Sun Ra

sun ra

Sun Ra (1914 – 1993), born Herman Poole Blount, was a prolific jazz artist and philosopher known for his ‘cosmic’ music and philosophies. His eclectic music and unorthodox lifestyle made him controversial. Claiming that he was of the ‘Angel Race’ and not from Earth, but from Saturn, Sun Ra developed a complex persona using ‘cosmic’ philosophies and lyrical poetry that made him a pioneer of afrofuturism. He preached awareness and peace above all.

He abandoned his birth name and took on the name and persona of Sun Ra (Ra being the Egyptian God of the Sun), and used several other names throughout his career, including Le Sonra and Sonny Lee. Sun Ra denied any connection with his birth name, saying ‘That’s an imaginary person, never existed … Any name that I use other than Ra is a pseudonym.’

From the mid-1950s to his death, Sun Ra led ‘The Arkestra,’ an ensemble with an ever-changing lineup and name. It was by turns called ‘The Solar Myth Arkestra,’ ‘His Cosmo Discipline Arkestra,’ the ‘Blue Universe Arkestra,’ ‘The Jet Set Omniverse Arkestra,’ as well as many other permutations. Sun Ra asserted that the ever-changing name of his ensemble reflected the ever-changing nature of his music.

His mainstream success was limited, but Sun Ra was a prolific recording artist and frequent live performer. His music ranged from keyboard solos to big bands of over 30 musicians and touched on virtually the entire history of jazz, from ragtime to swing music, from bebop to free jazz. He was also a pioneer of electronic music and space music. He also used free improvisation and was one of the first musicians, of any genre, to make extensive use of electronic keyboards.

For decades, very little was known about Sun Ra’s early life, much of it being obscured by Sun Ra himself. He routinely gave evasive, contradictory or seemingly nonsensical answers to personal questions and even denied his birth name. His birthday for years remained unknown, his birth year being claimed as years ranging from 1910 to 1918. Only a few years before his death, the date of Sun Ra’s birth remained a mystery.

Named after the popular vaudeville stage magician Black Herman, who had deeply impressed his mother, Sun Ra would speculate, only half in jest, that he was distantly related to Elijah Poole, later famous as Elijah Muhammed, leader of the Nation of Islam. He was nicknamed ‘Sonny’ from his childhood, had an older sister and half-brother, and was doted upon by his mother and grandmother.

Born in Birmingham Alabama, Sun Ra was a skilled pianist as a child. By 11 or 12 years old he was writing original songs, and was able to sight read sheet music. Birmingham was an important stop for touring musicians, and he saw famous musicians like Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, along with less-famous performers who were often just as talented as their better-known peers, with Sun Ra once stating ‘the world let down a lot of good musicians.’

In his teenage years, Sun Ra demonstrated prodigious musical talent. Many times, according to acquaintances, he would see big band performances and produce full transcriptions of the bands’ songs from memory. By his mid-teens Sun Ra was performing semi-professionally as a solo pianist, or as a member of various ad hoc jazz and R&B groups. He attended Birmingham’s Industrial High School (now known as Parker High School) where he studied under famed music teacher John T. ‘Fess’ Whatley, a demanding disciplinarian who was widely respected and whose classes produced many professional musicians.

He was a member of Freemasons while in high school. The Black Masonic Lodge was one of the few places in Birmingham where African-Americans had essentially unlimited access to books, and the Lodge’s many books on Freemasonry and other esoteric concepts made a large impression on him.

He dropped out of college in 1936 because of a dream he claimed to have had. In the midst of deep religious concentration, Sun Ra claimed that a bright light appeared around him, and, as he later stated,

‘… my whole body changed into something else. I could see through myself. And I went up … I wasn’t in human form … I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn … they teleported me and I was down on [a] stage with them. They wanted to talk with me. They had one little antenna on each ear. A little antenna over each eye. They talked to me. They told me to stop [attending college] because there was going to be great trouble in schools … the world was going into complete chaos … I would speak [through music], and the world would listen. That’s what they told me.’

Sun Ra said that this experience occurred in 1936 or 1937, but according to Swzed, even his closest associates cannot date the story any earlier than 1952 (Sun Ra also stated that it occurred when he was living in Chicago, a town he did not regularly inhabit until the late 1940s). But, with no substantial variations, Sun Ra discussed the vision to the end of his life.

