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Legends Before Their Time: A Zappa/Sun Ra Comparison
By Brian L. Knight

Although they played decidedly different styles of music, Frank Zappa and Sun Ra were two gifted composers/musicians who shared similar musical vision, influences and approach. By drawing on the past, these two musicians were also responsible for molding the music of the future. The two musicians were extremely eclectic in their approach to music. Even though Sun Ra primarily remained within the jazz genre, he sampled with swing, bop, hard-bop, Latin, African and eventually mastered avant garde. On the other hand, Frank Zappa left no style unturned as he sampled with classical, jazz, doo-wop, hard rock and country. The two composers were never mired in one musical approach and their love of music was reflected by their desire to experiment.

There are two approaches to discover the music and personalities of Frank Zappa and Sun Ra. One is to collect their music, which is rather formidable task after discovering the size of their discographies. There is a selected discography at the end of this article to serve as an aid. The other approach is to read about their lives. There are three informative books in circulation that cover the amazing lives of these two performers. The first is Ben Watson’s Negative Dialectic of Poodle Play (St. Martin’s Griffin) which took a very detailed and scholarly approach to the music of Frank Zappa. Second, there is Space Is The Place: The Life And Times of Sun Ra (De Capo Press) which was Yale University’s American Studies/Anthropology professor, John Szwed’s chronicle of Sun Ra’s interesting and eccentric life. Finally, there was Frank Zappa’s autobiography - The Real Frank Zappa Book (Poseidon Press). The three books not only provided interesting glances into the musician’s lives but more importantly, their roots, their techniques and their impact on modern music.

The one common point that all three books touch on was the influences of Zappa and Sun Ra. The musical bonding agent that brought the two together was Karleheinz Stockhausen. Stockhauusen was a post-war German composer whose innovations with electronics revolutionized the face of music. In 1960, Stockhausen composed Kontakte, which was the first composition that featured the combination of live instruments and pre-recorded electronic music. Subsequent works featured Stockhausen using random sounds as a way to create music. Stockhausen’s work was greatly influenced by John Cage who also pursued the concept of ‘noise music’. In 1940, John Cage composed Living Room Music which was an entire composition based on sounds created by every day domestic items such as furniture, window parts and walls. From avant-garde jazz to modern techno music, both Cage and Stockhausen’s experimentation with synthesizers introduced "non-musical" sounds into mainstream music. It wasn’t total mainstream though, Watson quips "despite the prestige of Stockhausen, his music still emptied parties."

The music of Sun Ra closely mirrored the experimentation of Stockhausen. During his earlier years, Sun Ra’s music was influenced by the big band music of Fletcher Henderson, but he soon developed his own brand of avant-garde space jazz. Like Fletcher Henderson, Sun Ra maintained the concept of the big band, as he would have up to 20 musicians, dancers and singers on the stage at a given time. After listening to Sun Ra, one’s impression of the Big Band will forever be changed. To many, the Big Band is characterized by the Swing of Benny Goodman, and Glenn Miller or the singing of Duke Ellington, Ella Fiztgerald or Louis Armstrong. The music of Sun Ra completely refuted this generalizations.

Sun Ra used swing’s elements but he took it a step further. He employed these jazz influences and combined them with the theories and techniques of Stockhausen to create a unique brand of musical composition. There was swinging and singing, but there was also total aural anarchy characterized by dissonance, random noise samplings and chaotic jamming. It was perceived as chaos to the listener, but every single piercing note that seemed out of place or out of key to the listener was actually a premeditated, precise decision by Sun Ra. Szwed commented by saying that Sun Ra’s music "demanded of the listener a focus and appreciation of sound for its own sake." On the 3-CD set, Calling Planet Earth(Da Music), numerous examples of aural anarchy are found in the tunes "Discipline No.5", "No. 10" and "No.15". In all, Sun Ra composed over 100 installments for the Discipline series. Although the versions were remarkable different from one to the other, as some were percussion-laden jam sessions while others sounded like an orchestra warming up; all of the Disciplines were characterized by musical professionalism. As the name implies, these tunes required the utmost attention of the participating musicians.

