Michael Ray has been busy writing a thesis during the pandemic. Now he talks about his longtime friend and colleague Ronald Khalis Bell.
Pursuit of Happiness is the last song that Khalis wrote. He is one of the principal writers. There are a couple of versions of it. He’s got a rap version of it and some other stuff. It’s good you know. He wrote it for America because a lot of people kind of didn’t get it. My favorite line is “I want to live in a world full of peace. If you do then pull up a seat”.
Pursuit of Happiness
I think that it’s one thing that Khalis felt that you need to pay attention to. This country was really being torn apart. But music has always been the message. Khalis has always been a great writer. And George Brown - he wrote a lot of the songs. They took it to the studio, and then everybody put their touch on it. The concept that Khalis had was stacking and taking out what wasn’t working. It’s a good process.
Kool & The Gang playing an intimate show at BB King's
There are many songs in the can. We have all this material, but if they don’t hear Celebration or something like that… From the first album Khalis has always kept his ear to the mainstream. Khalis was a jazz musician. He has written some of the most beautiful music I ever heard, and we never even played it. Khalis did certain equations. They had to change with the times. We recorded so much music through the years. What they do with it is up to the studio. There is so much material. We’ve got enough for about two or three albums.
I never got bored with playing the Kool & The Gang hits. It’s a happy feeling because a lot of these songs have reached people all around the world, and seeing the response is exhilarating. It’s a real purpose of music, and how it effects different people. That is always a positive thing. I reflect back on how music has inspired my life and I’m happy that it inspires somebody else.
I don’t know what’s going on with an album release because there is some restructuring with Kool & The Gang to make everything workable. With Khalis transitioned a lot of things have changed. He is actually the captain. He’s been holding down the fort. A lot of things were really going on with the pandemic, you know. We are trying to get back into the swing of things. I should mention ShawnyMac McQuiller. He always brings his A-game to the stage. Always. He should be the poster child of Kool & The Gang.
Charles Smith was the most eccentric guy in the group. Khalis also. It’s what we did and so it was normal. With the business it’s a whole other thing. The music industry is a long, plastic hallway where thieves and murderers run free, and good men and women die like dogs – and then there’s the negative side.
We are planning on doing a tribute to Khalis sometime next year, with Kool’s son Prince Hakim, who’s been making a lot of noise. He has written so much music that people have never heard. It’s work in progress.
A later version of that horn section...
I’m writing a thesis on vibrational music. Some of it is common knowledge, but a lot of people don’t know the connection between vibrations and tones. I do that to keep my mind busy. When the pandemic hit both my knees were taken out. I feel improvements now. I’m not ready to fly yet, but I feel like walking fast. My energy is a mix of God and adrenaline. I thank God for the energy that he has given me.
MICHAEL RAY is a highly successful musician since decades with Kool & The Gang, Sun Ra Arkestra and Cosmic Krewe. Mr. Ray has kindly contributed pieces to this platform previously. Read them HERE and HERE. Read more pieces on Sun Ra Arkestra HERE and HERE, and on Cosmic Krewe HERE.
As this piece is made there are currently items on the internet suggesting that a new album with previously recorded material with Kool & The Gang is on the way. Here is an example of that.
To me, music is like glue. It binds us to the Cosmos.
People ask me how am I able to scat like I do. I feel like scatting is how the Creator speaks through me. It's fast and fire-filled. Scat is my personal lanquage with The Creator. It's Cosmic information.
I respect every religion, however, I am not particularly religious. I am spiritual.
Music encourages you and inspires you.
The Cosmic Krewe performing in New Orleans earlier this year
Growing up in a jazz family grounded me. It meant going beyond what people expect. As an adult I have been told that I could give musicians all the keys, as a child.
Growing up around talent you have to be at more than your best at all times.
There wasn’t much of an alternative to becoming an artist, but I did have an experience with one project. I was in my late teens and called myself a band leader even if I wasn’t working as one. I decided to put a band together without the cats. It was the hardest gig of my life and I recall thinking that maybe music wasn’t working out. It was only in that moment.
My mother used to always have the cats at the house, and I wanted to be an entertainer from an early age, and it was jazz that it was about.
