Sun Ra (originally, Blount, Herman “Sonny” Poole; aka Bourke, Sonny and Le Sony’r Ra)

views updated

Sun Ra (originally, Blount, Herman “Sonny” Poole; aka Bourke, Sonny and Le Sony’r Ra)

Sun Ra (originally, Blount, Herman “Sonny” Poole; aka Bourke, Sonny and Le Sony’r Ra) a unique, influential, and visionary composer, leader, and keyboard player; b. Birmingham, Ala., May 22, 1914; d. there, May 30, 1993. At age 11, Sun Ra began teaching himself piano and became a good sight reader as well. In the summer of 1932, he toured the Carolinas, Va., Wise, and 111. in The Society Troubadours, a group financed by his high school music teacher, “Fess” John Tuggle Whatley. In the fall of 1934, Ra went on tour with another group, this time under Whatley’s name. In September 1935, he attended Ala. State Agricultural and Mechanical Inst. for Negroes in Huntsville, Ala., where he took a teachers’ training course and began his first formal piano lessons with Lula Hopkins Randall. At the end of the school year, around June 1936, he returned to Birmingham and began leading his own bands and composing. From 1936 onward, there are over 150 pieces copyrighted at the Library of Congress, almost all written in Ra’s hand. In the fall of 1942, he was drafted into the military, and at a hearing on Oct. 10, he successfully argued to be classified as a conscientious objector. As an alternative, he was assigned to forestry work at a Civilian Public Service camp in Marienville, Pa.; he didn’t show up, complaining of pain from his severe hernia, a long-term problem, and was placed under arrest for 39 days, then sent to the camp. When he was observed to be in physical pain as well as psychological distress, he was classified 4-F and sent home on March 22, 1943. Sun Ra made his first recordings with R&B singer Wynonie Harris in Nashville (1946). He moved to Chicago in early 1946 and worked with Fletcher Henderson’s Band at Club DeLisa (1946-47). It made a great impact on him and he kept some of Henderson’s charts in his book, including “Big John Shuffle/’ After Henderson left, Ra remained employed at the club as a rehearsal pianist, copyist, and player in the house band. He worked and recorded with bassist Eugene Wright and His Dukes of Swing (late 1948), led his own trio, and played and recorded with Stuff Smith and Coleman Hawkins. He also wrote music for visiting artists at Club DeLisa.

On Oct. 20, 1952, he legally changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra, Sun Ra for short. He later explained that Ra was the sun god in ancient Egypt, and that he was from another planet. When asked if he wished his work were better known, Ra replied that he was evidently well known since everyone yelled Ra Ra Ra at football games. He built the nucleus of a larger ensemble with saxophonists John Gilmore, Charles Davis, Marshall Allen, Pat Patrick, and James Scales; several of these early members remained with him for many years. From around 1954 to 1956, he had two vocal groups with his band, The Cosmic Echoes and The Cosmic Rays; he also coached a third instrumental group at the time. Sun Ra incorporated Saturn Records in 1956 and started recording with the Myth-Science (or Solar) Arkestra. He moved to N.Y. in early 1961, and exercised as strong an influence over young players there as in Chicago. He preferred that his band members live communally and follow a vegetarian diet. Sun Ra pioneered the use of electronic keyboards and free group improvisation, as on The Magic City, an album named after his home town. He was an outlandish, self-styled philosopher/mystic/showman who used mixed-media techniques and costumes, dancers, singers, and poetry to produce exciting live performances, unique in jazz. Sun Ra significantly influenced the new jazz styles of the 1960s in parallel with Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman. In fall 1968, he settled in Philadelphia with his Arkestra. He played concerts and club dates, traveled to Europe (1970-71), where he developed a following, and Egypt (1971), and recorded continuously. His band played at all major festivals through the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, with varying personnel. Their stage show often involved elaborate costumes and theatrical effects, adding to the band’s allure. In early 1993, in poor health, Ra returned to stay with family in Birmingham. He died at Baptist Medical Center-Princeton, where he was in treatment for a series of strokes. His band has continued under the direction of John Gilmore or Marshall Allen.

Sun Ra made many memorable statements, including: “Some call me mystery, but you can call me Mister Ra,” “If we have a White House, where is the Black House?” and “It’s after the end of the world, don’t you know that yet?” Sun Ra’s music was powerful enough to attract and hold fine musicians for 20 or 30 years. John Coltrane also respected him and talked with him, and listened closely to his tenor saxophonist John Gilmore. Sun Ra was the subject of the documentary A Joyful Noise, the “psychedelic” performance film Calling Planet Earth, and the unusual fictional film Space Is the Place.


Sound Sun Pleasure (1953); Jazz by Sun Ra (1956); Sun Song (1957); Sound of Joy (1957); Jazz in Silhouette (1958); Fate in a Pleasant Mood (1960); Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961); The Magic City (1965); Heliocentric Worlds, Vol. 1, 2 (1965); Nothing Is (1966); Atlantis (1967); Solar Myth Approach, Vol. 1, 2 (1970); It’s After the End of the World (1970); Fondation Maeght Nights, Vol. 1, 2 (1970); Space Is the Place (1972); Quiet Place in the Universe (1976); Live at Montreux (1976); Sí. Louis Blues (1977); Solo Piano, Vol. 1, 2 (1977); John Cage Meets Sun Ra (1981); Reflections in Blue (1986); Live London 1990 (1990); At the Village Vanguard (1991); Tribute to Stuff Smith (1992); At Soundscape (1994). C. WILLIAMS: Chocolate Avenue (1933). W. HARRIS: “Dig This Boogie” (1946). J. WILLIAMS: Everyday I Have the Blues (c. 1954).

—Lewis Porter