Frank Zappa shared the same Stockhausen influence. In his autobiography, Zappa said "anything can be music, but it doesn’t become music until somebody wills it to be music, and the audience listening to it decides to perceive it as music." Zappa continued, " a composer is a guy who goes around forcing his will on unsuspecting air molecules, often with the assistance of unsuspecting musicians." Although Frank Zappa was best known for his eclectic rock and roll, he was also a gifted composer as well. No matter what genre of music he was pursuing, Zappa’s music was always complex. Watson summed it up when he described Zappa’s guitar solo for "Yo Mama" on 1979’s Sheik Yerbouti: "Some of the most exciting moments in modern classical music – Varese, Boulez, Stockhausen – develop an extraordinary objectivity, a hugeness of event like quasars exploding in space. Zappa’s solo is like that. Because Zappa is astute at selecting the icons that stimulate and upset, there is a tendency to read of his music as expressionist. The solo on "Yo Mama" is a reminder of the obectness of art. Zappa is an artist who arranges material, leaving us to draw our own conclusions." Zappa had an amazing ability to rein in wayward sounds to create music. He was the musical cattle wrangler as he tamed the chaotic and achieved musical stability. In speaking of another Zappa guitar solo, Watson said " the result is exotic schizophrenia, but Zappa has made every sound so much his own that the result is not average chaos but highly individualized music. Just as the music seems to be completely rigid and formulized according to commercial dictates, the door opens to the utterly random."

Like Stockhausen, Sun Ra and Zappa encouraged the use of electronic instruments in their repertoires. Being such musical perfectionists, one’s gut reaction about Zappa and Sun Ra would be that they hated electronic instruments. A common view is that electronics do not belong in music for they lack a human element. Zappa and Sun Ra found incredible benefits in using electronic instruments as they provided pre-recorded loops as well as abstract sounds. Zappa described the benefits of his most valued instrument, the Synclaver which is an instrument that plays pre-recorded material: "the Synclaver allows the composer not only to have his piece performed with precision, but to style the performance as well – he can be his own conductor, controlling the dynamics or any other performance parameters. He can bring his idea to the audience in a pure form, allowing them to hear the music, rather than the ego problems of a group of players who don’t give a shit about the composition." Sun Ra also used a vast array of synthesizers including the Theremin and the Mini Moog in which are used to create the sonic noise that he became known for. Unlike Zappa, Sun Ra had a little more faith in the man behind the instrument. In a conversation with DownBeat Magazine, Sun Ra talked about the Moog: " It is a challenge to the music scene…the main point concerning the synthesizer is the same in all other instruments, that is, its capacity for projection of feeling. This will be determined in a large degree by the instrument itself, but always in music, by the musician who plays the instrument."

It wasn’t just the use of electronic instruments and chaotic notes that set Zappa and Sun Ra apart from mainstream. There was also a lot of emphasis on the tunes and the people behind them. While discussing Zappa’s first album, 1966’s Freak Out, Watson described two tunes on the album "Help, I Am A Rock" and "Who Are Then Brain Police?’. Both songs are characterized by a monotonous single note and a simple drum/bass beat with vocal ramblings spliced on top. As the song titles imply, Zappa was commenting on the apathy/conformity of American society. Watson stated that Zappa chose this song approach as a protest to "the restrictive nature of the music they have chosen." Watson gave more credit to Zappa: "It is hard to make such a one-note vamp work, but it proves to be an excellent hold-all for verbal spontaneity, leaving a dub like space for words and notes to hang in."

