There have been countless memorable jazz concerts over the decades in Greater Hartford, and probably all fans have a list of favs still gloriously playing in their imaginations — from the Duke Ellington Orchestra's performance some 75 years ago at Hartford's old State Theater to trombone master Steve Davis and his Young Lions roaring in a jam session at Black-eyed Sally's. As a music lover and former critic for the Courant, I witnessed a few that have stayed with me.
Eccentric Sun Ra
With absolute cosmic certainty, it can be said that the best and the brightest, wildest, wooliest, outrageously and delightfully hilarious performance in Hartford's jazz history erupted with a Big Bang explosion one hot, clammy summer night in the early 1980s when the legendary, avant-garde orchestra leader Sun Ra, the Supreme Pontiff of heliocentric hipness, and his awesome solar Arkestra descended on the West Indian Social Club in the city's North End.
Brought to town by bassist/producer Paul Brown and the Artists Collective, the Sun Ra Arkestra had originally been scheduled to play a free concert in Bushnell Park that night, but with the threat of rain the concert was moved at the last minute indoors at the West Indian Social Club.
But nothing ever really rained on Sun Ra's parade. So the supreme leader and his band — all decked out in their wondrously weird, ancient Egyptian-styled or cosmonaut costumes and space headdresses —brought their interplanetary sounds and manic flights of imagination to the club, which quickly filled up with people, many wondering what to expect from someone or something named Sun Ra.
The refugees from Bushnell Park streamed into the spacious hall lugging their well-stocked coolers and picnic provisions, immediately camping down on the floor. Even outside the club on Main Street, a large crowd listened intently and danced to the music of the high-flying, futuristic Arkestra, all part of a once-in-a-lifetime concert that became a Sun Ra worship service, a blend of romp and pageantry.
After a couple hours of Sun Ra's celebration of the life force, the concert — a wholly inadequate word for this transcendent event — wound up with everybody — audience and band members alike — all dancing together on the dance floor.
All inhibitions were lost even by the most shy or circumspect non-dancer in the hall when the Arkestra members, in their astronaut outfits, descended from the stage mingling with the audience while chanting "Space is the place," an ancient Sun Ra mantra. Musicians, with their horns at their side, ate, drank and, most astonishingly, danced with audience members to the chant, hypnotically repeating over and over, "Space is the place," "Space is the place."
Perhaps even people who absolutely loathed the mere mention of avant-garde jazz were converted, at least for the moment, by Sun Ra's cosmic kumbaya.
As part of his self-invented personal mythology, Sun Ra, had long ago declared that he was part of "an angel race" and was not from planet Earth but from Saturn.
Actually, his royal Hipster Holiness was born in Alabama in 1914. As part of his cosmic rebirth, he adopted the name Sun Ra, inspired by the ancient Egyptian sun god, Ra. His original, infinitely more prosaic name was Herman Poole Blount, hardly a mystical moniker to echo through the cosmos for all eternity. A pioneering figure in free jazz, Sun Ra was also one of the most flamboyant figures in the music's history.
That regal, mesmerizing, high priestly persona electrified the Hartford crowd when, in the show's grand climax, Sun Ra himself, looking every inch a king in his splendid, spacy robes — a fashion mix of NASA design and African themes — strode out onto the floor jammed with ecstatically whirling dancers who had turned the club into the Home of Happy Feet. Here was his Royal Eminence himself, the native of Saturn dancing and partying right along with mere earthlings in Hartford.
Hofbrau House Guest
>>In the mid-'60s when Sonny Rollins, the great tenor saxophone colossus, performed in Hartford at the old Hofbrau House, a cozy nook on Asylum Street, which, also around that same period, regularly featured such jazz giants as Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Rushing, Sonny Stitt and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
Rollins, in a then rare appearance in Hartford, played absolutely dazzling sets on a Sunday back in an era when Connecticut liquor laws shut down alcohol service in bars and restaurants at 9 p.m. It was a strictly enforced law that nightspots like the Hofbrau House feared breaking because of the real possibility of losing their liquor license.
By 9 o'clock Rollins had played one astonishing set after another, and his unquenchable creative fire was still burning fiercely. So when 9 o'clock came and went, Sonny just kept playing and playing all by himself, even though the increasingly distraught proprietor begged him to stop as the bar clock moved dangerously further and further beyond the closing time.
As the pleas got increasingly urgent, Rollins kept strolling around the club from table to table, tenor raised high playing glorious chorus after chorus. Rollins is tall, broad-shouldered and physically imposing, looking at least 6 foot 4 or so, compared to the diminutive proprietor, who seemed at least a foot or more shorter than the jazz titan.
As Rollins walked and played all around the room, the increasingly manic owner followed close behind, frantically jumping up and down, almost if he was so desperate that he might even try to snatch the horn right out of the towering saxophonist's hands.
Those in attendance recalled the higher the owner jumped, the higher Rollins soared without a break, inventing some of the most beautiful a cappella saxophone playing most had ever heard.
Eventually, it ended when Rollins, who never even acknowledged his shadow, finished with a dramatically flourishing coda, set down his horn, put it in his case and was ready to move on. Relieved at last, the hapless owner stopped jumping up and down.