What I envision for the future first of all is working with my husband, Michael Ray. I want to take our respective and mutual visions forward. We are working on a hologram with the College of New Jersey. It began when he received his lifetime achievement award and we sat and spoke with them. He can’t always be with us in the Cosmic Krewe physically because of his other commitments. That is where the idea of a hologram originated, and he is very interested himself. We need a team to pull it off. We have to pre-shoot the concert, and the gig has to be choreographed for the interaction with the hologram. After that you can cut and slice it.
It will take us at least a year to get this right. I would love to have it ready by the end of 2020.
We have strong ties to the college of New Jersey, and they have truly embraced me as an artist. We are also thinking of New Orleans in this and other contexts. Michael lived there for ten years and they love him there.
My family is the first jazz family of Newark, and we just did a concert honoring the Phipps family and their legacy. As I started my set, I called their great names, Ernest Phipps (Piano), Gene Phipps Sr, (Reeds) Bill Phipps, (Tenor Sax) Nat Phipps (Piano/Vocalist), Angie Phipps (Music Educator), Harold Phipps (Drummer/Percussionist) and Gene Phipps Jr. (Sax/Flute). I did this concert with some musicians who played with the Phipps longer than me even: Radam Schwartz, Gene Ghee, Clifford Howell, G.Earl Grice, Norman Mann.
I didn't spend much time with my Mother or my father because they were both constantly on the move, however.
I grew up knowing I was a Phipps, I was a Jazz singer and I was strong & independent. My mother was murdered in Newark when I was a teenager, but she grounded those four things.
I want to talk about the youth and jazz – music in general. We have a legacy to pass on. We have theory and the foundations of jazz to pass on. I heard an interview with a rap artist the other day and he said that he doesn’t like instruments… Jazz needs to do something about the future. We can’t continue to sound like music from the past. And we have to be relatable. Jazz hasn’t changed much for a very long time. Where are we going? I hear jazz in neo soul and love it. I’m not saying this to play down other genres, but we can’t have other genres without jazz.
The Cosmic Krewe - "Yolinda"
LARANAH PHIPPS-RAY is the 1st lady of the 1st family of jazz in Newark and one of the creators behind the Cosmic Krewe!
An article with Michael Ray. In this photo we see The Cosmic Krewe: Laranah Phipps-Ray and Michael Ray
There is no way that you can walk upon this Earth without music. You can’t communicate without music. People stay strong through music. Sometimes it’s the world against them. But music remains true.
The Cosmic Krewe have a new single out, which was recorded in Santiago. It contains highlights from two performances. We have been going for quite some time, and there were even two versions for a while. I also just did a recording with the Sun Ra Arkestra and Bono.
The Cosmic Krewe in action
It’s always very busy for me. I work with Kool & The Gang, and with them it’s pretty much the same show in the same way all the time. I work with the Arkestra, and with them there is no telling what’s going to happen during a performance - and it’s what comes after five to twelve hours of rehearsal.
Kool & The Gang at B.B. King's
It’s hard to be involved in as many things as I am, but it’s fun to be on the road. I stay in shape. I have been in most places, so there is no point in going out much. I stick to doing what I’m doing, and when I go on vacation I do nothing at all.
Some people are so creative and they don’t even know it. They hum where they go and can’t hear it themselves. You need to be in tune with the planet, and nurture that energy. The world can be like a long, plastic hallway. You need to stay true to yourself.
U2 with Sun Ra Arkestra at the Apollo
Michael Ray is presented thus by his partner in music and life, artist Laranah Phipps-Ray: - Michael is so well respected even in the most remote places. They love him and they might not speak the same language. He is very hard-working, very detailed, very technical, and keeps the excitement of a beginner. I am always inspired by him. He is fast-moving, energetic and exhausting - and we are both eclectic, and this keeps us drawn to each other.
At the behest of Ra Alumnis Trombonist/composer Craig Harris, who was moving on to other musical pursuits and was thusly providing Sunny with a 'trade off' by bringing Sun Ra fresh musicians to assage his departure as a steady member of the Arkestra.........an audition was arranged for myself, Tenor/Baritone saxist Kenny Williams and trombonist Henry Mitchell...all proteges of Makanda Ken McIntyre and recent graduates of the African American Music program at State University at Old Westbury.