Watson went on to say that it was a rare musical technique and other examples could be found in Sun Ra’s "Rocket #9", which was a series of chants laid on top of steady tempo. Both Zappa and Sun Ra were relaying messages through simple music. While Zappa was getting a socio-political message to the people, Sun Ra’s message was more spiritual. In his autobiography, Zappa described the songs on Freak Out: "all of the songs on it are about something…..Each tune had a function in an overall satirical concept." As the tunes on Freak Out were designed to alert the masses, "Rocket # 9" was designed to incite the audience and bring them into the fold of the band. Szwed comments that "Rocket #9" was meant for the live performance and less for the studio. During the performance of the tune, Sun Ra’s dancers and musicians made the audiences join in with the chants which turned a Sun Ra concert into a spiritual church-like experience. Although their messages were different, the method was the same. Both Zappa and Sun Ra reduced their music to a stark simplicity while creating a connection with the listener/audience.

It was this combination of instrumentation and vocals that made Zappa and Sun Ra interesting chapters in musical history. In talking about the Zappa late 1970s song "Flambay", Ben Watson said that " vocals actually serve to obscure the strange eloquence of its melody line; only Sun Ra could equal the queasy ambivalence of this cocktail jazz." On the 1987 album, Strange Celestial Road (Rounder Records), the Arkestra achieved the same outcome. The songs on album contained a unique collaboration between the tune’s melody and beat and the vocals of June Tyson and Rhoda Blount. The vocals and melody assumed two divergent paths yet they somehow joined to create a unified sound.

Beyond the musical content/approach of their music, the most striking similarity was the ardent dedication of the musicians who comprised Zappa and Sun Ra’s bands. Their mutual passion translated into a musical discipline and perfection. Sun Ra and Zappa both ran very tight bands. They would rehearse for hours on end and demand flawlessness from the musicians. In return, the band members felt a bond to the leaders like a player has to a coach. Playing for Sun Ra and Frank Zappa was the musical equivalent of playing for the Pittsburgh Steeler’s Bill Cowher. Despite a good performance, Cowher, Zappa and Sun Ra would never show outright pleasure and always make the musicians/players feel like they should and could do better.

Sun Ra spoke of this demand for musical perfection: "I’m not into division, I’m into coordination, discipline and precision. I’m never satisfied with myself. I wake up every morning and I don’t like what I did before, because it’s not going to fit another tomorrow." While discussing Frank Zappa’s weak performances with the London Symphony Orchestra, Ben Watson made the connection between Sun Ra and Zappa: " Zappa was used to the absolute dedication of virtuosi like (Warren) Cucurullo, (Steve) Vai and (Ed) Mann, who live for Zappa’s music in the manner of Sun Ra’s musicians."

In the case of Sun Ra, the band members were forced to abstain from women and drugs and they were often punished for missing practice or even screwing up an arrangement. Szwed also used a football analogy to describe the discipline within the Arkestra: " Drugs were forbidden, certainly, as was drunkenness; and involvement with women was discouraged, especially across race lines. This meant that some of the band had to go out to drink, sneak a joint on the gig or see women on the sly, like athletes tricking the coach."

Although both Zappa and Sun Ra demanded total perfection and attention, the two differed in the type of musicians they employed. Szwed mentioned that Sun Ra had a tendency to hire musicians who were not virtuosos with their instruments. Since his approach to music was rather unconventional, Sun Ra wanted musicians who weren’t rigid in their musical technique and approach. Well-professed musicians were unwilling to compromise their own abilities in order to create Sun Ra’s different yet unified sound. Although the hiring of lesser skilled musicians was the practice, there were also some truly gifted musicians in the Arkestra who went relatively unheralded in the annals of jazz history. The most obvious was saxophonist John Gilmore who was exalted by John Coltrane but remained in obscurity. Other great musicians to play for Sun Ra were Marshall Allen (saxophone), Sonny Sharrock (guitar) and Michael Ray (trumpet).

