The African-American jazz musician Sun Ra (1914–1993) was immensely prolific and influential as a pianist, composer, and orchestra leader, recording at least 500 albums with his Sun Ra Arkestra. The Alabama-born musician cultivated an experimental aesthetic that drew on both futuristic themes (he said that he had come from the planet Saturn) and the distant past, and his image, name, and mystical beliefs evoked ancient Egypt.
The man who would gain fame as Sun Ra was born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, on May 22, 1914, and grew up there under strict racial segregation. He was named after a traveling magician named Black Herman who claimed to be directly descended from Moses. Largely raised by his maternal grandmother, Margaret Jones, and a great-aunt, Ida Howard, Ra was given a piano for his 11th birthday and quickly demonstrated a talent for reading and performing music. He also loved to read books of all kinds, but gravitated to those on the occult, which he discovered in the library of a local black Masonic lodge. As a teen, Ra joined a secret scouting society called the Woodmen that was connected with the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal organization, and would sometimes perform at the group's functions. He suffered from a rare testicle condition called cryptorchidism that plagued him throughout his life and may have left him asexual as he never married.
As a teenager, Ra gravitated toward music professionally, for it was one of the few avenues open to a creative young African American in Birmingham. He was especially interested in the big bands that played for local black and white dances. “What happened is that, in the Deep South, the black people were very oppressed and were made to feel like they weren't anything, so the only thing they had was big bands,” he later recalled to biographer John Szwed in Space Is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra. “Unity showed that the black man could join together and dress nicely, do something nice, and that was all they had…. So it was important to me to hear big bands. That's why big bands are important to me.” Still going by the name Herman Blount, he played in an orchestra led by Birmingham high-school teacher and bandleader John “Fess” Whatley. As early as his teens he was writing arrangements and transcribing the songs he heard performed by bands that passed through Birmingham.
In 1936 Blount enrolled at the State Agricultural and Mechanical Institute for Negroes, located in Normal, Alabama, studying education for a single year. While he was there, he later recalled, he had a mystical experience in which he met a group of extraterrestrials that wanted him to go into outer space with them. As Szwed explained, he found “a giant spotlight shining down on me, and I call it transmolecularization, my whole body was changed into something else. I could see through myself. And I went up. Now, I call that an energy transformation because I wasn't in human form.” According to Blount, he landed on Saturn, which he would later claim as his point of origin. There, aliens told him that he should give up his university program “because there was going to be great trouble in schools. There was going to be trouble in every part of life.” In recalling this experience, Ra would sometimes place it at a different point in his life, but in retelling the actual event he remained generally consistent as to specific details.
Whatever the case, Blount soon dropped out of college to play music full time. For a time he played with an elegantly dressed band called the Society Troubadours and then toured the Southeast. By the 1930s he had formed a band and was writing music of his own, sometimes basing it on scientific concepts he encountered while reading magazines (one was called Thermodynamics and Fusion). Blount registered as a conscientious objector during World War II and was imprisoned and sent to a work camp. He wrote impassioned letters to the National Service Board, asking to be released to continue his musical work; a psychiatric evaluation deemed him (as quoted by Phil Johnson in the London Independent) a “well-educated colored intellectual subject to neurotic depression and sexual perversion.” He was released on medical grounds.
In 1946 Blount moved to Chicago and began using the names Sonny Lee and Le Sonra. The latter evolved into Le Sony’ra (which he legally adopted in 1952, explaining that he considered Blount his slave name) and was eventually condensed to Sun Ra. “Ra” was the name of the sun god in ancient Egyptian mythology, a field in which the musician became increasingly widely read.
Under his new name, Ra worked in the growing field of rhythm & blues as well as in jazz, backing such vocalists as Wynonie Harris, B.B. King, and LaVern Baker. He led the house band at the South Side's Club DeLisa and played in the bands of saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and bandleader Fletcher Henderson. He greatly admired the latter, whose career stretched back to the 1920s, and even the most experimental shows of his career would often feature band arrangements in the Henderson style. Ra's own piano style was influenced by that of Thelonious Monk.
In 1956, Ra formed his own big band, the Solar Arkestra, which was later known as the Sun Ra Arkestra, the Sun Ra Myth Science Arkestra, and various other names. He pointed out that the ensemble's name, in addition to suggesting the biblical image of an ark, began with the name “Ra,” reversed, in addition to ending with it. Over its decades of existence, the Arkestra boasted a rotating membership but retained several musicians, notably saxophonists John Gilmore and Marshall Allen. In 1956, Ra also established the Saturn record label as an outlet for his music; he was decades ahead of the movement toward independent labels in jazz, which was largely dominated by a few large New York City–based imprints.
