For a man who claimed citizenship on the planet Saturn, Sun Ra traveled galaxies away from his Alabama roots where he was born Herman (Sonny) Blount.“The Sun” and his Myth Science Arkestra paved the way of the black arts movement in Harlem in the 1960s and carried thousands of international followers into a music and movement uniquely, sometimes bizarrely, his own.
Sun Ra was remembered by many after his death perhaps more for his outlandish performances with his “Arkestra” than for his music itself. He was, in fact, one of the leading jazz artists to emerge after World War II, and he had already been a working musician for nearly 20 years since arriving in Chicago in the 1930s. In the 1950s, Sun Ra’s experimental music followed his long evolution from his early years as a piano player in the blues traditions of New Orleans and Chicago—traveling with Wynonie Harris and Fess Whatley to backup for the famous jazz singers Joe Williams and Lavern Baker— and holding his own as bandleader in Chicago’s famous Club De Lisa. By that time, Sun Ra began to startle his
Born Herman “Sonny” Blount in 1914 in Birmingham, AL; (died May 30, 1993, in Birmingham, AL); Education: Attended Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University on scholarship; majored in education.
Jazz musician and band leader C 1935 until his death; worked as backup musician in Nashville and Chicago before forming own ensemble, Sun Ra and His Arkestra, C 1950; cut over 200 albums on private labels; music was featured in the film The Cry of Jazz.
Awards: Liberty Bell citizenship award from the city of Philadelphia, 1990, for body of work; inducted into the Alabama Hall of Fame, State of Alabama.
audiences with his visual appearances as much as with his music. According to Sun Ra’s obituary written by Peter Watrous in the New York Times, after the musician’s death in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1993, “In the mid-1950’s, Sun Ra organized a rehearsal band that wore purple blazers, beanies topped by propellers and white gloves when it performed in public.” The glittering robes and Egyptian, Space Age-styled headdressess he would don by the end of the 1960s became a part of a total performance which no one else ever seemed to equal.
Sun Ra was born Herman (Sonny) Blount in 1914, in Birmingham, Alabama. Presumably due to Sun Ra’s own purposeful lack of clarity, little else is known about his early childhood. As he grew in his own vision, Sun Ra went so far as to claim he had come from Saturn. “People say I’m Herman Blount, but I don’t know him,” Mark Jacobson quoted in Esquire. “That’s an imaginary person,” Sun Ra said. “Imaginary on Saturn, at least,” said Jacobson, “which is where the real Sun Ra comes from.” He attended Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University, but left for Chicago to pursue a life in music. By the late 1960s, he moved his band to Philadelphia, which was still his home base when he died. Sun Ra left no known survivors when he died except for his band, his spiritual legacy, and hundreds of recordings.
In 1970, Tarn Fiofori talked to Sun Ra about his music in the May 14, 1970, issue of Down Beat. By this time, Sun Ra was in what some called his “experimental”phase. For him, it was not experimental, rather a natural movement toward awareness. “The intergalactic phase of music touches upon many points,” began Sun Ra when Fiofori asked him about the special qualities of intergalactic music.“For instance, everything is every thing and outside of that is nothing. So in order to deal with the infinity, I would have to deal with the nothings and the everythings, of which each one has its different potentials. Then, after that, each one has its multi-potentials; and after that each one has its purposelessness, like the whole infinity of the duality everything.” To Sun Ra, whose concept dealt with an infinite space where his music traveled, there was “no purpose … because if purpose is considered by some as an end, then endlessness to others would mean without purpose. Infinity, however purposeless, does not hesitate to sponsor infinity idea-projects.”
In that same interview Sun Ra revealed revealed some history of his own early years, and their influence on his later music. “To me, the best point about jazz,” he noted, was the “idea or being of jazz,” based on the “spontaneous improvisation principle,” Sun Ratold Fiofori. “Pure jazz is that which is without preconceived notion, or it is just being, and that’s really my definition of jazz.” Sun Ra said his idea was a “result of experiences through the years and my acquaintance with jazz from my so-called childhood.” He commented that he saw every band in high school, whether known or unknown. “I loved music beyond the stage of liking it,” he said. “Some of the bands I heard never got popular and never made hit records, but they were truly natural Black beauty.” If some of his music or recordings were not successful according to critics, Sun Ra believed it was because of the notion of what was commercially-viable music hampered their view.
