Arts Listings

Eddie Gale and India Cooke Celebrate Jazz Great Sun Ra

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Thursday February 11, 2010 - 09:56:00 AM

“The motivation keeps coming back around,” said noted San Jose-based jazz trumpeter Eddie Gale, “What can I do for Sun Ra?” 

Gale was speaking of This Is for Sun Ra, four special shows this Friday and Saturday night at the collectively run Flux 53 Theater in Oakland, which just celebrated its first anniversary. Gale also spoke of the history of tributes and benefits for the master bandleader and innovative composer that Gale has instigated over the years. 

Gale, himself a pioneering musician and veteran of Sun Ra’s 1960s Arkestra, will perform along with another Arkestra alumna, noted violinist India Cooke of Oakland, who remembers her first glimpse of the lavishly costumed band on a late-night television show she watched when she was just out of school: “I saw an incredibly wild group of colors ... All black people! Michael Ray playing trumpet, doing cartwheels across the stage ... I said to myself, ‘I want to play with those people!’” 

Other players include Valerie Min on piano; Eric Marshall and Ben Bernstein on bass; Dante James and Zachary Morris on drums (Sun Ra helped introduce two-bass and two-drum band settings); Roberto Miguel and Ron Heglin on trombone; and Michael James and Cory Wright on saxophone.  

Sun Ra, who died in 1993, just after his 79th birthday, is unfortunately still better-known as an eccentric showman (and the shows were ecstatic, profound and humorous) than as the pioneering composer, musician and leader of a unique big band, often 30 or more musicians, singers and dancers, he was. Born Herman Blount (named after Black Herman, the vaudeville magician, escape artist and medicine-show man), he led big bands from the late 1930s, played piano with Coleman Hawkins and Stuff Smith and with Fletcher Henderson’s famous swing orchestra, for whom he was also an arranger.  

During World War II, Blount was arrested for refusing to serve in the military and acquired conscientious objector status. By the early 1950s, he had changed his name to Sun Ra and began to play what would become “Space Music,” his original melange of modern compositional and electronic music, African polyrhythms and jazz from all eras.  

Early on, Sun Ra was joined by tenor saxophonist John Gilmore (a seminal influence on John Coltrane and others), alto saxophonist Marshall Allen and bassist Ronnie Boykins. Other well-known musicians who played with the Arkestra included trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Alan Silva, saxophonist James Spaulding and trombonist Julian Priester. And others who joined the band for short stints include tenor saxophonists Von Freeman and Pharoah Sanders among them. Singer and violinist June Tyson was also a notable, longterm presence. 

“Playing Monday nights at Slug’s [Saloon, in New York, 1966] is how he got famous,” recalled Gale. A record album from Bernard Stoller’s ESP label helped, too. When Sun Ra encountered opposition, Dizzy Gillespie told him to “keep it up, Sunny,” that Gillespie had been heckled the same way. Thelonius Monk replied to a doubter who said Sun Ra was too far out, “Yeah, but it swings!”  

Ra’s influence on experimental jazz has been marked, and funk players Sly Stone and George Clinton have hailed his inspiration. Asked if Sun Ra was eccentric, Clinton said, “He’s out to lunch—and we eat at the same place!” 

India Cooke recalled the Arkestra arriving at a symphony rehearsal in France where they’d been commissioned to work with the orchestra. “A bunch of motley characters! We must’ve looked like we were from another planet. Actually! The symphony musicians noticed Sun Ra didn’t have any music to hand them. He just sat there, looking at them. Some got up and walked out. What they didn’t know is that he wanted to see, to feel each one of them. There was a cache of manuscript paper; he began writing pieces for the musicians in front of him—“one for flute!”—throwing them off the piano.” 

Eddie Gale reminisced about “hanging out with Sun Ra, walking the streets with him ... giving me the information that inspired me in music, associated with his philosophy. So many things took place, so many experiences. I can’t begin to say what I got from him. I wish I could.” A student of trumpeter Kenny Dorham, among others, Gale was dubbed by Sun Ra “the original avant-garde trumpet player.” Gale remembers Sun Ra positioning him by his piano, not with the trumpeters, so he could learn his music better. And he remembers playing with John Gilmore, with John Coltrane seated between them. “Coltrane told me to keep playing the way I did—at least when I stretched out!” 

“What an honor it is to play with Eddie Gale!” exclaimed India Cooke. “He’s a living legend. Just to be able to talk to him, to hear him talk about his experiences, the guys he played with.” 

Cooke has been playing and recording with bassist Joelle Leandre—she mentioned their recording Fire Dance in particular—and teaches at Mills College and the Community Music Center in San Francisco. She’s also associated with the Oakland Public Conservatory of Music.  

Eddie Gale’s music can be found through his website,, YouTube and at iTunes. He’s also been working on “these three-minute things—Microsoft approached me—A Slice of Jazz. No solo work, no stretching out.”