Sun Ra (Blount, Herman "Sonny")

views updated

Sun Ra (Blount, Herman "Sonny")

May 1914
May 30, 1993

The jazz bandleader and pianist Herman "Sonny" Blount was born in Birmingham, Alabama, played piano as a child, and led his own band while still in high school. He studied music education at Alabama A & M University and studied classical piano with Willa Randolph. Blount moved to Chicago while still in his teens, and in the mid-1930s he toured with John "Fess" Whatley's band. He gradually gained a reputation as a sideman and arranger for shows. From 1946 to 1947, Blount worked at Chicago's Club de Lisa, leading his own group and also serving as pianist and arranger for Fletcher Henderson.

In the late 1940s Blount completely reinvented himself, changing his name to Sun Ra and claiming the planet Saturn as his birthplace. Thereafter his music carried strong science fiction overtones, and he took as his motto "Space Is the Place." At the same time, he also began to turn to ancient Egypt and Ethiopia for his spiritual out-look and sartorial style. In 1953 he formed a big band called the Arkestra, and over the next forty years the group pioneered the use of modern collective improvisation and exemplified the anarchic spirit of free jazz (Sound of Joy, 1957). Sun Ra also established a core of remarkable soloists, including saxophonists Marshall Allen, John Gilmore, and Pat Patrick. Sun Ra was himself an accomplished pianist capable of contemplative modal moments as well as roiling solos, never losing the energetic drive of his stride piano roots. He was a pioneer in the use of electric instruments, playing the electric piano as early as 1956. He also gained renown as a composer of songs such as "A Call for All Demons" (1956) and "Cosmic Chaos" (1965).

While in Chicago in the 1950s, Sun Ra found his music rejected by established jazz musicians, but he proved enormously influential to the new generation of avant-garde musicians. In the late 1950s he started Saturn Records, which released dozens of his albums during the next few decades. In the early 1960s, the Arkestra set up communal living quarters in New York and thereafter became a mainstay in avant-garde jazz (The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, 1965; Nothing Is, 1966). They participated in Bill Dixon's October Revolution series of concerts in 1964 and joined the cooperative Jazz Composers Guild. In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, the Arkestra continued to record (The Solar Myth Approach, 19701971) and tour.

Although Sun Ra's work was always heavily influenced by Henderson's work, it was not until the late 1970s, when the Arkestra moved to Philadelphia, that Sun Ra began to incorporate traditional arrangements of tunes by Henderson, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, and Thelonious Monk into its repertoire. Nonetheless, the Arkestra never lost its futuristic eccentricity. During this time, Sun Ra directed circuslike concerts, complete with dancers and spectacular costumes, chants of "next stop Mars!" spaceage prophecy, and tales of intergalactic travel (Live at Montreux, 1976; Sunrise in Different Dimensions, 1980). By the 1980s Sun Ra had become an internationally acclaimed figure, recording frequently (e.g., Blue Delight, 1989) and taking his extravagant show on tours of Europe and Asia. The subject of two documentary films, The Cry of Jazz (1959) and Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise (1980), Sun Ra died in 1993 in Birmingham, Alabama.

See also Jazz; Music in the United States


Litweiler, John. The Freedom Principle: Jazz after 1958. New York: W. Morrow, 1984.

Pekar, Harvey. "Sun Ra." Coda 139 (1975): 2.

Szwed, John F. Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. New York: Pantheon, 1997.

Wilmer, Valerie. As Serious as Your Life: The Story of the New Jazz. Westport, Conn.: L. Hill, 1980.

ernest brown (1996)
Updated bibliography