How and Why Philadelphia Became the Sun Ra Arkestra’s Earthly and Permanent Base

Forced by rising rents to relocate the Arkestra to Philadelphia in 1968 after the ensemble had finally become accepted as part of New York burgeoning avant-garde community, Sun Ra did so grudgingly and gradually. According to Red Bull Music Academy Daily’s John Morrison, the enigmatic bandleader-composer-keyboardist, who was then part of Manhattan’s Black Arts Movement along with poet Amira Baraka, pianist Cecil Taylor and tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp, only moved to what was described as “death’s headquarters” with its then racist and hostile police force, because the band acquired a house in the Germantown neighborhood from Arkestra alto saxophonist Marshall Allen’s father. But it took three years before Ra formally joined other band members to become a permanent Philly resident. Once there Ra found regular weekly gigs for the band in local clubs, began a relationship with visual artist Leroy Butler to design LP covers, and helped Arkestra baritone saxophonist/flutist Danny Thompson set up Pharoah’s Den grocery store in the neighborhood. Most importantly Ra began adding Philadelphia musicians to the band. Today despite Ra’s earth-leaving in 1993, the Arkestra is still based in Philly where its influence affects the city’s cultural life. Besides the likes of trumpeter Heru Sabaka-Ra, who plays in the Arkestra, as well as his own Sirius JuJu band, the Ra philosophy and showmanship is acknowledged by local performers like DJ and producer King Britt and poet and musician Moor Mother.