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Max Dax talks to Sun Ra Arkestra’s Craig Holiday Haynes

Craig Holiday Haynes (his middle name refers to Billie Holiday) is the son of legendary jazz drummer Roy Hanyes and the Sun Ra Arkestra‘s newly-former drummer—and at 59 years, was the youngest member of one of the most important, groundbreaking and active jazz bands in the world. Sun Ra, who was one of the true prophets of electronic music, died in 1993, but his legacy is so strong that we interviewed not only Arkestra director Marshall Allen for the recent issue of Electronic Beats Magazine in Philadelphia, but also Haynes—the man who made the interview with Allen possible. Living in Queens, New York, Max Dax met Haynes in Manhattan’s famous Old Town Bar on 45 East Street in October 2013. Photo: Luci Lux

You live in New York City—but aren’t you supposed to rehearse with the Sun Ra Arkestra on a weekly basis in Philadelphia?

I’m not the only Sun Ra member here in New York, but I rehearse every possible moment with them. I played with Sun Ra from 1980. I left college to join them, and actually right after I joined Sun Ra I had the offer to play with James Brown—a man whose music I love, and who I grew up listening to! But I joined Sun Ra and I was learning so much from him, because he was a genius. He was a master in words, a master in philosophy, in numbers and—more than anything else—a master in music. You know, I’ve seen him change intricate lines, I’ve seen him play Rachmaninov for the elite and just blow everybody away. That’s a small thing compared to the things I’ve seen him do, too.

You weren’t tempted to join James Brown?

I was, but I wanted to play jazz. I didn’t want to play anything commercial, and despite the fact that I looked up to James Brown, he was still doing commercial music. Playing with Sun Ra, I knew that my name would be in the paper and everything. As a member of James Brown’s band, you are just a face in the crowd. So that made my decision. But the main reason that I stayed with Ra instead of taking the James Brown offer was that I wanted to maintain the spiritual consciousness path, as opposed to the commercialism of Mr. Brown at that time. Yes, the Down Beat magazine poll made a huge impact (with the band being over the Basie band and Buddy Rich band) and Sun Ra in four different categories, but the spirituality and cosmic consciousness was the overriding factor in that decision.

I think it’s a great decision. Even though not everybody knows the Sun Ra Arkestra, those I talk to— musicians, DJs,  journalists, women who like to dance—they know it. One thing we recently discussed is if you can call the Arkestra a ‘big band’?

You can actually call it a big band, and we do call it as such. But professionally the Sun Ra Arkestra had many names: it was the Intergalactic Arkestra, the Space Age Arkestra, the Techno Arkestra or the Jet-Set Arkestra. Ra used a lot of different names, it was never the same name except for that it was always the Arkestra. Sometimes the band varied, too.

I have to ask because I never had the chance to meet him personally: Sun Ra died, but the Arkestra is still named after him. So by what means is his spirit still alive in the band?

Mainly just through the music and the concept. From time to time we still have dancers, we speak some of his words, we do some of the chants that he did…usually going off the stage. You know, I sort of feel bad for people that appreciate the Arkestra but never saw Sun Ra in person. Because first of all, he came up during the Vaudeville era, so he had the Vaudeville concept of entertaining—but he was very knowledgeable about a lot of different subjects, and he was well versed in each one. Music first, but also the written and the spoken word, numbers, astrology, numerology, philosophy, religion and science. He was one of the first people to talk about the space age, long before NASA. In the fifties he was talking about the environment and saving the planet long before the environmental boards.

So he had a vision?

He definitely had a great vision; an unbelievable vision. He used to claim that he was from Saturn. That was maybe show business, but he believed that we are not just who we are on this planet. He insisted that we are spirits from another source, a higher source than just this planet. Only today people are starting to realize that who we are looking at is not really who we are. As Sun Ra would say, we are spiritual beings in physical bodies. It’s funny…when I was about nine or ten years old I used to go a place called St. Peter’s Lutheran Church here in Manhattan. You know the place? It’s in the same complex as the city court building. On Lexington Avenue and 53rd Street. Underneath there’s two whole blocks of one of the biggest silver and gold vaults in the world. Most people don’t know that.

That’s amazing. How did you know?

I saw it, but that’s a whole other story. Somebody took me down there. Underneath those buildings there are trucks and forklifts, picking up silver and gold bullions and driving it around. It’s unbelievable, as if there’s a whole city existing underneath us like some secret metropolis from a James Bond movie.

But how come you were allowed to see all that silver and gold?

You know, I found something and returned it to the owner. He wanted to meet me to thank me for my honesty and said: “Look, I want you to come downstairs, let me show you what I do.” He was the foreman of this vault. He said, “This is silver and gold, come and pick it up!” I picked up a piece of bullion and it was so heavy that I had to take both of my hands. What’s funny about all this is that when I was going to this church when I was a kid, the pastor—Pastor John Garcia Gensel, may he rest in peace—once asked me, “Craig, what do you think about Sun Ra?” and I answered “I don’t know anything about Sun Ra.”

So you feel the spirit of Sun Ra, and that’s why Marshall Allen and the rest of the Arkestra carry the torch. Would you call him a go-between in the real sense of the word?

Marshall was around Sun Ra more than any of us. He was in the original band, so he knew Sun Ra and his concept very well. He doesn’t just copy and paste the old because he is not Sun Ra. As I said before, Ra was really a master at each and any of those categories that I mentioned. There aren’t many people that are masters at even one of those categories! They say there is a thin line between genius and insanity, and Sun Ra was like point zero on that scale—he was right on the line! He was a genius and insane. Some people are insane and have that tiny touch of genius, but he had everything…he had it all. 

