Sun Ra (born Herman Poole Blount, legal name Le Sony'r Ra; born May 22 1914 in Birmingham, Alabama – May 30 1993 in Birmingham, Alabama) was a jazz composer, bandleader, piano and synthesizer player, poet and philosopher known for his "cosmic philosophy", musical compositions and performances.
"Of all the jazz musicians, Sun Ra was probably the most controversial," according to critic Scott Yanow, due to Sun Ra's eclectic music and unorthodox lifestyle. Claiming that he was of the "Angel Race" and not from Earth, but from Saturn, Sun Ra developed a complex persona of "cosmic" philosophies and lyrical poetry that made him a pioneer of afrofuturism as 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 ancient Egyptian god of the sun), and used several other names throughout his career, including Le Sonra and Sonny Lee. Blount denied any connection with 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" (a deliberate re-spelling of "orchestra"), an ensemble with an ever-changing lineup and name (it was also called "The Solar Myth Arkestra", "His Cosmo Discipline Arkestra", the "Blue Universe Arkestra", "The Jet Set Omniverse Arkestra", and 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, Sun Ra's music ranged from keyboard solos to big bands of over 30 musicians; his music 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, space music, and free improvisation, and was one of the first musicians, regardless of genre, to make extensive use of electronic keyboards.
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 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.
At ten years old Sun Ra joined the Knights of Pythias, and remained a member until he graduated from high school. His family was deeply religious but was not formally associated with any Christian church or sect. Ra had few or no close friends in high school but was remembered as kind-natured and quiet, an honor roll student, and a voracious reader. 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.
Also by his teens, Sun Ra suffered from cryptorchidism, a chronic testicular hernia that left him with a nearly constant discomfort that sometimes flared into severe pain. The condition also left him with a sense of shame and increased his sense of isolation.
The clubs of Birmingham often featured exotic trappings such as vivid lighting and murals with tropical or oasis scenes that were believed to have influenced Sun Ra's later stage shows. The big bands also imparted a sense of pride and togetherness to black musicians: musicians were highly regarded in the black community, and were expected to be disciplined and presentable, and in the segregated south, black musicians arguably had the most acceptance in white society, often performing for white high society audiences (though they were typically forbidden from associating with the audiences).
In 1936 Parker's intercession led to Blount being awarded a scholarship at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University. He was a music education major, studying composition, orchestration, and music theory, but after a year, he dropped out and then attended some other musical college.
… 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). With no substantial variations, Sun Ra discussed the vision to the end of his life. The trip to Saturn allegedly happened a full decade before flying saucers entered public consciousness, about 15 years before the contactees and their stories of benevolent Space Brothers were publicized, and almost 20 years before sinister UFO abductions were a public concept. Szwed states that "even if this story is revisionist autobiography … Sonny was pulling together several strains of his life. He was both prophesying his future and explaining his past with a single act of personal mythology.
Blount became a regular at Birmingham's Forbes Piano Company, a white-owned company which—astoundingly for a business in the Deep South—simply ignored the strict Jim Crow laws of the racially segregated era. Blount visited the Forbes building almost daily to play music, swap ideas with staff and customers, or copy sheet music into his notebooks. He formed a new band, and, like his old teacher Parker, insisted on rigorous daily rehearsals. The new Sonny Blount Orchestra earned a reputation as an impressive, disciplined band that could play in a wide variety of styles with equal skill.
In court, Blount 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.
In January 1943 a desperate Blount wrote to the United States Marshals Service from the Walker County, Alabama jail in Jasper. He said he was facing a nervous breakdown due to 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 in February 1943 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 4-F due to 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.
Blount earned a lengthy engagement at Club DeLisa, where he met bandleader and composer Fletcher Henderson. Blount had long admired Henderson, but Henderson's fortunes were fading (his band comprised middling musicians rather than the stars of earlier years) due in large part to his instability. Henderson hired Blount as pianist and arranger. Ra's arrangements initially showed a degree of bebop influence, but the band members largely 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, two of the most accomplished musicians he had known. They performed regularly and Sun Ra began writing more advanced songs.
On October 20, 1952 Blount legally changed his name to Le Sony'r Ra. Sun Ra claimed to have always been uncomfortable with his birth name of Blount, seeing it as a slave name of a family that he was not really a member of. One observer has argued that this change was similar to the way "Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali … [dropped] their slave names in the process of attaining a new self-awareness and self-esteem".
Patrick left the group to move to Florida with his new wife; not long after, Patrick's friend John Gilmore (tenor sax) joined the group, 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 (a trait that would haunt his entire career); 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; some of these were collected by critic John Corbett and Anthony Elms as The Wisdom of Sun Ra: Sun Ra's Polemical Broadsheets and Streetcorner Leaflets (2006).
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. Initially focused on 45 rpm singles by Sun Ra and artists related to him, Saturn Records did issue two full-length albums during the 1950s: Super-Sonic Jazz (1956) and Jazz In Silhouette (1958). Producer Tom Wilson was actually the first to release a Sun Ra album, through his independent label Transition Records in 1956, entitled Sun Song.
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).