His years in Chicago were the beginning of his renown in the world of blues and jazz. In addition to his connections at the Club Da Lisa, he encountered other jazz artists making their way to fame, including Miles Davis. Later years in New York, where he and his band eventually became fixtures at the famous jazz club Slug’s, Sun Ra’s newer sound began to emerge. At a club called the Playhouse, he first met Pharoah Sanders who let him play. He also invited Sun Ra to stay in his place in the West Village (not yet the trendy section of Manhattan it would become in the 1980s). Sun Ra told Fiofori that in those days they would “often be playing to an empty house…. On very cold nights we’d play in overcoats, but I felt that I should always be doing what I was supposed to do on this planet, regardless of whether the planet responded or not.” During that time Sanders played with the Arkestra as well. That was 1950s New York, with its avant garde movement in everything from music to art to lifestyles. As Sun Ra put it, they were not talking about space or intergalactic things, but were instead “talking aboutthe avant garde and the Newthings. That was what was happening when I came to New York. But what I was doing also entered into the picture, as a remote but indirect influence.”
While he started out as a pianist, Sun Ra moved into organ, clavioline, celeste, and became the first musician to use synthesizers to capture a new age of music, complete with light show, films and costume. According to Watrous, “no one else in jazz except Dizzy Gillespie,” had “come close to that sort of mixture of vaudevillian carnival and musical intelligence.” In 1956, he and the Arkestra began recording after years of struggle and performing for nights on end. That year they performed, Angels and Demons at Play, SunRa Visits Planet Earth, and the Arkestra’s “official”debut, Super-Sonic Jazz. The title track for the album, Angels and Demons…, was actually recorded in 1960 with other tracks including “A Call for All Demons” and “Demons Lullaby,” recorded in 1956. Between 1956 and 1960, the group recorded The Nubians of Plutonia, in an early tribute to the African heritage he claimed in much of his music and later performances. While his roots in blues and swing were clearly evident throughout a performance or recording, Sun Ra’s use of African-style chants and drums emphasized part of the direction of his spiritual journey.
In January of 1992, Jeff Levenson of Billboard noted that a newly-formed record label, Evidence Music, put Sun Ra in the center of their operation. Initially, they licensed ten of his titles from Saturn Records, his “vanity” label established and owned by Sun Ra since the 1950s and inactive for decades.
Remembering Sun Ra, Jacobson commented that on a “wintry predawn nearly twenty-five years ago… down by the turbid East River,” he encountered the entire Myth Science Arkestra “dressed in aluminum-foil tunics, flowing scarves, and tight leggings, just as if it were Monday night at Slugs. The Arkestra stood unspeaking, staring up at the cloud-strewn sky, engaged in secret ritual. At the (helio) center of the assemblage, attired in spangled, gold-leafed shower cap, was the Sun himself, Ra.” According to Amiri Baraka, in a tribute to Sun Ra in the African American Review, in the Summer of 1995, “Ra was so far out because he had the true self-consciousness of the Afro American intellectual artist revolutionary. He knew our historic ideology and socio-political consciousness was freedom.” Sun Ra’s music has remained controversial even into the twenty-first century. Whether he would take his place in history as one of the great influences of jazz or as someone who heard voices from other planets, Sun Ra made an interesting curve for most critics and fans.
Super-Sonic Jazz, 1956; Evidence, 1992.
Sound of Joy, 1957; Delmark, 1994.
Jazz in Silhouette, 1958; Evidence, 1992.
The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra, 1961; Savoy, 1995.
Other Planes of There, 1964; Evidence, 1994.
The Magic City, 1965; Evidence, 1993.
Monorails and Satellites, 1966; Evidence, 1992.
Holiday for Soul Dance, 1969; Evidence, 1992.
Atlantis, 1969; Evidence, 1993.
My Brother the Wind, Vol. 2, 1970; Evidence 1992.
Space Is the Place, 1972; Evidence, 1993.
Strange Celestial Road, Rounder, 1987.
Reflections in Blue, Black Saint, 1987.
Out There a Minute, Blast First, 1989.
Hours After, Black Saint, 1990.
Mayan Temples, Black Saint, 1990.
Sun Song, Delmark, 1991.
Sunrise in Different Dimensions, Hat Hut, 1991.
Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy/Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow, Evidence, 1992.
Sound Sun Pleasure!, Evidence, 1992.
