Omniverse Sun Ra
(Hartmut Geerken and Chris Trent. Publisher: Art Yard. Interview/Book Review by Andrew Cartmel)
In 1994 a large format paperback appeared entitled Omniverse Sun Ra, written by Hartmut Geerken (in collaboration with Bernard Hefele) and featuring photographs by Val Wilmer. Geerken was a writer and musician who’d met Sun Ra when he was teaching at the Goethe Institute in Cairo in the early 1970s during the Arkestra’s first visit to Egypt. Subtitled a “comprehensive pictorial and annotated discography,” the book was a crucial text on Ra. Out of print for many years, this first edition is now a collector’s item and, appropriately enough, copies are astronomically expensive, with a price tag currently ranging from five hundred to a thousand quid. The publisher of Omniverse was called Waitawhile, which is also appropriate because Sun Ra fans have had to wait quite a while for a reprint. But here it is at last — a revised and considerably expanded second edition.
And this is all thanks to Peter Dennett of Art Yard records, a small British label who have been going since 2004 and releasing records by Sun Ra all that time. “When I was a kid I used to go to Chris Cutler’s record shop in the Wandsworth Road,” says Peter Dennett. “And I saw these Sun Ra records with handmade covers. I liked the covers… they just looked odd. I used to wander down there and buy them for three quid each. I would play all my friends Space is the Place and they simply didn’t get it. I got into producing music myself and I started to play the flute, went on to the alto sax and then got more into ideas about composition. To earn a living I worked as a freelance for various music companies for years, doing mastering, restoration work, designing covers, writing scores — I was commissioned to write the scores of some TV dramas.” These included The Great Dome Robbery (2002, directed by Gabriel Range) an acclaimed drama-documentary. “I was also a DJ at the ICA for some years, every Sunday alongside Jerry Dammers and Ollie Bailey. That night was called Library of Sound — and I was running the Jazzman record store in Camden on the weekends.
“But commissions as a composer were few and far between, so I had to do some other stuff too. When I set up Art Yard I started by locating some of Sun Ra’s master tapes and releasing them, and then later on releasing Salah Ragab’s recordings and representing Salah’s publishing.” Salah Ragab was a notable jazz musician, a drummer and bandleader in Cairo. He was also the head of military music in the Egyptian army and a brigadier general. Ragab loaned instruments to the Arkestra on their eventful first visit to his country. “I worked with Salah for the last years of his life and sorted out all his publishing rights. And, as I say, I’d been working with Sun Ra’s music for a long time. Initially I got in touch with Alton Abraham, Ra’s original publisher in Chicago and he asked me to do some work for him. I was freelancing for Alton twenty-odd years ago. That gave me an insight into the Sun Ra world… universe… omniverse… multiverse! Then Sun Ra left the planet, as did Alton, and for years it was all up in the air, all a mess — the copyrights, the publishing, lots of people were claiming this and that. It was around twelve years ago that the dust started to settle and I began to put some of the pieces of the puzzle back together again. Anyway — one thing I do now (through various routes) is to represent a lot of the rights globally for Sun Ra’s recordings.”
Omniverse Sun Ra is Art Yard’s first venture into book publishing, and Peter Dennett has pulled out all the stops. It features a fine selection of images by the great jazz photographer Val Wilmer, all beautifully reproduced — although the photo on the dust wrapper is actually by Hartmut Geerken. Lurking under that heavy duty dust wrapper is a blue cloth cover embossed in silver with the title, authors’ names and an image of Ra, from another photograph by Geerken. The entire book is extravagantly illustrated, not just with photos but also album cover art, handbills and original Sun Ra record catalogues, much of this in colour. It also comes with a snazzy sewn-in cloth bookmark. It is a large and heavy tome, over 300 pages, with a comprehensive discography and enough facts and images to keep any Sun Ra nut busy for years. There is a particularly excellent, and comprehensive, 36 page essay by Robert L. Campbell charting the history of Sun Ra’s music and groups, which makes the interesting point that “Like the later Duke Ellington bands, Arkestras of the 70s and 80s are yet to be fully documented.” The book also won my heart with the photograph of the cat on its copyright page, along with a dedication to “my beloved puss in boots… who has listened carefully to more Sun Ra than most folks on this fucking planet. Though once in a while he sought shelter from extended Moog between the legs of tables & chairs.”
“The original book has been out of print for twenty years,” concludes Peter Dennett. “This version is considerably revised and expanded. It’s been two years in the making.” The new edition is by Hartmut Geerken in collaboration with Chris Trent. “Trent has been a Sun Ra boffin and researcher for decades. Hartmut is more of a literary figure. They sent me a lot of new bits for the book and I put it all together. It’s a much nicer version. The paperback that came out twenty years ago wasn’t very readable — it was almost a bit too big in my opinion. We’ve got more photographs, a lot more record covers and an updated discography. The book was printed in Hong Kong as they do great colour printing. When it was completed they shipped it out and a ton of books literally showed up in an articulated lorry in my street.” Peter Dennett smiles. “I think it’s turned out quite well,” he says.