Le Sony’r Ra 1953 (Sun Ra)
Touted as the most controversial film since The Birth of a Nation, The Cry of Jazz–a 1959 film essay on the spiritual status of blacks in America read through the structure of jazz music–was framed as a response to the consequences of racial division and oppression made clear in D.W. Griffith’s Klan-centered portrayal of post-bellum America.
Directed by composer Ed Bland, the highly stylized Cry of Jazz features a very early Sun Ra (then known as Le Sun Ra) with his Arkestra demonstrating the film’s argument: that rhythmic form and harmony in jazz are emanations of the restraint and the futureless future suffered by blacks in America, while melodic improvisation and rhythmic conflict are the joyful freedom and liberating deification of the present, which cry out despite the conditions of constraint.
The film, as you can watch in four parts below, famously ends with the controversial claim that jazz, like the ‘negro’ in America, is dead. Filmed at the cusp of post-bop, the film’s conclusion cannot account for the explosion of post-bop, modal jazz and free jazz (not to mention the funk, soul, samba, etc. of the coming decades). And it is worth noting that John Gilmore, saxophonologist for the Arkestra, was giving Coltrane informal lessons around the time of the filming, in the late 50s. And in addition to this, around the time this film was made, Sunny Ra pulled his ‘going electric,’ recording “India” on the album Super-Sonic Jazz–introducing the electric keyboard (a Wurlitzer) to jazz music. Perhaps every faithful congregation needs an occasional theothanatosy to remind them whose job it is to keep the heavenly creature alive.
Debuting April 3-9, 1959, in Chicago, the film is being screened April 9, 2010, at the Orphan Film Symposium put on by the Tisch School of Arts in New York City. Register now, their website warns, Seating Is Limited!
Whether you buy into the larger argument or not (that is: repeated concatenating chord sequences like the chains of enslavement, with bursts of improvisation a kind of cry from the field), the foreground of the vivid present, the image of man peculiarly sensitive to that present, and the liberating energy of the polymetric conflict between the strength and length of musical stresses in response to that sensitivity, are observations relevant to any outlook on creativity in today’s world, especially (it seems to me) to the poet’s.