The Arkestra and the Saturn label were backed by individuals who believed in Ra's experiments. As he told Jennifer Rycenga in an interview posted on the Dan Plonsey website, “This band was established like other bands, it was backed up by some people who were unselfish, and some people who felt that what I was trying to do in music was being hampered by commercial folks and other people who said it was too far out, and about twelve people got together, some musicians and others, one of them is a rabbi, he's a black Hebrew, he's in Israel now—and they put up the money, and they established us a record company, Saturn, so that I would be heard regardless of commercial folks.”
As the Sun Ra Arkestra developed, so did Ra's image and philosophy, the latter explained in rambling but invariably rich interviews. On stage, Ra appeared in costumes that mixed the historical and futuristic elements of his interests, sometimes including ancient Egyptian robes or a headpiece resembling a prop from a low-budget sciencefiction film. Arkestra performances incorporated elements of dance and theater in addition to music. Ra and the group might (as Sonic Youth band member Thurston Moore told David Stubbs of the London Guardian) walk into the audience, give a listener a bear hug, and ask, “Are you willing to give up your death for me?” During Arkestra rehearsals Ra might stop the music in order to lecture on his favored topics: Egyptology and outer space.
Arkestra members lived in the Philadelphia house and it soon had the characteristics of a commune. Ra enforced strict rules and discipline: drugs and female visitors were forbidden, rehearsals were long, and pay was low. Ra himself needed very little sleep and worked throughout his life to minimize the time he wasted sleeping. If an idea struck him, he thought nothing of awakening Arkestra members in the early morning hours to develop it. Despite such chaotic conditions, or the fact that Ra was still far from a household name, even among jazz aficionados, he had no trouble attracting musicians to his band.
After poet and white counterculture leader John Sinclair booked the Arkestra for a show in Detroit, Michigan, during the late 1960s, Ra's music developed a strong following among white devotees of experimental jazz. Filmmaker Don Letts, who directed the documentary Sun Ra: Brother from Another Planet, observed, however, that his popularity within the African-American community was relatively low. “Not a lot of black people were taken with what he was doing,” Letts told Stubbs. “A lot of his patronage came from white sections.” Ra's influence within African-American musical culture, however, was profound. He was a forerunner of the broad movement known as Afrofuturism, which combined African-centered thought with science fiction and fantasy. Artists such as funk musician George Clinton, with his Mothership imagery on recordings and in live performance, were influenced by Ra's persona. Clinton, as quoted by Peter Lavezzoli in The King of All, Sir Duke, remarked that Ra was “definitely out to lunch—same place I eat at.”
Musically, in 1953 Ra became the first musician to use electronic instruments in a jazz performance, although others generally rejected them for several more decades. His motivations in this case were, in part, economic: he used a synthesizer, he pointed out, because it allowed him to play multiple parts at the same time. The Arkestra's use of free improvisation preceded that of saxophonist Ornette Coleman and other figures of the free jazz movement.
The Sun Ra Arkestra recorded at least 500 LP albums, many of them produced on a shoestring budget. Several achieved limited commercial success, including Heliocentric Worlds (1965) and Space Is the Place (1972), the latter described by Jez Nelson in the London Guardian as “a beautiful space opera with catchy singalongs and big-band freak-outs side by side.” The album spawned a psychedelic blaxploitation movie of the same name that featured a spaceship powered by free jazz. Ra suffered a stroke in 1990, but he rejected conventional medical treatment. He continued to tour until his death in Birmingham, Alabama, on May 30, 1993, from a heart condition. The Sun Ra Arkestra has continued to perform and record.
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Lavezzoli, Peter, The King of All, Sir Duke: Ellington and the Artistic Revolution, Continuum, 2001.
Szwed, John, Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, Pantheon, 1997.
Billboard, June 12, 1993, p. 12.
Guardian (London, England), June 3, 1993, p. 16; September 5, 1997, p. 23; June 15, 2014.
Independent (London, England), September 6, 1997, p. 1.
Philadelphia Inquirer, November 23, 2014.
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Times (London, England), June 2, 1993, p. 21.