His biographer, John F. Szwed states that ‘even if this story is revisionist autobiography … Sonny was pulling together several strains of his life. He was both prophesizing his future and explaining his past with a single act of personal mythology.’

In 1942 Blount received a selective service notification that he had been drafted into the Military of the United States. He declared himself a conscientious objector, citing religious objections to war and killing, his financial support of his great-aunt Ida, and his chronic hernia. His case was rejected by the local draft board. His family was deeply embarrassed by Sonny’s refusal to join the military, and he was effectively ostracized by many of his relatives.

Blount was eventually approved for alternate service at Civilian Public Service camp in Pennsylvania. However, Blount didn’t appear at the camp as scheduled, and shortly thereafter, he was arrested in Alabama. In court, he declared that even alternate service was unacceptable to him, and he debated the judge on points of law and Biblical interpretation. Though sympathetic to Blount, the judge also declared that he was clearly in violation of the law, and was risking forcible induction into the U.S. Military.

Blount declared that if he were inducted, he would use his military weapons and training to kill the first high-ranking military officer he could. The judge sentenced Blount to jail (pending draft board and CPS rulings), and then declared ‘I’ve never seen a nigger like you before;’ Blount replied, ‘No, and you never will again.’

While incarcerated, Blount wrote to the United States Marshals Service. He said he was facing a nervous breakdown from the stress of imprisonment, that he was suicidal, and that he was in constant fear of sexual assault. His conscientious objector status was eventually reaffirmed and Blount was escorted to Pennsylvania where he conducted forestry work in the day and was allowed to play piano at night. Psychiatrists there described him as ‘a psychopathic personality [and] sexually perverted’ but also as ‘a well-educated colored intellectual.’

In March 1943 Blount was classified as unfit for service because of his hernia. He returned to Birmingham embittered and angered by his experiences. He formed a new band and quickly was playing professionally. After his beloved great-aunt Ida died in 1945, Blount felt no reason to stay in Birmingham. He dissolved the band, and moved to Chicago, part of the wave of southern African Americans who moved north during and after World War II.

In Chicago he started out performing with the locally successful Lil Green band and playing bump-and-grind music for months in Calumet City strip clubs. In 1946, he earned a lengthy engagement at the Club DeLisa under bandleader and composer Fletcher Henderson. Ra’s arrangements initially showed a degree of bebop influence, but the band members resisted the new music, despite Henderson’s encouragement.

In 1948 Blount performed briefly in a trio with saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and violinist Stuff Smith, both preeminent swing-era musicians. There are no known recordings of this trio, but a home recording of a Blount-Smith duet from 1948 or 1949 appears on ‘Sound Sun Pleasure,’ and one of Sun Ra’s final recordings was a rare sideman appearance on violinist Billy Bang’s ‘Tribute to Stuff Smith.’

In addition to professional advancement, Chicago also changed Blount’s personal outlook. The city was a center of African American political activism and fringe movements, with Black Muslims, Black Hebrews, and others proselytizing, debating, and printing leaflets or books. Blount absorbed it all and was fascinated with the city’s many ancient Egyptian-styled buildings and monuments. He read books like George G.M. James’s ‘Stolen Legacy’ (which argued that classical Greek philosophy actually had its roots in ancient Egypt), which convinced Blount that the accomplishments and history of Africans had been systematically suppressed and denied by European cultures.

By 1952 Blount was leading the Space Trio with drummer Tommy ‘Bugs’ Hunter and saxophonist Pat Patrick. They performed regularly and Sun Ra began writing more advanced songs. That year he legally changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra. He was uncomfortable with his birth name, seeing it as a slave name of a family that he was not really a member of.

Patrick left the group just before his friend John Gilmore (tenor sax) joined, and Marshall Allen (alto sax) soon joined the fold. Patrick was in and out of the group until the end of his life, but Allen and Gilmore—who would both earn critical praise for their talents—were the two most devoted members of the Arkestra. Saxophonist James Spaulding and trombonist Julian Priester also recorded with Sun Ra in Chicago, and both went on to notable careers of their own.

In Chicago, Blount met Alton Abraham, a precociously intelligent teenager and something of a kindred spirit who became the Arkestra’s biggest booster and one of Sun Ra’s closest friends. The men both felt like outsiders and shared an interest in fringe esoterica. Abraham’s strengths balanced Ra’s shortcomings: though he was a disciplined bandleader, Sun Ra was somewhat introverted and lacked business sense; Abraham was outgoing, well-connected, and practical.