Sun Ra Visits Planet Earth/Interstellar Low Ways, Evidence,1992.
We Travel the Spaceways/Bad and Beautiful, Evidence,1992.
Angels and Demons at Play/The Nubians of Plutonia, Evidence,1993.
Fate in a Pleasant Mood/When the Sun Comes Out, Evidence,1993.
Somewhere Else, Rounder, 1993.
At the Village Vanguard, Rounder, 1993.
The Singles, Evidence, 1996.
Campbell, Robert, The Earthly Recordings, A Sun Ra Discography, Cadence Jazz Books, 1994.
Cook, Richard, and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on Compact Disc, 1992; 3rd edition, 1998.
George-Warren, Holly, editor, The Rolling Stone Jazz Record Guide, Random House, 1999.
Lock, Graham, Blutopia, Visions of the Future & Revisions of the past in the Work of Sun Ra,
Szwed, John F., Space is the Place, The Lives & Times of Sun Ra, Da Capo Press, Incorporated, 1998.
Trent, Chris, Another Shade of Blue, Sun Ra on Record, Stride Publications, 1997.
African American Review, Summer 1995, p. 253.
Billboard, January 25, 1992, p. 12.
Down Beat, February 1994, p. 161; June 1997, p.40; August 1999, p. 16.
Esquire, September 1993, p.56.
Jet, June 21, 1993.
New York Times, May 31, 1993; October 19, 1996.
Time, June 14, 1993, p.21.
Keyboard player, bandleader, composer
The eccentric Sun Ra has exerted a profound influence over modern jazz for more than four decades. As a solo performer and also as leader of the Sun Ra Arkestra, the musician has blazed new trails in the development of improvisational, or “free,” jazz. Sun Ra was the first American musician to make use of African percussion and electronic instruments in a jazz setting. Through his Arkestra, he proved that a larger band could play the footloose styles of free-form jazz supposedly exclusive to tiny ensembles. Philadelphia Inquirer contributor Francis Davis called Sun Ra “an innovative force in jazz for more than 30 years as a keyboard player, bandleader and composer… one of America’s most venerable avant-gardists.”
Sun Ra was the recipient of high praise in the work Black Music by Amiri Baraka (published under Baraka’s given name, LeRoi Jones). Baraka was a fan of the Arkestra during the early 1960s, when Sun Ra was playing in New York City. In Black Music, Baraka wrote: “All the [musical] concepts that seemed vague and unrealized in the late 50’s have come together in the mature and profound music and compositions of this philosopher-musician…. Sun-Ra wants a music that will reflect a life-sense lost in the West, a music full of Africa.” Baraka stated further that the Arkestra is “the first big band of the New Black Music…. Sun-Ra’s Arkestra is really a black family. The leader keeps fourteen or fifteen musicians playing with him who are convinced that music is a priestly concern and a vitally significant aspect of black culture.”
It is indeed impossible to separate Sun Ra’s music from its spiritual foundations. The musician himself has fostered an otherworldly persona, often speaking quite seriously of extraterrestrial travel and a state of higher consciousness once enjoyed by the black race. Little is known about the artist’s earthly origins—most sources trace his birth to May, 1914, in Birmingham, Alabama. He learned to play piano by ear as a child and was a fine enough musician by his teens to win a full scholarship to Alabama A. &M. University. There he majored in education and directed the student band.
Sun Ra told the Philadelphia Inquirer that, after leaving the university, he was kidnapped by extraterrestrials who took him to Saturn. These space aliens, he said, convinced him that his music would bring order to a chaotic world and meaning to the lives of the confused. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that he earned the nickname “Moon Man” when he surfaced in Chicago as a jazz keyboardist in the late 1940s. By that time Sun Ra was already developing pure sound pieces similar to the work of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. He told the Inquirer that his fellow musicians “didn’t understand what I was doing, but they were fascinated by it.”
The nucleus of the Sun-Ra Myth-Science Arkestra formed in the early 1950s in Chicago and began to turn out albums on small jazz labels. Sun Ra experimented constantly, adding African drums to his growing band and dressing himself in traditional African garb—a habit that he kept in the ensuing years. By the time the Arkestra moved to New York City in 1961 it had a considerable following among enthusiasts of avant-garde jazz. The Arkestra pieces of this period seem like a veritable wall of sound, challenging all earthly limits with every beat. As Baraka described it, the music took up “all available sound space…. Sun-Ra’s music creates the arbitrary sounds of the natural world.”
