WASHINGTON PARK — Saxophonists gathered in Washington Park Thursday for a 30-minute long jam on “Happy Birthday” for Sun Ra.
“Sun Ra was a fixture in Washington Park at the Washington Park forum during his time in Chicago in the ‘50s,” said saxophonist David Boykin, the organizer of the celebration for Sun Ra’s 100th birthday in the park. “People espousing various religious, political and social views held court and Sun Ra was among them preaching and passing out leaflets of his own.”
Boykin had hoped to get 100 saxophonists out on Thursday to honor the founder of “cosmic jazz” and a leader of the avant-garde jazz scene.
“I heard somewhere of a story of him doing this before: gathering 100 saxophones to play in the park,” Boykin said of the idea.
He didn’t quite get 100, but the 25 saxophonists who did come to the park enjoyed an a half-hour jam that started with a dissonant version of “Happy Birthday,” before settling into a rolling groove as the players marched in circle near 53rd Street and King Drive.
“I could hear them, I don’t know if they could hear me,” joked Ernest Dawkins, who said he found his role holding down the core of the groove with an alto saxophone player and the conga player. “I tried to keep certain things going as far as momentum.”
Dawkins said he got to see Sun Ra play in Chicago in the early 1970s during at a show opening for Miles Davis. He said the crowd was so anxious for Davis to come on as rain clouds rolled in that they were throwing light bulbs at Sun Ra’s “arkestra.”
Dawkins said Sun Ra stopped the band, glided to the front of the stage in his Egyptian robes, raised his hand and said stop. He said he remembers a bolt of lightning striking the amphitheater just as Sun Ra spoke.
He said he’s never forgotten the power of Sun Ra in that moment and had to come out on Thursday and pay his respects.
The group played as dancers writhed in lavish costumes that were a nod to Sun Ra’s interest in the occult and outer space.
The jam ended with all the players back on a small stage as a straining chord slowly resolved and the crowd of about 75 people cheered.
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