Though still a teenager, Abraham eventually became Sun Ra’s de facto business manager: he booked performances, suggested musicians for the Arkestra, and introduced several popular songs into the group’s repertoire. Ra, Abraham and others formed a sort of book club to trade ideas and discuss the offbeat topics that so intrigued them. This group printed a number of pamphlets and broadsides explaining their conclusions and ideas.

Sun Ra and Abraham also formed an independent record label in the mid-1950s; it was generally known as El Saturn Records, though (as with the Arkestra) there were several variants of the name.

It was during the late 1950s that Sun Ra and his band began wearing the outlandish, Egyptian-styled or science fiction-themed costumes and headdresses for which they would become known. These costumes had multiple purposes: they evidenced Sun Ra’s abiding fascination with ancient Egypt and the space age; they provided a sort of distinctive, memorable uniform for the Arkestra; they were a way to take on a new identity, at least while onstage; and they provided comic relief (Sun Ra thought avant garde musicians typically took themselves far too seriously).

Sun Ra and some of his core musicians left Chicago in 1961 for New York City. They initially had trouble finding performance venues and began living communally because of New York’s higher cost of living. This frustration helped to fuel the drastic changes in the Arkestra’s sound as Sun Ra’s music underwent a free jazz-influenced experimental period.

In 1966 the Arkestra scored a regular Monday night gig at Slug’s Saloon. This proved to be a breakthrough to new audiences and recognition. Sun Ra’s popularity reached an early peak during this period, as the beat generation and early followers of psychedelia embraced him. However, opinions of his music were divided (and hecklers were not uncommon), but high praise came from two of the architects of bebop: trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie offered encouragement, once stating, ‘Keep it up, Sonny, they tried to do the same shit to me,’ while pianist Thelonious Monk chided someone who said Sun Ra was ‘too far out’ by responding, ‘Yeah, but it swings.’

In 1968, when the New York building they were renting was put up for sale, Sun Ra and the Arkestra relocated to the Germantown section of Philadelphia, where his Morton Street house remained the Arkestra’s base of operations until Sun Ra’s death. Apart from occasional complaints about the noise of rehearsals, they were soon regarded as good neighbors because of their friendliness, drug-free living, and rapport with youngsters.

Saxophonist Danny Thompson owned and operated the Pharaoh’s Den, a convenience store in the neighborhood. When lightning struck a tree on their street, Sun Ra took it as a good omen and multireedist James Jacson fashioned the ‘Cosmic Infinity Drum’ from the scorched tree trunk.

In late 1968 Sun Ra and the Arkestra undertook their first tour of the U.S. West Coast. Reactions were mixed; even hippies accustomed to long-form psychedelia like the Grateful Dead were often bewildered by the Arkestra, which included 20–30 musicians, dancers, singers, fire-eaters, and elaborate lighting.

In early 1971 Sun Ra was artist-in-residence at University of California, Berkeley, teaching a course called ‘The Black Man In the Cosmos.’ Rather few students enrolled but the classes were often full of curious persons from the surrounding community. One half-hour of each class was devoted to a lecture (complete with handouts and homework assignments), the other half-hour to an Arkestra performance or Sun Ra keyboard solo. Reading lists included the works of Madame Blavatsky and Henry Dumas, the Book of the Dead, Alexander Hislop’s ‘The Two Babylons,’ The Book of Oahspe and assorted volumes concerning Egyptian hieroglyphs, African American folklore, and other topics.

In 1972 San Francisco public TV producer John Coney, producer Jim Newman, and screen writer Joshua Smith worked with Sun Ra to produce an 85-minute feature film, entitled ‘Space Is the Place,’ with Sun Ra’s Arkestra and an ensemble of actors assembled by the production team. It was filmed in Oakland and San Francisco.

In the mid-1970s, the Arkestra would sometimes play free Saturday afternoon concerts in a Germantown park near their Philadelphia home. Sometimes at their mid 1970s shows in Philadelphia nightclubs, someone would stand at the back of the room, selling stacks of unmarked LPs in plain white sleeves, pressed from recordings of the band’s live performances (including one Halloween show where the salesman was dressed as a golden alien, and the LPs included a cover arrangement of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’).

