Sun Ra (born Herman Poole Blount, legal name Le Sony’r Ra; 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,” critic Scott Yanow said, 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”, 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.
For decades, very little was known about Sun Ra’s early life; much of it was obscured by Sun Ra himself: he routinely gave evasive, contradictory or seemingly nonsensical answers to personal questions and even went so far as to deny his birth name. Even his birthday was unknown, with years ranging from 1910 to 1918 being claimed for his birth. Only a few years before his death, the date of Sun Ra’s birth remained a mystery: Jim Macnie’s notes for Blue Delight (1989) could only state that Sun Ra was believed to be about 75 years old. However, Ra’s biographer John F. Szwed was able to uncover a wealth of information about Ra’s early life, including confirming a May 22, 1914 birth date. Named after the popular vaudeville stage magician Black Herman, who had deeply impressed his mother, Sun Ra would speculate, only half in jest, that he was distantly related to Elijah Poole, later famous as Elijah Muhammed, leader of the Nation of Islam. He was nicknamed “Sonny” from his childhood, had an older sister and half-brother, and was doted upon by his mother and grandmother.
Sun Ra’s piano technique touched on many styles: his youthful fascination with boogie woogie, stride piano and blues, a sometimes refined touch reminiscent of Count Basie or Ahmad Jamal, and angular phrases in the style of Thelonious Monk or brutal, percussive attacks like Cecil Taylor. Often overlooked is the range of influences from classical music: Sun Ra cited Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Schönberg and Shostakovich as his favorite composers for the piano.
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.
The first period occurred in the 1950s when Sun Ra’s music evolved from big band swing into the outer-space-themed “cosmic jazz” for which he was best known. Music critics and jazz historians say some of his best work was recorded during this period and it is also some of his most accessible music. Sun Ra’s music in this era was often tightly arranged and sometimes reminiscent of Duke Ellington’s, Count Basie’s, or other important swing music ensembles. However, there was a strong influence from post-swing styles like bebop, hard bop, and modal jazz, and touches of the exotic and hints of the experimentalism that would dominate his later music. Notable Sun Ra albums from the 1950s include Sun Ra Visits Planet Earth, Interstellar Low Ways, Super-Sonic Jazz, We Travel the Spaceways, The Nubians of Plutonia and Jazz In Silhouette.
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.
After the move to New York, Sun Ra and company plunged headlong into the experimentalism that they had only hinted at in Chicago. The music was often extremely loud and the Arkestra grew to include multiple drummers and percussionists. Recordings of this era began to utilize new technological possibilities such as extensive use of tape delay systems to assemble spatial sound pieces which are far removed from earlier compositions such as “Saturn”. Recordings and live performances often featured passages for unusual instrumental combinations and passages of collective playing which point towards free improvisation—in fact, it is often difficult to tell where the compositions end and the improvisations begin.
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.
During their third period, beginning in the 1970s and onward, Sun Ra and the Arkestra settled down into a relatively conventional sound, often incorporating swing standards, though their records and concerts were still highly eclectic and energetic, and typically included at least one lengthy, semi-improvised percussion jam. Sun Ra was explicitly asserting a continuity with the ignored jazz tradition: “They tried to fool you, now I got to school you, about jazz, all about jazz” he rapped, framing the inclusion of pieces by Fletcher Henderson and Jelly Roll Morton.
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.
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).
According to Szwed Sun Ra’s view of his relationship to black people and black cultures “changed drastically” over time. Initially, Sun Ra identified closely with broader struggles for black power, black political influence, and black identity, and saw his own music as a key element in educating and liberating blacks. But by the heyday of black power radicalism in the 1960s, Sun Ra was expressing disillusionment with these aims, and he denied feeling closely connected to any race.
Many of Sun Ra’s innovations remain important and groundbreaking: “Ra was one of the first jazz leaders to use two basses, to employ the electric bass, to play electronic keyboards, to use extensive percussion and polyrhythms, to explore modal music and to pioneer solo and group freeform improvisations. In addition, he made his mark in the wider cultural context: he proclaimed the African origins of jazz, reaffirmed pride in black history and reasserted the spiritual and mystical dimensions of music (all important factors in the black cultural/political renaissance of the 60s).”