This style inevitably led to the misconception that Sun Ra’s dissonant sound was a matter of pure improvisation by individual Arkestra members. Such spontaneity was welcomed, but it was not considered a chance occurrence. In fact Sun Ra has always composed pieces, incredibly complex though they may be, and has merely made dissonance an element of his style. In the decades since 1970 he has returned to a more mainstream jazz approach, offering arrangements of pop standards and even Walt Disney songs in live
Given name, Herman “Sonny” Blount; born May, 1914, in Birmingham, Ala.; unmarried. Education: Attended Alabama A. & M. University on scholarship; majored in education.
Jazz musician and bandleader, c. 1935—. Worked as backup musician in Nashville and Chicago before forming own ensemble, Sun Ra and His Arkestra, c. 1950. Has cut over 200 albums on private labels. Music was featured in the film The Cry of Jazz.
Awards: Liberty Bell citizenship award from the city of Philadelphia, 1990, for body of work; many other awards.
Addresses: Record company —Delmark, 4243 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, IL 60618.
performances or on albums. Still, he tries to infuse all his work with a sense of spiritual definition and a suggestion of unfulfilled possibilities.
Davis noted that Sun Ra “gives the impression that he has been withholding his most visionary music from a species not yet prepared for it”—or a species that has fallen from grace. Sun Ra himself told the Inquirer: “The black races were in touch with the real creators of the universe at one time, in perfect communication with them, but they lost it. So they go to church, take dope, do all sort of things to try to regain that state. The white man never had it.” Ra suggests that he has felt that perfect communication in moments in his own life and could eventually render that state of perfection in his music.
In the meantime, Sun Ra and his Arkestra play and record their unique music from a base in Philadelphia, a city Sun Ra calls “death’s headquarters.” The musician, at 76 or so, continues his quest to “save the planet” through his music. Baraka wrote: “Sun-Ra is spiritually oriented. He understands ‘the future’ as an ever widening comprehension of what space is, even to the ‘physical’ travel between the planets as we do anyway in the long human chain of progress…. It is science-fact that Sun-Ra is interested in, not science-fiction. It is evolution itself, and its fruits. God as evolution. The flow of is…. And the mortal seeking, the human knowing spiritual, and willing the evolution. Which is the Wisdom Religion.”
The Heliocentric World of Sun-Ra, ESP, c. 1968.
Walt Dickerson and Sun Ra, Steeplechase, 1979.
(With Others) Stay Awake, Hal Wilner Recordings, 1987.
Reflections in Blue, Black Saint, 1987.
Blue Delight, 1989.
Also recorded Sun Ra Live at Montreaux, Atlantis, and over 200 privately published albums.
Jones, LeRoi, Black Music, Morrow, 1968.
Philadelphia Inquirer, February 16, 1990.
—Anne Janette Johnson
Legendary jazz pianist, composer, and orchestra leader Sun Ra was one of the most original figures in twentieth-century American music. For over 40 years he led a group of musicians, dancers, and singers—known by dozens of names including the Cosmocentric, Heliocentric, Myth Science, and Omniverse Arkestras—in wild performances across the planet. At least 1,000 of his compositions could be heard on hundreds of recordings. In addition to the piano and organ, Sun Ra played percussion and various electronic instruments, synthesizers, and invented instruments. He was the first big-band leader to break down the conventional sectioning of brass and reeds and to introduce performance art into jazz. His musical influence extended beyond jazz to alternative rock.
Came From Saturn
As an adult Sun Ra claimed to have come from the planet Saturn. In fact Herman Poole "Sonny" Blount was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on May 22, 1914, one of numerous children of Cary and Ida (Jones) Blount. His father was a railroad worker and his mother worked in the restaurant of the Birmingham train station where young Blount would eat his meals and listen to the player piano. He was raised in the Baptist Church by his maternal grandmother Margaret Jones and great-aunt Ida Howard, although even as a young child he questioned the scriptures. Each week his great-aunt took him to the black theater and he heard every band that came through Birmingham. For his 11th birthday Ida Howard bought him a piano. Blount played by ear and taught himself to sight-read. He wrote poetry and began composing songs. Soon he was playing in the city's black social clubs. As a teenager Blount developed testicular cryptorchidism—a severe type of hernia in which the testes fail to descend into the scrotum. Some sources link the ongoing physical pain from this development with Blount's increasing social isolation.