In March of 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. Regularly for the next year and a half (and intermittently for another half-decade afterwards), Sun Ra and company performed at Slug's for audiences that eventually came to include music critics and notable jazz musicians. Opinions of Sun Ra's 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 late 1968 Sun Ra and the Arkestra undertook their first tour of the US 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. John Burks of Rolling Stone wrote a positive review of a San Jose State College concert that led to Sun Ra being featured on the cover of the April 19 1969 cover of the magazine and introducing Sun Ra's inscrutable gaze to millions. This first West Coast tour also led to vibraphonist Damon Choice, then an art student at San Jose, joining the Arkestra.
Starting with concerts in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom in 1970, the Arkestra began to find opportunities for working outside the US, playing to audiences who had hitherto known his music only through records. Sun Ra continued playing in Europe to nearly the end of his life. Given Sun Ra's unorthodox financial management, saxophonist Danny Thompson became a de facto tour and business manager during this era, specializing in what he called "no bullshit C.O.D.", preferring to take cash before performing or delivering records.
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 1971 Sun Ra fulfilled a long-standing desire by performing with the Arkestra at ancient Egyptian pyramids.
In 1972 San Francisco public TV station KQED producer John Coney, producer Jim Newman, and screen writer Joshua Smith worked with Sun Ra to produce a 30-minute part-fiction, part-documentary film, entitled Space Is the Place, featuring Sun Ra's Arkestra and filmed in Golden Gate Park. On May 20 1978 Sun Ra and the Arkestra appeared on Saturday Night Live.
In the mid-1970s the Arkestra would sometimes play for free, outdoors in a Germantown park near their Philadelphia home, on a Saturday afternoon. 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"). 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 WXPN radio, giving lectures to community groups, or haunting the city's libraries.
Even after a stroke in 1990, Sun Ra kept composing, performing, and leading the Arkestra. Late in his career, Sun Ra opened a few concerts for New York-based rock group Sonic Youth. Eventually, Sun Ra grew too ill to perform and tour, and he entrusted Gilmore with leading the Arkestra. Gilmore himself was frail due to emphysema, and when he died, Allen took over leadership of the Arkestra. Sun Ra went back to Birmingham and reconnected with his sister whom he had rarely seen for nearly 40 years. He contracted pneumonia, died in Birmingham on May 30 1993, and was buried at the Elmwood Cemetery. According to the hospital, he had also been affected by circulatory system problems and numerous strokes. The small footstone read only "Sonny Blount (aka [sic] Le Son'y [sic] Ra) shortly before his death.
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. Sun Ra's music can be roughly divided into three phases, but his records and performances were full of surprises.
Ronnie Boykins, Sun Ra's bassist, has been described as "the pivot around which much of Sun Ra's music revolved for eight years". This is especially pronounced on the key recordings from 1965 (The Magic City, The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume One, and The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume Two) where the intertwining lines of Boykins' bass and Ra's electronic keyboards provide cohesion.
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.
Notable titles from this period include The Magic City, Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy, When Sun Comes Out, The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume One, Atlantis, Secrets of the Sun and Other Planes of There.
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. The Arkestra's version of "Pink Elephants on Parade" is available on Stay Awake, a tribute album of Disney tunes played by various artists and produced by Hal Willner. A number of Sun Ra's 1970s concerts are available on CD, but none have received a wide release in comparison to his earlier music. The album Atlantis can be considered the landmark that led into his 1970s era.
Sun Ra was personally responsible for the vast majority of the constant changes in the Arkestra's lineup. According to contrabassist Juini 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.
The following is a partial list of musical collaborators and the eras in which they played with Sun Ra and/or the Arkestra:
Sun Ra presents a unified conception, incorporating music, myth, and performance into his multi-leveled equations. Every aspect of the Sun Ra experience, from business practices like Saturn Records to published collections of poetry to his 35-year career in music, is a manifestation of his equations. Sun Ra seeks to elevate humanity beyond their current earthbound state, tied to outmoded conceptions of life and death when the potential future of immortality awaits them. As Hall has put it, 'In this era of 'practical' things men ridicule even the existence of God. They scoff at goodness while they ponder with befuddled minds the phantasmagoria of materiality. They have forgotten the path which leads beyond the stars.'
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. The most obvious evidence of this system was Ra's practice of renaming many of the musicians who played with him.
Bassoonist/multireedist 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.
Some of Sun Ra's songs with words featured lyrics that although simple, were inspirational and philosophical. The most famous example was "Space is the Place!". Another example was the song that went, "You made a mistake. You did something wrong. Make another mistake, and do something right!". Sometimes (typically at the end of a set) the entire Arkestra would snake out through the audience, playing and chanting something like this. Sun Ra even came up once, behind a frightened young audience member, grabbed him in a bear hug, and whispered this in his ear, while the whole band chanted and played along, in a circle around his table, with the rest of the audience watching on in amusement. (1978, in a performance in a small short-lived nightclub on City Line Avenue in Philadelphia)
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.
He was inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in 1979.
More recently Don Letts' Sun Ra—Brother from Another Planet reuses some of Mugge's material and includes some additional interviews.