Don’t Miss The Bus (…another of those Tales From The Road)

When the plane touched down at Orly Airport, Paris, July 1976, I had no idea of what a life-altering journey was about to unfold.  It was only two weeks prior that I had ventured to accompany Larry Bright (a longtime friend and quite phenomenal drummer) to a rehearsal with Sun Ra.  Although I’d never heard of him, Larry told me that Sun Ra’s music was interesting — and that there was a good chance that I might get a gig.  So, I grabbed my bass and tagged along — mounting my first-ever train ride for the trip from Baltimore to Philadelphia.

Sun Ra lived in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.  Somewhat cold-calling him, I proceeded to tell him of my interest in auditioning for his band.  He sat and began to scribble some nonsense on a piece of manuscript paper, afterward handing it to me and telling me to “play this.”  Oh Boy!  For a few seconds there, I was stunned.  Is this guy nuts? All that’s on this paper are some odd shapes, scratches and scribbles…  After composing myself (and beginning to realize that I was perhaps way outta my league there), I proceeded to do my best to render an interpretation of the nonsense I found there on that page.  Hmmmmm.  I was invited to do a concert with his band that evening, at a huge church on the campus of some college in downtown Philly.  The only thing I remember is being totally confused throughout the whole show: Sun Ra’s presentation was more like that of a circus than any big band I’d ever seen. The next morning, as Sunny and I walked down the street, talking music, politics, and other cosmic sorts of things, he asked if I wanted to go to France with the band the following week.  “Sure,” I confidently responded — although I still wondered whether the guy was nuts!


La Mutualite
La Mutualité

After getting settled in the hotel, I strolled down the street — sampling the newness that Paris provided to my sensibilities.  I still had no clue of the challenges and growth that were to ensue over the course of the following three months…or even later on that evening.  My first performance on an international stage was at La Mutualité (a concert auditorium in Paris), on July 8, 1976.  (Fortunately, I still have the rather colorful poster that advertised the event.)  This time, the circus atmosphere of the performance was of a much more involving character: This was Sun Ra — in Paris.  Who knew?  Certainly not me!  A dance troupe traveled with us, for the first leg of the tour.  There were Senegalese fire-eaters, some of this, and some of that…

I’m still amazed that I was able to contain my confusion enough to fake my way through the performance…and not be placed on the plane and sent home in summary judgement.  Because there was a very seasoned upright bassist (Hayes Burnett) in the band, as well, I had a hard time figuring out exactly what my role should be.  I decided to do a sort of Jimi Hendrix-influenced guitaristic thing, on my Fender Precision Bass — predating by a number of years Miles Davis’ similar deployment of piccolo bassist Foley, in one of the many incarnations of his comeback band.  By the time of the recording of the Cosmos album, in a sub-basement studio somewhere in Paris, Burnett had left the band; I then had to figure out how to play “real” bass on my Fender Precision, in a manner sufficient to drive Sun Ra’s free-wheeling Arkestra.  Never a dull moment.

After that first concert in Paris, I was tired, exhausted, elated, still confused — and wide awake!  I don’t remember going to sleep at all that night; although, I must have.  At around 7:30 AM, Larry Bright came back up to the room we shared (there were at least twenty-five people on that tour) and told me to hurry up and get dressed: the bus was about to leave.  New to the life of the touring musician, and lacking an understanding of the discipline required by all members of such an operation, I sort of ambled around in my room…attempting to wake up.  Surely, they can wait a few minutes for me to get myself together.  About ten minutes later, Larry came back to the room to inform me that the bus was pulling off — without me!  (By the way, Sun Ra had developed quite a reputation for leaving undisciplined and otherwise unaware individuals in dire straits, long before I arrived on the scene.)  I rushed downstairs, after gathering my stuff.  Once outside, I saw the bus pulling away from the curb — and I realized that I was truly about to be left behind.  I had to bang on the door to get it to stop.  Whew!!!  So began my first exercise in the art of developing discipline; the summer would be filled with many more…

The bus was headed for Montreux, Switzerland.  My next performance (a day later) with the band would be recorded and released as Sun Ra: Live At Montreux — a classic performance of a most adventurous band.  I sure am glad that I didn’t miss the bus.

Foto of Sun Ra 1976 performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival. — with Tony Bunn, Stanley Atakatun Morgan, Hayes Burnett and Sun Ra.
Foto of Sun Ra 1976 performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival — with (l-r) Tony Bunn, Stanley Atakatun Morgan, Hayes Burnett.

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