Blount excelled at Industrial High School where he played in the school orchestra under the legendary John T. "Fess" Whatley. As a senior he played his first professional gig in Whatley's Sax-o-Society Orchestra. After graduation in 1932 Blount went on tour with the Society Troubadours, formed his own group, The Nighthawks of Harmony, and played as a sideman. He led a Whatley band that enrolled as the school band with full scholarships at the Alabama State Agricultural and Mechanical Institute for Negroes. Blount entered the teacher-training program and began his first formal classical piano study with Lula Hopkins Randall.
Blount left the school after one year. He told Bert Primack of Down Beat in 1978 that "since I was making such good marks, there wasn't no need being an intellectual if I couldn't do something that hadn't been done before, so I decided I would tackle the most difficult problem on the planet…finding out the real meaning of the Bible." Returning to Birmingham Blount formed a rehearsal band at his great-aunt's house and began experimenting with new musical forms, as well as with the first tape recorders and electronic keyboards.
Reborn as Sun Ra
With the outbreak of World War II, Blount was drafted but claimed conscientious objector status. After being jailed briefly, he was sent to a Civilian Public Service Camp in Pennsylvania to do forestry work, but was quickly discharged due to his physical disabilities. He returned to Birmingham to teach and lead his band. Early in 1946 after the death of his great-aunt Blount left for Chicago.
For the next 15 years Blount worked in Chicago as a pianist, arranger, and composer. He played with Fletcher Henderson's band at the famous Club DeLisa and, after Henderson left in 1947, Blount spent the next five years as the rehearsal pianist and copyist for the DeLisa house band. He continued his musical experiments, moving further away from conventional jazz. He also studied ancient Egypt and taught himself hieroglyphics.
Together with Alton Abraham, his patron and later his business manager, Blount formed an informal group called Thmei Research. He preached his reinterpretations of black history and the Bible on Chicago street corners and wrote leaflets and broadsheets that were signed "Ra", "Sun," or "El." In 1952 Blount legally changed his name to Le Sony'r Ra, abbreviated as Sun Ra.
Formed the Arkestra
By the early 1950s Ra was building a rehearsal band that would eventually become the Arkestra. His goal was to rehearse for 10 years before performing. Although they were soon playing in clubs most nights, one musician estimated that they rehearsed 180 hours for every hour of performance. In his biography of Sun Ra, John F. Szwed wrote: "Rehearsals were exhausting but exhilarating ordeals, half musical instruction, the other half teaching, prognostication, and spiritual and practical advice…he nonetheless lectured them on personal discipline; on the history of black people and their role in the creation of civilization; on the use of music in changing the world; and on etymology and numerology, on astronomy and astrology…spiked with jokes, wordplay, biblical interpretation, and anecdotes about famous jazz musicians." Sun Ra fed and lodged his musicians and demanded abstinence from drugs and alcohol. Involvement with women was discouraged. Infractions were punished by taking away a solo.
Sun Ra took an unusual approach to marketing his music. In 1956 Sun Ra formed El Saturn Research. Between 1956 and 1988 Saturn released 71 albums, most of which were sold at concerts with hand-painted covers. Sun Ra designed increasingly outrageous costumes for the band and his choreography became more complex. Szwed quoted from a 1993 Robert L. Campbell interview with musician Lucious Randolph: "Sun Ra was going through a change: we started jumping around…not like jumping jacks, straight up and down; and it had to be in a specific place…. We started wearing beanies with propellers that lit up. Sun Ra wore a space hat with a light on it…. We did space chants." Szwed quoted from a 1968 Bert Vuijsje interview with Sun Ra: "Some people may not be able to accept this music or know what it is, but in fact they don't need to listen to the music; they just need to look at our clothes because I have incorporated music in them too."
In 1961 the Arkestra moved to New York City, settling into the "Sun Palace" in the East Village, which had become the new center for black creative arts. Sun Ra joined Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) at the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School in Harlem and in 1966 the Arkestra provided the music for Baraka's play A Black Mass.
