Wailing Geniuses of the Torrential Night
Up a narrow staircase on U Street on the rainiest night of the spring, the sax man nearly burst through the brick walls with the sound of a hundred jesters, the drummer pounded the snare with his open palms, and the guy on bongos pierced the conversation of two dozen dates with rhythms from another planet.
We're at Twins Jazz, the gem of a nightspot on U Street NW, and Danny Thompson, a member since 1959 of the otherworldly Sun Ra Arkestra, is sitting in with a band led by David Bond, a Boston-based saxophonist, and Dr. Andrew White, a Washington sax player, composer, musicologist and a bit of a mad genius. To the uninitiated, the world of Sun Ra--born Herman "Sonny" Blount in Alabama in 1914, died 1993, lived as the king of a separate, insanely cheerful, universe of musicians, dancers and singers who traveled the globe dressing in fool's caps and aluminum foil crowns and inventing their own instruments and leaping about the stage and creating extraordinary jazz.
The Arkestra lives on past their creator's demise, with most of the band still residing in the Philadelphia row house where Sun Ra ruled for decades. On Saturday night, Thompson came down from Philly to play with more terrestrial musicians, but he brought with him the spirit and drive of the Arkestra, and wherever members of Sun Ra's world play, you feel as if you have entered the world of Washington artist James Hampton, the late Washington janitor whose masterwork was discovered only after he died in 1964. Hampton's visionary work, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly, will return to view when the Smithsonian's American Art museum reopens in a couple of months. If you've never seen it, you need to. It is the single greatest use of aluminum foil since Reynolds came unto this world.
When you step into a small club like Twins, unless you already know the artists' work, you take a chance. You might hear something that flops miserably. But more often than not, you will be transported, like the couple next to us who were in from Dallas on business and had never heard of Sun Ra or David Bond, but knew that there was no place like Twins and no place like U Street in their city. By the middle of the first set, the man was in tears. His wife said she hadn't seen him transported like this in decades. Decades.
Some people find life transcendent in faith and others in work, some in chemistry and some in love. Here's a place where, for $25 and a glass of wine, you can skip the whole cosmology piece and go directly to the edges of reality. (The best reading on Sun Ra and his disciples is a book called Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, by John Szwed. For more on Sun Ra on the web, try this.)
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