I had the pleasure of meeting Joe Zawinul a couple of times, and we became friends. He played with Miles Davis and with Wayne Shorter, and he repeatedly told me that jazz was supposed to be dead. If he’s right, how can you carry the torch? How can you transfer your art into the new millennium?

I don’t know if I’d agree just because people like Miles Davis or Sun Ra were masters of it all, and they are for sure missing. I think we are continuing something here—both musically and show business-wise, in the sense that we have the costumes, we do some of the theatrics, we try to keep the spirit.

Without risking becoming a novelty act.

Right. Sun Ra was very adamant about creating. Just creating, period. He said everybody should be creating something everyday. If you don’t create something then something is wrong. Then what are you here for?

Somebody told me the other day that the meaning of life is: do the things that you do, but do them with the most possible awareness, commitment and mindfulness. That’s the meaning of life. It totally convinced me.

Yeah, doing something for the universe, making something better. That’s important. I think we have to create. Sun Ra always said: “Everybody can play what they know. Can you play something you don’t know?”

How would you describe your working routines? Have they changed over the years? Do you jam? Do you compose?

Well, Marshall composes. He’s actually been composing some great stuff lately in the same genre and way that Sun Ra would. He’ll compose a piece and expand on it. Hopefully he keeps the composing up—I mean, he’s 89 years old by now, so he’s doing a great job composing. But nobody is composing as much as Sun Ra was.

And in terms of rehearsing? You live in New York and the commune house is in Philly.

I don’t get down to Philadelphia that much. But when we rehearsed last week for our gig at the Lincoln Jazz Center, we did it just like we would have done it with Sun Ra—which means that we wouldn’t play any of what we’d rehearsed at all.

Bob Dylan does the same and he always references Miles Davis for having been his inspiration in that regard. It’s all about to go on stage and to forget what you’ve rehearsed—which, of course can be confrontational for the audience.

Somebody once asked Miles: “Why don’t you play some of the old stuff you made?”, and he answered: “Well, that stuff is old.” It’s like, if you already know it, what are you creating? Art Blakey, the drummer, a good friend of mine, used to say “Jazz is the only music that comes straight from the creator, the musician, to the people simultaneously.” Classical music is great, but it’s not improvised. It’s all written. So they’re playing exactly what’s written, and there’s no room for creativity.

You could extend that to the usual fed-up band on tour that plays the same thing night after night.

There are all these bands around that play exactly the same thing every night, and I think that’s part of what’s wrong with the world today. It’s stifling creativity. When you are stifling creativity you are stifling a part of life that is life itself: creation. So when we played the other night at Lincoln Center, we played some stuff we didn’t know—with Marshall directing. On stage, we had no idea what we were going to play.

So how does he direct you?

With his hand gestures. He might say “do this” or “do that”. Sun Ra was a master at it, but Marshall is doing a pretty good job at it as well. I actually thought that the Lincoln Center Jazz audience would be very . . . , well not snobbish, but more of the traditional elitist type. But after we stopped playing, I looked at these people and they were people I would have never imagined to be so happy with what we did. But they were. One guy came and said: “My life has changed! I’ll never be the same!” That’s what it is all about in the end: make people think, change or expand your mind. I highlight this as usually people are so conditioned, being fed all this pre-programmed music, pre-programmed everything. It’s so nice for them to see something creative live, and it’s a give and take between us and the audience as well—there are energies being transferred. It’s just like Art Blakey said: straight from the creator to the people! But it comes back as well, it goes back and forth.

If Marshall is capable of giving you directions, and you are able to react to it unrehearsed, what is it about the band members that music functions like that? Is it because you’ve been doing it for decades?

Probably it’s because we’ve done it for so long. You asked before how much of Sun Ra is still there—that’s where he comes into play. People always say “Sun Ra was here tonight when you played.” They say that they felt his spirit. Very few bands that you see do the kind of creative thing that we do. When we rehearse at the commune house in Philadelphia it kind of rubs off on us, even on the ones that have never met Ra—I guess by osmosis. They hear records, see recordings, and now you can go on YouTube and see the concerts and also see him and the band. Some of my greatest moments in life were playing with Sun Ra, and under those kind of conditions. Sometimes it would just be me and him playing. There was a feeling that he had, along with that you could sense the knowledge and depth of his intellect. He believed that rhythms are an integral part of our world, and if we are hearing all these wrong rhythms all the time…

Four to the floor?

Four to the floor can be okay! But it has to have something else. Nuances. Colors. If there is no variation or dynamics then it’s not music! If it’s just four to the floor it becomes nullifying. It’s just sound. If you look at DNA on a screen, when you break it down, everything is just zeros and ones. But there are patterns that dictate what is. Rhythms dictate what is going on in the world. In Sun Ra’s and other people’s theories when we listen to wrong rhythms, people go crazy, insane, or some people just start to think straight like robots. I believe disco music created a lot of those robots.

As opposed to that, dynamic music frees people?

Yeah, but even some real music might make you crazy. I remember one time I was playing a tape of Sun Ra and John Gilmore and the band, and John started playing the high frequency notes on the saxophone and my cat just went crazy! I saw it happen again. As soon as those notes were played, she ran and went crazy.~

Published April 07, 2014. Words by Max Dax.