At a Glance …
Born Herman Poole Blount on May 22, 1914, in Birmingham, AL; changed his name to Le Sony'r Ra, abbreviated as Sun Ra, 1952; died on May 30, 1993, in Birmingham, AL. Education: Alabama State A&M Institute for Negroes, teacher-training program, 1935. Military Service: conscientious objector, Civilian Public Service Camp, PA, 1941.
jazz keyboardist, composer, arranger, band and orchestra leader, poet, Birmingham, AL, 1932-46, Chicago, IL, 1946-61, Montreal, Quebec, 1961, New York City, 1961-68, Philadelphia, PA, 1968-93; Sun Ra and His Arkestra (musical group), leader early 1950s-93; El Saturn Research, Chicago, IL, founder and principal, 1956-88; Ihnfiniti, Inc., founder and principal, 1967-?; University of California, Berkeley, instructor, 1971.
Indiana University Black Music Center, Honorary Advisory Committee.
Down Beat magazine, numerous awards, Hall of Fame; National Endowment for the Arts, American Jazz Master Award, 1982; State of Alabama, Alabama Hall of Fame, 1988; City of Philadelphia, Liberty Bell citizenship award, 1990; Germantown Historical Society, Hall of Fame, 1998.
Filmed Space Is the Place
By 1965 Sun Ra's music had become wilder and more complex. The Arkestra's performances grew longer, sometimes lasting five or six hours. With Abraham and others, Sun Ra incorporated a business, Ihnfinity, Inc., in 1967. The company's purpose, as Szwed quoted from its statement of purpose, was "To perform spiritual-cosmic-intergalactic-infinity research works relative to worlds-dimensions-planes in galaxies and universes beyond the present now known used imagination of mankind, beyond the intergalactic central sun and works relative to spiritual and spiritual advancement of our presently known world."
In 1968 after being evicted for nonpayment of rent, Sun Ra moved his commune of musicians to Philadelphia into an East Germantown house owned by the father of alto saxophonist Marshall Allen. In 1971 the Arkestra briefly lived in an Oakland, California, house owned by the Black Panther Party while Sun Ra taught a course entitled "The Black Man in the Cosmos" at the University of California at Berkeley.
Sun Ra's 1974 film Space Is the Place became a cult classic. With its tacky special effects, the film paid homage to the science-fiction movies of the 1950s and 1960s. Sun Ra wrote all his own lines for the film, in which he returns to Earth to lead blacks to a utopian planet.
From 1973 on Sun Ra and the Arkestra toured constantly, playing concerts and festivals around the world. The performances became spectacles. Sun Ra added fire-eaters, muscle men, and midgets to his performances. His performances opened them with a single thunder drum, and other instruments joined in one-by-one. Singer June Tyson entered singing "Along Came Ra," who followed in with the dancers. Complex group improvisations preceded pop songs or swing arrangements, works by Henderson, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, even doo-wop and disco, Chopin and Rachmaninoff. Then came the space hymns such as "Love in Outer Space" or "The Satellites Are Spinning," accompanied by light shows and slides or films. However no two performances were ever the same and each composition might have 15 different arrangements. Soon other space bands such as George Clinton's Parliament-Funkadelic were modeling themselves after the Arkestra. However the Arkestra was perpetually broke and the musicians often found themselves stranded penniless at the end of a tour.
The Arkestra Lived On
By 1986 the Arkestra was sometimes giving classic big-band performances of standards, pop tunes, or Disney music, interspersed with intergalactic spectacles. Despite his reputation as reclusive and secretive, Sun Ra appeared on Saturday Night Live, the Today Show, and MTV. He spoke out against nuclear energy, the dangers of nuclear war, and pollution.
Sun Ra's music was opened to a new generation when Evidence Records began reissuing the Saturn singles and albums, as well as previously unreleased recordings, in the early 1990s. Sun Ra's music became more widely appreciated and, during the following decade, his writings were republished.
Sun Ra continued to perform and record even after a 1990 stroke left him partially paralyzed. However with the Arkestra on tour, Sun Ra was sent to Birmingham to be cared for by his sister. There the hernia which had helped define his life was surgically corrected. Sun Ra died on May 30, 1993, after months in a Birmingham hospital. The Arkestra played at his funeral and the mourners left singing "Space is the Place." Honoring Sun Ra's dying request, the Arkestra continued under the direction of saxophonist John Gilmore until his death in 1995. As of 2007 the Sun Ra Arkestra was touring under Marshall Allen and rehearsing at the Sun Ra house in Philadelphia, which had become a music school. In addition to the music of the Sun Ra Arkestra, Sun Ra left a legacy that included approximately 200 albums, several films, and published poetry.