The auditon took place at Studio WIS....151 West 21st Street in Manhattan ....the Jazz Loft of Prof Warren I Smith (founder of M'Boom.... the percussion ensemble headed by Max Roach). who mentored promising Old Westbury graduates.... incorporating them into his Composers Workshop Ensemble. Rehearsing and performing in what along with Sam Rivers Studio Rivbea was the first and the last of the 'Jazz Loft scene in NY from the 60s to the 90s.
Knoel Scott Quartet live
Sun Ra arrived and sat at the keyboard...launching into Cherokee...the litmus test for Jazz musicians.
Admittedly both Henry and Kenny were un-intimidated musically and sailed through Sunny's progressions....
As for.myself ..then and to this day a Charlie Parker sycophant....I found myself totally daunted as Sunny would change the chords each time around...playing alterations and harmonic substitutions that left me totally amazed and frustrated as I feebly attempted to negotiate my way through his chord alterations...........this was jazz at a level far beyond my bebop licks.... though i thought i knew Cherokee quite well.
Sun Ra then began to speak of what it meant to be a member of the Arkestra.
'This is the Creator's Band.......and I work for the Creator.
So if you want money, fame or fortune you dont want to work with me.
If you want Money, Fame or Fortune this is not the band for you.....
As I recognized Sun Ra as the return of Pharoah, the personification of the Black Gods of Ancient Egypt.....this proclamaition was a call.................
Kenny, a Grover Washinton disciple asequaly undaunted and was eager to join............Henry was working at the Apollo Theatre with Ray Chews Band and was not interested in such noble pursuits
For myself, I had already made membership in the Arkestra my life's dream from the moment I heard JAZZ IN SILHOEUTTE in Makandas office during my studies at Old Westbury.
Sun Ra told me to be at Variety Arts Recording Studio on 42nd Street at 6 ave the next day. That morning me and Kenny joined Sun Ra's marathon occupation of Variety Arts Studio.....from 10 am to 4 am five days a week..............an ongoing session which spawned the Albums.....Sleeping Beauty, Omniverse, Strange Celestial Road, UFO, Nuclear War and a number of others.
That first morning Sun Ra sat at the piano and began playing over some previously recorded tracks as myself, Michael Ray, June Tyson, Danny Thompson, Jacj Jacjson, Thomas Hunter, maybe Elo Omo, Kenny, John Gilmore and Marshall Allen, were gathered around the piano with our instruments. Sunny began playing something outer-worldly and nodded to me.
I was on Baritone Sax and looked at Michael in stupor.............what key? Mike mouthed the word PLAY!!!!! And I played my first solo with Sun Ra on our second meeting......recorded as part of an extended intro to what was titled Seductive Fantasy on the UFO album.
No, I had no idea at all of what was going on.....Sun Ra would tell me later: I don't want your musical knowledge, your bebop vocabulary or your musical training.................I WANT YOUR SPIRIT.......spirit sound.
During subsequent days and nights at Variety Arts Sun Ra would let Mike Ray coach us through the recording of the vocal tracks o UFO, and On Jupiter.
Sun Ra believed that the way to get to the public was with vocals and would sight the popularity of Louis Armstrong as an example.
You've got to reach people...singers always reach people..............I remember him saying.
Singing has added a more intimate aspect to my presentation and expression.
The inclusion of vocalese and spoken word in my performances has enabled me to continue Sun Ra's clarion call for the continuance of Jazz Tradition...........
They tried to fool you....I'm here to school you..... about Jazz...........It don't mean a thing...if it aint got that swing..
A beautiful capture of the Sun Ra Arkestra in Rome 1980
My plans for 2018 include the completion of KSQ's debut Album.............'Stardust' and signing on with a company to release it as well as launch KSQ on a promotional tour.
Music to me is the embodiment of Gods Love..............as Art Blakey said ...to wash off the dust ..of everyday life.
Music is my offering to the Creator and to the people of this planet.
Music is my testament to the beings of other worlds that there is more to this planet than death and destruction