Back in New York City, in the fall of 1979, Sun Ra and the Arkestra were essentially the house band at the notorious ‘Squat Theater,’ the performance home of the avant garde Hungarian theater troupe. Their young mastermind manager, Janos, transformed the theater into a riveting nightclub while the core of the troupe was away that season performing in Europe. Debbie Harry, The Velvet Underground’s John Cale, and Nico (from Andy Warhol’s factory), John Lurie and The Lounge Lizards, and other pop and avant garde musicians were regulars.

Sun Ra was a disciplined person who avoided drinking anything other than club soda at the gigs, but did not impose his strict code on his musicians, the majority of whom regarded his claim that he was a ‘messenger’ from Saturn with wry skepticism. Nevertheless it was clear they deeply respected his genius, discipline and authority. Soft spoken and charismatic, Sun Ra turned ‘Squat Theater’ into a syncopated universe of big band ‘space’ jazz backed by a floor show of writhing, sexy, Jupiterettes—him directing and playing three synthesizers at the same time.

The Arkestra continued their touring and recording through the 1980s and into the 1990s, and Sun Ra became a fixture in Philadelphia, appearing semi-regularly on public radio, giving lectures to community groups, or haunting the city’s libraries.

Sun Ra’s piano technique touched on many styles: his youthful fascination with boogie woogie, stride piano and blues, a sometimes refined touch reminiscent of Count Basie or Ahmad Jamal, and angular phrases in the style of Thelonious Monk or brutal, percussive attacks like Cecil Taylor. Often overlooked is the range of influences from classical music—Sun Ra cited Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Schoenberg and Shostakovich as his favorite composers for the piano.

As a synthesizer and electric keyboard player, Sun Ra ranks among one of the earliest and most radical pioneers. By the mid-1950s, he used a variety of electric keyboards, and almost immediately, he exploited their potential perhaps more than anyone, sometimes modifying them himself to produce sounds rarely if ever heard before. His live albums from the late 1960s and early 1970s feature some of the noisiest, most bizarre keyboard work ever recorded. His records and performances were full of surprises.

Sun Ra’s music evolved through three phases:

The first period occurred in the 1950s when Sun Ra’s music grew from big band swing into the outer-space-themed ‘cosmic jazz’ for which he was best known. Music critics and jazz historians say some of his best work was recorded during this period and it is also some of his most accessible music. Sun Ra’s music in this era was often tightly arranged and sometimes reminiscent of Duke Ellington’s, Count Basie’s, or other important swing music ensembles. However, there was a strong influence from post-swing styles like bebop, hard bop, and modal jazz, and touches of the exotic and hints of the experimentalism that would dominate his later music.

After the move to New York, Sun Ra and company plunged headlong into the experimentalism that they had only hinted at in Chicago. The music was often extremely loud and the Arkestra grew to include multiple drummers and percussionists. Recordings of this era began to utilize new technological possibilities such as extensive use of tape delay systems to assemble spatial sound pieces which are far removed from earlier compositions. Recordings and live performances often featured passages for unusual instrumental combinations and passages of collective playing which point towards free improvisation—in fact, it is often difficult to tell where the compositions end and the improvisations begin.

In this era Sun Ra began conducting using hand and body gestures. This system would inspire cornetist Butch Morris, who would later develop his own more highly refined way to conduct improvisers.

Though often associated with avant-garde jazz, Sun Ra did not believe his work could be classified as ‘free music’: ‘I have to make sure that every note, every nuance, is correct. … If you want to call it that, spell it p-h-r-e, because ph is a definite article and re is the name of the sun. So I play phre music—music of the sun.’

Seeking to broaden his compositional possibilities, Sun Ra insisted all band members double on various percussion instruments—predating world music by drawing on various ethnic musical forms—and most saxophonists became multireedists, adding instruments such as flutes, oboes, or clarinets to their arsenals. In this era, Sun Ra was among the first of any musicians to make extensive and pioneering use of synthesizers and other various electronic keyboards; he was given a prototype Minimoog by its inventor, Robert Moog.

During their third period, beginning in the 1970s and onward, Sun Ra and the Arkestra settled down into a relatively conventional sound, often incorporating swing standards, though their records and concerts were still highly eclectic and energetic, and typically included at least one lengthy, semi-improvised percussion jam. Sun Ra was explicitly asserting a continuity with the ignored jazz tradition: ‘They tried to fool you, now I got to school you, about jazz, all about jazz’ he rapped, framing the inclusion of pieces by Fletcher Henderson and Jelly Roll Morton.