In contrast, Frank Zappa’s bands were more similar to the jazz bands of Miles Davis. Just as Miles Davis nurtured some of jazz’s greatest musicians – Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, and Tony Williams; Frank Zappa’s various bands served a similar purpose for rock and roll. Lowell George, Dale Bozzio, Peter Wolf, Steve Vai and Adrian Belew all went off to pursue successful careers after their stints with Zappa.

Frank Zappa and Sun Ra were both accomplished soloists but they never used their soloing skills as a vehicle for success. Although Sun Ra and Frank Zappa were the names that ‘sold’ a performance, they’re instrumental skills were rarely the feature of a performance. Zappa was very humble about his guitar skills: " I’m not a virtuoso guitar player. A virtuoso can play anything and I can’t. I can play only what I know, to the extent that I have developed enough manual dexterity to get the point across – but that has deteriorated over time." To any fan that has heard Zappa’s solos on tunes such as "Muffin Man", "Apostrophe" and "Punky’s Whips" or the entire album of Shut Up And Play Yer Guitar would quickly disagree with Zappa’s statements. As for Sun Ra, his piano playing added texture to the Arkestra’s sounds. It wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 1980s did he really began so display his skills when he performed live duets with Paul Bley and recorded a few solo albums. In both situations, Sun Ra showed his jazz background and less of his cosmic tonalities. In general, the two musicians preferred to run their bands like an orchestra where all the musicians were an integral component in creating a unified sound.

To collect the albums of Frank Zappa and Sun Ra is a formidable task. Sun Ra recorded every practice session and live show that he and the Arkestra performed. On top of these recordings, Sun Ra also released over 100 of them to the public. In 1956, Sun Ra created his own record label, Saturn, to get the music to the people. These albums were often released in small amounts and with homemade labels. During set-breaks and intermissions, the fans were allowed to sift through endless amount of recordings, often never knowing what they were going to get. Purchasing a Sun Ra album was like buying a mystery bag at the candy store – you never knew what you were getting, but you knew it was going to be pretty sweet. Sun Ra only would release a limited amount of any given recording and an original Sun Ra album is virtually impossible to find as only a hundred of one recording may have been made available to the public.

Similarly, Frank Zappa has endless amount of music for a collector to acquire. Zappa’s catalog ranges from studio masterpieces to officially released bootleg recordings and full orchestra pieces. Unlike Sun Ra, most of Zappa’s music has been released on CD thanks to the vision of Rykodisc and Rhino Records. Both Sun Ra and Zappa had their live performances recorded either officially or as bootlegs and now many of Frank Zappa’s bootlegs are now being officially released.

Paralleling Sun Ra’s Saturn label, Zappa created his own record label, Barking Pumpkin. Zappa’s maneuver resulted out of dissatisfaction with the major labels such as Warner Brothers and MGM. In his autobiography, Zappa provided an anecdote relaying his dissatisfaction with the record industry. On his 1967 album, We Are Only In It For The Money, one of the tunes, "Let’s Make The Water Turn Black", had a line that the MGM felt was controversial and the company censored the song. In 1968, Zappa was given the "Dutch equivalent of the Grammy" and during his acceptance speech he said, " I can’t accept this statue. I prefer that the award be presented to the guy who modified the record, because what you are hearing is more reflective of HIS work than mine." It was censorship issues like these and the omnipresent problems associated with royalties that sent Frank Zappa down the avenue of creating his own label.

Sun Ra hated the larger record companies and he held quite a bit of distrust towards them. In an interview with Robert Franza of the Stony Brook Press in 1989, Sun Ra explained his reasons for creating the Saturn label: "When I realized that the commercial [record] companies weren't going to put me out there, I did it myself, so that the world would have at least a trace of something that's beautiful and coordinated, and that really would make them feel that there is such a thing as happiness, and make them feel that there are forces beyond this planet, who taught me and wanted me to present this to them. And I've been successful in reaching these people."