Jazz by Sun Ra, Transition, 1956; as Sun Song, Delmark, 1993.
Super-Sonic Jazz, Saturn, 1956.
Jazz in Silhouette, Saturn, 1958.
The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Vols. I and II, ESP-Disk, 1965.
The Magic City, Saturn, 1965.
Strange Strings, Thoth Intergalactic, 1966.
A Black Mass, Jihad, 1968.
Soundtrack to the Film "Space is the Place" (includes "The Satellites are Spinning," "Love in Outer Space") Blue Thumb, 1972.
Concert for the Comet Kohoutek, ESP, 1973.
Solo Piano, Vol. 1, Improvising Artists, 1977.
Lanquidity, Philly Jazz, 1978.
Nuclear War, Y Ra, 1982.
John Cage Meets Sun Ra, Meltdown, 1986.
Second Star to the Right (Salute to Walt Disney), Leo, 1989.
The Singles, Evidence, 1996.
Greatest Hits: Easy Listening For Intergalactic Travel, Evidence, 2000.
Live at Club Lingerie, Transparency, 2006.
The Immeasurable Equation, Vol. I, Ihnfinity, Inc./Saturn Research, 1972.
Extensions Out: The Immeasurable Equation, Vol. II, Ihnfinity, Inc./Saturn Research, 1972.
Sun Ra: The Immeasurable Equation. The Collected Poetry and Prose, BoD, 2006.
The Wisdom of Sun Ra: Sun Ra's Polemical Broadsheets and Streetcorner Leaflets, compiled and introduced by John Corbett, WhiteWalls, 2006.
The Cry of Jazz, 1956.
Space Is the Place, 1974.
Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise, 1980.
The Magic Sun, 2005.
Campbell, Robert L. and Christopher Trent, The Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra, Cadence Jazz, 2000.
Kapsalis, Terry, John Corbett, and Anthony Elms (Eds.), Pathways to Unknown Worlds: Sun Ra, El Saturn and Chicago's Afro-Futurist Underground, 1954-68, WhiteWalls, 2007.
Szwed, John F. Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra, Pantheon, 1997.
African American Review, Summer 1995, pp. 253-255.
Austin American-Statesman (TX), October 10, 1996, p. 12.
Billboard, June 12, 1993, pp. 12-13; August 19, 2000, p. 78.
Down Beat, May 4, 1978, p. 15.
Guardian (London), October 22, 2005, p. 8.
Philadelphia Inquirer, December 28, 2005.
"Sun Ra—Space is the Place," Perfect Sound Forever,www.furious.com/perfect/sunra2.html (February 12, 2007).
(b. 22 May 1914 in Birmingham, Alabama; d. 30 May 1993 in Birmingham, Alabama), influential jazz musician, composer, and orchestra leader.
Sun Ra was born Herman Poole Blount, the son of Cary Blount, a railroad laborer, and Ida Jones. After his parents’ marriage failed, his maternal grandmother, Margaret Jones, and his great-aunt Ida Howard raised him. His mother worked at a restaurant near the railroad terminal. Blount often ate in the kitchen there and listened to piano rolls by Fats Waller. Other childhood influences included the Tabernacle Baptist Church and the public school where he excelled. At Birmingham Industrial High School, Blount studied under the legendary band director John Tuggle Whatley, who pioneered in securing grants to purchase musical instruments for his students. When Blount formed a band of his own, Whatley bought a bus that enabled his students to tour the South. Blount graduated from high school in 1932 and studied for a year at State Agricultural and Mechanical Institute for Negroes in Normal, Alabama, and in the late 1930s he worked as a professional musician playing around the South and Midwest. A conscientious objector during World War II, he spent a short time in jail and then was excused from service for medical reasons.
In 1946 he moved to Chicago and renamed himself Le Sony’ra, which he legally adopted on 20 October 1952 and which appeared on his passport. In Chicago he backed the rhythm and blues stars Wynonie Blues Harris, B. B. King, Joe Williams, and LaVerne Baker and led the house band at the Club De Lisa, one of the city’s better nightclubs. He was also a sideman for Coleman Hawkins and served for a year in Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra, learning from two artists he revered. Throughout this period, Le Sony’ra conducted jam sessions. Though one participant likened these nonstop events to boot camps, musicians flocked to jam with the Arkestra, as it became known. Jam sessions flowed into rehearsals and then into performances, establishing Le Sony’ra’s reputation among jazz artists.
