Who is Sun Ra?


Illustration: Franco Égalité

In 1914, a being from Saturn arrived on Earth.

He preached peace and cosmic philosophy, influenced generations of jazz innovators, and laid the groundwork for decades of Afrofuturist music and art, all before returning to his home planet. He spoke in puzzles and tautologies; his poems feel like riddles and his riddles, poems. His legacy has inspired the likes of Solange, Erykah Badu, Parliament Funkadelic, and D’Angelo – but the list certainly doesn’t end there. If it weren’t for him, music as we know it today would be fundamentally different, and yet, most don’t even know his name. So, who is Sun Ra, and why should you care?

The early days of Sonny Blount

Herman ‘Sonny’ Blount was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama (b. May 22, 1914). He was surrounded by music since his early childhood, picking up the piano quickly and sight reading difficult sheet music by the age of 12. Birmingham was a common stop for touring musicians, so he was often exposed to the likes of Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson, big bandleaders of legendary status. Not much is known about his early life, and as an adult, he did quite well making sure some of those details stayed fuzzy (for example, he often quipped that he was related to Elijah Poole, founder of the Nation of Islam, but nobody has been able to confirm that; given the nature of his mystical communication, it’s unclear whether a lot of his remarks were serious or not).

As a high schooler, he was an honor roll student and adamant reader; he spent hours in Birmingham’s Black Masonic Lodge, as it was the only place he had unlimited access to the books he wanted to read. He began touring as a pianist for Ethel Harper’s big band when he was 20, and once Harper (who eventually found fame as the face of Aunt Jemima in 1950) decided she was moving away to New York, he lead the group and renamed it the Sonny Blount Orchestra. They toured for months under this moniker, until they were forced to stop for financial reasons. At this point, Sonny decided to give college a shot, studying music education. He would only stay a year before the life-changing event that would turn Sonny Blount into Sun Ra.

The birth of Sun Ra

The timing of this event is unclear; Sun Ra has insisted that it happened in 1936 or 1937 while he was in college, although he also claimed that it happened during his time in Chicago, where he did not live until after 1940. Regardless, he described his trip to Saturn many times, long before the concept of UFOs entered the public conscience. Cosmic beings called him to speak through music and spread his abstract gospel. At this point, he realized that he himself was an interplanetary being, only momentarily visiting the Earth. This put the wind behind his wings; he began rigorously rehearsing and writing, and rarely took the time to get a full night’s sleep. The band he would form soon after this rehearsed rigorously, every day, for hours. Every variation of his band, or Arkestra, as he called it, did the same from here on out.

When drafted for the military in 1942, he appealed his draft as a conscientious objector, and when he was denied, refused to go anyway. The military eventually offered him an alternate service in Pennsylvania, which he ignored as well. When taken to court and told he would be forced to fight overseas, he insisted that, were he was drafted, he would use the military’s weapons to kill their highest-ranking officer he could find. He was arrested, of course, but released after only a year. By 1945, he decided it was time for him to move away from Birmingham; he had his eyes set on Chicago.

It was in Chicago that Sun Ra was given the opportunity to play piano with and arrange for the band of his childhood idol, Fletcher Henderson. This was one of many things in Chicago that shaped him; surrounded by Black activism and groups like the Black Muslims, he was also inspired to legally change his name to Le Sony’r Ra in 1952. He had, for quite a while, felt disdain for the surname, or “slave name” as he called it, ‘Blount.’

During this time, he also began forming the Sun Ra Arkestra, though that name was quite inconsistent. To name a few of the variations they would perform as: Sun Ra and his Myth-Science Arkestra, Sun Ra and his Astro Infinity Arkestra, or just Sun Ra and His Arkestra. In his words, “I didn’t change [the name], that’s just one of the dimensions… I’ve got some songs that come under [‘Myth-Science’], and then I had some under the ‘Solar Arkestra,’ and then I got the ‘Astro Infinity’ – all of them mean different things to me.” Saxophonists John Gilmore and Marshall Allen, who would command the Arkestra after Sun Ra’s departure from Earth, both joined during this time.

While in Chicago, he also started his own record label — El Saturn records — with the help of his friend Alton Abraham. That might not seem too impressive in the age of everyone’s favorite musician starting their own label, but creating a label and studio of your own was unheard of in the 1950s. Using pawned gear, Sun Ra, alongside Abraham, recorded countless albums and singles in a variety of styles and instrumentations. Here’s one of his most famous compositions, recorded by the Arkestra during this period in 1959; this session is what some consider to be the end of his bebop era, before he began truly diving into experimental waters.

The evolution of Sun Ra

By the 60s, the Arkestra began wearing flashy, spacey, and Egypt-inspired outfits for their performances. This helped portray Sun Ra’s mysterious, Afrofuturist message (though the term “Afrofuturism” would not be coined for decades), as well as provide some comic relief, as he felt that most avant-garde musicians took themselves far too seriously.

Ultimately, Chicago helped Sun Ra properly establish his image for the first time; it was here that he began taking steps away from traditional swing, and began experimenting much more drastically in his compositions. Sometimes, he would lead the band through call-and-response poetry, both sung and spoken; other times, he would conduct the members in group improvisations, with abstract body and hand motions. Regardless of what they were doing, they were always working, always diligent, and always trying something new. One particular quote of his sums up the philosophy he brought to the Arkestra quite well: “Everyone can play what they know. Can you play me something you don’t know?”