The impact of Frank Zappa and Sun Ra on today’s music. The most notable is Vermont’s Phish. While Phish has occasionally made forays into the free jazz a la Sun Ra, they really borrow the stage production from Sun Ra. In the thirty plus years of his performances, Sun Ra would call many additional artistic mediums into his concerts. There would be dancers, singers and artists up on the stage simultaneously displaying their craft with the Arkestra. Phish has incorporated the same ideals by inviting audience participation in artistic creation, having acrobats flying high above their heads and inviting exotic dancers upon the stage. Musically, the boys from Burlington share the same eclecticism of Frank Zappa. Like Zappa, Phish is known to incorporate a little bit of bluegrass, accapella, heavy metal, ambience and jazz into their performance. In recent years, Phish has tipped their hats to the likes of Stockhausen and Cage by experimenting with the electronic aspects of music and using loops and pre-recorded sounds. Just as Sun Ra and Zappa focussed on the band as a collective entity, so has Phish. In recent years, Phish has stressed the equal participation of the musicians and the de-emphasis of the soloist.

Both Sun Ra and Frank Zappa were extremely gifted musicians and composers. To some degree, their brilliance has remained unheralded and as time grows on, history will realize their true importance. The underlying theme that Zappa and Sun Ra shared was their passion for music and their desire to create without being compromised. In many instances, Zappa and Sun Ra sacrificed financial gains or media attention in order to maintain the integrity of their music. They both avoided the manipulation of record companies and lived outside the spotlight that shown on so many other musicians. These facts can be attributed to the avant-garde inaccessibility of their eclectic music. The real point is that they didn’t care. As long as they created music that was true, they were happy.

On final point that brings Sun Ra and Frank Zappa together is the song "Deep Purple". This jazz/blues standard, written by Peter Derose and Mitchell Parish, was one of the first tunes played by Sun Ra and his Astro-Infinity Orchestra. The song can be found on one of Sun Ra’s earliest known recordings, Sound Sun Pleasure, which was recorded between 1953 and 1958. Ten years later, a band called Roundabout changed its name to Deep Purple in commemoration of the tune. During the winter of 1971, Deep Purple traveled to Montreaux, Switzerland to record their album Machine Head. They were going to use the Casino in Montreaux for the recording and all they had to do was wait for a Frank Zappa concert to end. Unfortunately, an audience member shot off a flare gun during Zappa’s show and the Casino burnt to the ground. As Deep Purple watched the fire from across Lake Geneva, the tune "Smoke On The Water" was conceived with the lyrics "We all came out to Montreux. On the Lake Geneva shoreline. To make records with a mobile. We didn't have much time. Frank Zappa and the Mothers. Were at the best place around. But some stupid with a flare gun. Burned the place to the ground. Smoke on the water, fire in the sky."


Suggested Available Sun Ra Releases

Calling Planet Earth (DaMusic)

Somewhere Else (Rounder Records)

Strange Celestial Roads (Rounder Records)

At The Village Vanguard (Rounder Records)

Sun Ra –The Singles (Evidence Records)

Sound Sun Pleasure (Evidence Records)

Jazz in Silhouette (Evidence Records)

Space Is The Place (Impulse Records)

Soundtrack to Space Is The Place (Evidence Records)

Supersonic Jazz (Evidence Records)

Planet Earth/Low Ways (Evidence Records)

Cosmic Tones/Art Forms (Evidence Records)

Spaceways/Bad and Beautiful (Evidence Records)


Suggested Frank Zappa Releases

Freak out! (Rykodisc)

We Are Only In It For The Money (Rykodisc)

Uncle Meat (Rykodisc)

Hot Rats (Rykodisc)

Chunga’s Revenge (Rykodisc)

Fillmore East: June 1971 (Rykodisc)

Overnite Sensation (Rykodisc)

Apostrophe (Rykodisc)

Zoot Allures(Rykodisc)

Joe’s Garage(Rykodisc)

Shut Up And Play Yer Guitar(Rykodisc)

Jazz From Hell(Rykodisc)

Mystery Disc(Rykodisc)