By 1952 he had renamed himself Sun Ra and refused to acknowledge his birthplace or date, insisting that he was an extraterrestrial. His name signified the bandleader’s deep fascination with outer space and ancient Egypt, through which he intended to reawaken African Americans to historical black achievement. He established his own record label, Saturn, which he occasionally renamed Thoth. He was a voracious reader of W. E. B. Du Bois and several Egyptologists. He decorated stage sets for his concerts with Egyptian hieroglyphics and dressed himself and the band in Egyptian costumes. A second theme was hostility to Christianity, which Sun Ra contended had negated black history and seduced African Americans into a secondary status. In the 1950s Sun Ra issued codebooks that used numerology to make radical reinterpretations of the Bible through Egyptology. He also disliked the use by the Christian civil rights movement of the Exodus myth, which he regarded as misguided because of its use of conventional politics. However flamboyant and controversial, Sun Ra and his philosophy fit into an ongoing black intellectual dialogue about history and civilization.
Sun Ra and the Arkestra initially issued songs on 45 rpm records. Although he recorded virtually everything he played, innumerable albums were not released until years after their creation. His albums, many with hand-painted covers, were sold only by mail order or after concerts and were replaced with new recordings on a monthly basis. Sun Ra moved to New York City in 1961. There his music featured references to space travel, another significant sub-theme in African American mythology. He used space travel to express the loneliness of the black musician and to forecast a technological future of electronic instruments (which he introduced to jazz) and computers. For example, he insisted that black youth had to stay in school and study electronics and engineering to prepare them for future space travel. His band appeared under numerous names. The poet Amiri Baraka recalled one day in which Sun Ra and the Myth Science Arkestra marched across 125th Street in Manhattan, announcing the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s by proclaiming, “We Travel in Space Ways.” Their most significant venue was Slug’s, a sawdust bar on East Fourth Street in lower Manhattan, where the Arkestra held Monday evening sessions until late into the night. The tiny, dark bar was always packed and lit only by films projected against the wall. Each performance was unique, including space music as well as reinterpretations of compositions by Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton.
Baraka called the Arkestra a family “whose life was music.” Key members included the baritonist Pat Patrick, the tenor saxophonist John Gilmore, and Marshall Allen, alto saxophonist. For one concert in Central Park, Sun Ra was able to summon more than 100 alumni of his Arkestra. In an interview with the Nigerian journalist Tarn Fiofori, Sun Ra offered thanks to his innumerable bands, whether popular or not, for being “truly natural Black Beauty.”
His fascination with outer space was reflected in his many recordings. Albums such as Rocket Number Nine Take Off for the Planet Venus (1959), We Travel the Space-ways (1961), and The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961) were released on Saturn Records or on ESP Records. Each album of songs about space travel and an imminent technological future was expressed as sermons and spiritual chants. In concerts, the Arkestra danced through the audience in a counterclockwise circle, akin to “ring shouts” once used by enslaved African Americans.
Sun Ra’s career blossomed after his move to Philadelphia in 1968, where he maintained a cooperative musical society until his death. In succeeding decades, Sun Ra was constantly in demand for concerts and festivals worldwide; his earlier albums, now collectors’ items, were rereleased by Evidence Records. His discography lists more than 500 recordings over a forty-seven-year career. Sun Ra inspired John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, among many others, to honor Africa in their compositions. His space imagery recurs in the music of pop performers such as Parliament Funkadelic and Prince. Holistic in his use of sources and instruments, he transformed pop culture into experimental jazz. He died of a heart attack in 1993, the result of a series of strokes that were worsened by his indifference to curative drugs and physical therapy. Sun Ra is not known to have ever married, and he left no survivors.
Book-length studies on Sun Ra include John F. Szwed, Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (1997), and Graham Lock, Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton (1999). See also Valerie Wilmer, As Serious as Your Life: The Story of the New Jazz (1977). A full discography is Robert L. Campbell, The Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra (1994). Articles include Amiri Baraka, “Sun Ra,” African American Review 29 (1996): 249-251. An obituary is in the New York Times (31 May 1993). Sun Ra’s performances may be seen in Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise (Rhapsody Films, 1980) and Space is the Place (Rhapsody Films, 1993). A vast array of his albums are available on compact discs.
Graham Russell Hodges