Sun Ra was full of contradictions like this. He often spoke of myths, insisting in his poem “The Myth of Me,” that “nothing else is half as real / As the myth of me.” Compare that take on myths to his stance on history:

“They say that ‘history repeats itself.’ But ‘history’ is only his story. You haven’t heard my story yet… History repeats itself, but my story is endless. It never repeats itself. Why should it? A sunset does not repeat itself. Neither does the sunrise. Nature never repeats itself. Why should I repeat myself?”

— Sun Ra

He knew full well that he was often confusing, but he was happy to confuse, so long as he could get you thinking. He had a vast understanding of the way of the world, and knew the importance of abstraction when trying to portray such broad concepts. He spoke in universal laws and governing, mathematical concept – he thought not about years, but eons. He would often talk at his Arkestra for hours before a performance, pausing only to play for a couple hours, and then immediately continuing the conversation once their set had finished.

Sun Ra’s time in New York

While touring in 1961, the Arkestra’s car broke down in New York, and without the money to fix it, Sun Ra decided that the Arkestra was going to settle down in Manhattan for a while. Some members parted ways, some stayed, but before long they were living communally. This allowed Sun Ra to request rehearsals of any length, at any time of the day – something he became quite fond of, and the Arkestra would rehearse this way for the rest of his life.

At first, they struggled to secure performances, often being met by hecklers, but the psychedelic movement quickly embraced their image and message. It was also during this time that the Arkestra met and received praise from bebop pioneers Thelonius Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, and before long, the jazz world started opening the doors for Sun Ra. He also became friends and collaborators with Amiri Baraka, who would go on to write several poems inspired by and about him.

The New York avant-garde inspired all sorts of new ideas for the Arkestra; Sun Ra would make all of his instrumentalists start playing their own drums, even insisting that some members carve their own drums from scratch. Bob Moog also gifted the Arkestra a prototype of the original Minimoog during this time, which led to a later period where Sun Ra would conduct while playing three synthesizers at once. Below is an example of one of his more experimental works from this time, what we could call ‘free jazz’ today (although, Sun Ra didn’t like when his music was called “free;” the amount of discipline required to play in the Arkestra was anything but freeing).

Philadelphia, California, and Egypt

Unfortunately, New York didn’t last long; the living costs were just too high to stay. In 1968, the Arkestra relocated to a house in Philadelphia, where they would stay until after Sun Ra’s death. Here, the Arkestra had a steady and reliable base, and they finally began to flourish when they started touring internationally in 1970. During this period of touring, the Arkestra began to settle into a more predictable repertoire for their concerts – at least, as predictable as an unpredictable visionary could be. An Arkestra concert would be full of jazz standards from Sun Ra’s childhood, at least one prolonged, improvisatory percussion number, and by the late ’70s, usually a couple tunes from Disney movies as well.

The Arkestra first visited California in 1968, drawing a mixed reaction from hippies, some of whom were not prepared for the sheer theatrics of the message they were delivering. But nonetheless, this tour led to Sun Ra’s eventual appointment as an artist-in-residence at UC Berkeley in 1971, teaching a class called “The Black Man In The Cosmos.”

It was also in the early ‘70s that the Arkestra began touring across Europe, and eventually the whole globe. Sun Ra finally visited one of his main sources of inspiration, Egypt, in 1971, and returned again in both ‘83 and ‘84. Here’s one of his recordings with Egyptian drummer Salah Ragab, performed on one of these trips.

Until his final days, Sun Ra was touring and performing. John Gilmore would take over as bandleader on the days that he was too ill to perform, but Ra would usually be ready to perform by the next. In 1990, he suffered a stroke, but continued to perform anyway. In the early ‘90s, he even performed in a series of concerts opening for Sonic Youth. He started to take more and more time away from the stage, and finally returned to his childhood home of Birmingham in 1992. He departed from Earth on May 30, 1993, and that day, the Arkestra performed to ritualistically celebrate his return to his home planet, Saturn.

Sun Ra’s legacy

Now, this has been far from an extensive look at the life of Sun Ra; in order to truly understand his message, you must hear his sounds, see his imagery, and read his poetry. He had a forward-thinking mentality, and knew that his work would not be properly appreciated until after his lifetime. Poets like John Sinclair and Amiri Baraka have written extensively about him, trying to capture his essence and teachings. Bands like Parliament Funkadelic drew inspiration from his space-age imagery when they began performing with massive spaceships and alien costumes. And even though most of his music could be called jazz, he drew from all sorts of inspirations: European romantic composers like Rachmaninoff and Chopin, gospel groups that his jazz peers looked down on, and even the synth sounds of pop music in his later years.

I can’t tell you the history of Sun Ra; after all, it’s his story. But hopefully, you’ll be inspired to delve in and do some listening and reading yourself; in the meantime, check out the Arkestra’s NPR Tiny Desk Concert from 2014 (led by saxophonist Marshall Allen) to see what their performances are like today.

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November 20, 2020

Vera Much Vera is a producer, sound designer, and artist based in New York. Currently, she works on the Content team at Splice and releases music under the name Vera Much.