July 12, 1956: Tom Wilson Records Sun Ra on Transition
Tom Wilson, the man of many firsts in the recording industry, started Transition Records in Cambridge with two goals. First, he wanted to record leading-edge jazz, folk, and classical musicians who were undiscovered or being ignored by the major labels. Second, he wanted to record them live, in the club or concert hall, or before a studio audience. That’s where Wilson saw the best opportunities for capturing creative, spontaneous performances.
Wilson wasn’t restricting his search for talented musicians to Boston. Transition recorded three albums by the Detroit trumpeter Donald Byrd, including his first, Byrd Jazz, (TRLP-5) in 1955, and his most recent, Byrd Blows on Beacon Hill (TRLP-17), in May. Wilson also recorded trombonist Curtis Fuller and saxophonist Pepper Adams, also from Detroit. And he traveled to Chicago to record Sun Ra.
No major labels were looking at Sun Ra. He had released 45s on his own Saturn label, but no LPs, and the Transition session would be his first for any label other than his own. As it turned out, Transition was his only label besides Saturn in the 1950s.
Wilson took the musicians into Chicago’s Universal Recording Studio on July 12 and recorded ten songs, with titles almost earthbound by later Sun Ra standards: “Lullaby for Realville,” “Street Named Hell,” “Transition,” and “Call for All Demons,” which the Arkestra recorded several times. Some of the Arkestra’s familiar faces were already on board, including John Gilmore, Pat Patrick, and Julian Priester. The result was Jazz By Sun Ra (TRLP-10), released in 1957.
The record didn’t receive much attention; Nat Hentoff awarded it three stars in his Down Beat review (April 4, 1957), and his criticism implied Sun Ra wasn’t the kind of leading-edge figure that Transition claimed to seek: “What emerges is a composer of limited ability and a surprisingly small quantity of personal, fresh ideas in view of all the talk herein of “new horizons.”
Wilson actually recorded enough music for two albums, but Transition ceased operations before the second one could be released. Chicago’s Delmark Records purchased all of Transition’s Sun Ra masters, and reissued Jazz By Sun Ra in 1967 under the title Sun Song, and released the followup in 1968 as Sound of Joy.
Read more about Tom Wilson here On Troy Street in the blog entries for March 25, May 7, and September 14.
Here is Sun Ra’s “Call for All Demons,” from Jazz By Sun Ra, with assistance by Tom Wilson.