In the 1970s Sun Ra took a liking to the films of Walt Disney. He incorporated smatterings of Disney musical numbers into many of his performances from then on. In the late 1980s the Arkestra performed a concert at Walt Disney World.

In 1978-1980 performances, Sun Ra added a large electronic creation, the Outerspace Visual Communicator (OVC), which produced images rather than sounds; this was performed at a keyboard by its inventor, Bill Sebastian. During concerts, the OVC usually was positioned at center stage behind the Arkestra while Sebastian sat on stage with the musicians.

Certainly dozens of musicians—perhaps hundreds—passed through Sun Ra’s bands over the years. Some stayed with him for decades, while others made only a few recordings or performances.

Sun Ra was personally responsible for the vast majority of the constant changes in the Arkestra’s lineup. According to contrabassist Jiunie Booth, himself a member of the Arkestra, Sun Ra would not confront any musician whose performance he was unsatisfied with. Instead, Sun Ra would simply gather the entire Arkestra minus the offending musician, and skip town, leaving the fired musician stranded. After repeated instances of US jazz musicians becoming stranded in foreign countries, Sun Ra’s unique method of dismissal became a diplomatic liability for the United States. The U.S. State Department was compelled to tell Sun Ra to bring any fired musicians stateside rather than leaving them stranded.

Sun Ra’s world view was often described as a philosophy, but he rejected this term, describing his own manner as an ‘equation”—he claimed that while philosophy was based on theories and abstract reasoning, his method was based on logic and pragmatism. Many of the Arkestra cite Sun Ra’s teachings as pivotal and for inspiring such long-term devotion to the music that they knew would never make them much money. His equation was rarely (if ever) explained as a whole; instead, it was related in bits and pieces over many years, leading some to think his world view was naïve or composed of nonsensical new-age platitudes.

He drew on sources as diverse as the Kabbalah, Rosicrucianism, channeling, numerology, Freemasonry, and black nationalism. Sun Ra’s system had distinct Gnostic leanings arguing that the god of most monotheistic religions was not the creator god, not the ultimate god, but a lesser, evil being. Sun Ra was wary of the Bible, knowing that it had been used to justify slavery. He would often re-arrange and re-word Biblical passages (along with re-working many other words, names or phrases) in an attempt to uncover ‘hidden’ meanings.

Bassoonist James Jacson had studied Zen Buddhism before joining Sun Ra and identified strong similarities between Zen teachings and practices (particularly Zen koans) and Ra’s use of non sequiturs and seemingly absurd replies to questions. Drummer Art Jenkins admitted that Sun Ra’s ‘nonsense’ sometimes troubled his thoughts for days until inspiring a sort of paradigm shift, or profound change in outlook. Drummer Andrew Cyrille said Sun Ra’s comments were ‘very interesting stuff … whether you believed it or not. And a lot of times it was humorous, and a lot of times it was ridiculous, and a lot of times it was right on the money.’

According to Szwed, Sun Ra’s relationship to black people and black cultures ‘changed drastically’ over time. Initially, Sun Ra identified closely with broader struggles for black power, black political influence, and black identity, and saw his own music as a key element in educating and liberating blacks. But by the heyday of black power radicalism in the 1960s, Sun Ra was expressing disillusionment with these aims, and he denied feeling closely connected to any race. In 1970 he said:

‘I couldn’t approach black people with the truth because they like lies. They live lies … At one time I felt that white people were to blame for everything, but then I found out that they were just puppets and pawns of some greater force, which has been using them … Some force is having a good time [manipulating black and white people] and looking, enjoying itself up in a reserved seat, wondering, ‘I wonder when they’re going to wake up.”

Many of Sun Ra’s innovations remain important and groundbreaking: ‘Ra was one of the first jazz leaders to use two basses, to employ the electric bass, to play electronic keyboards, to use extensive percussion and polyrhythms, to explore modal music and to pioneer solo and group freeform improvisations. In addition, he made his mark in the wider cultural context: he proclaimed the African origins of jazz, reaffirmed pride in black history and reasserted the spiritual and mystical dimensions of music (all important factors in the black cultural/political renaissance of the 60s).’

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