradually more frequent and more insistent.

Elmwood is a beautiful cemetery, one of Birmingham’s oldest and one of the largest in the country. It’s a beautiful and peaceful place and its inhabitants are a composite of the social, cultural, political, artistic, medical, academic, industrial, and sports history of the city. The Elmwood staff was lovely to my family as we made arrangements for Dad’s memorial and burial there earlier this year.

If I decide to be buried, I would be perfectly happy to be buried at Elmwood if they allowed natural burials. There is still a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about what kind of burial is “natural.” It’s ironic, really, since most Americans had some form of natural burial before modern times and modern laws and the emergence of a very powerful funeral lobby.

There is a history of embalming throughout civilization, of course, but modern funeral practices and preservation really took hold in the United States during the Civil War when embalming became a way of preserving soldiers’ bodies so they might be returned to their families. “Morticians” around that time re-classified themselves as “Funeral Directors” and the modern death mega-industry was born.

Here’s what I mean when I say I want a natural burial: I want my physical remains and the vessel that contains them to go back to the earth as naturally as possible. My preference is to be buried in a pine coffin without any sort of preservative and let nature take its course and reclaim my remains. That means no embalming or preservation of any kind, a coffin that is biodegradable, and no burial vault.

As I’ve researched natural burial, I have found that the tree-huggers can be just as rigid in their own way as the funeral conglomerates. For example, many natural burial sites do not allow tombstones or markers, or they mandate burial in shrouds. I’d personally like an upright stone marker at my grave and I wouldn’t mind being buried wearing clothes.

I would always prefer gentle and natural burial to harsh cremation (who among us really wants to be burned to a crisp in a fire?) but the restrictions imposed by the industry do not necessarily support my preferences. The only reason I might consider cremation is if I am unable to be guaranteed the kind of natural burial I desire. The options of cemeteries that allow natural burials are still few and far between and I have found only one in Alabama and it’s too far from home. Having my ashes cremated and scattered is the closest thing I can conjure to natural decaying as a way of returning to the land if I can’t be buried according to my wishes.

I realize that I will not be around when all of this comes about and that, at that point, it really doesn’t matter what becomes of my remains. Even so, I want my end-of-life rituals to be based on personal and spiritual decisions – not corporate ones. I have always liked the concept of “ashes to ashes and dust to dust.”

I know that thinking too much about such things may seem (and is) morbid, but after a year of the deaths of several loved ones and friends, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

As a friend of Dad’s said (with a nod to Hemingway) many years ago, reacting to the unexpected death of a mutual acquaintance – “It seems like people are dying these days that have never died before!”