In the history of jazz, of American music, and even of America itself, Sun Ra (whose centennial is begin celebrated this year) stands alone. As a musician, he was many years ahead of his time in his exploration of free improvisations, electronics, and deconstructing and reinventing aspects of the past. His stage shows were so outlandish by the 1960s that they were a predecessor to rock extravaganzas of the 1990s. Ra’s inscrutable philosophy, which looked backwards to ancient Egypt and ahead to interplanetary travel at the same time (and was reflected in his music and his band’s outfits), along with his ability to obscure much of the facts of his life, made Sun Ra a cult figure, an underrated jazz innovator, and a puzzle to many.
Sun Ra’s life started out conventionally enough. Although he would later claim with a straight face to be from Saturn, he was born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama on May 22, 1914. Growing up as an Afro-American in one of the most segregated American cities, he succeeded in creating his own insular world, reading prolifically and starting to play piano when he was 11. He not only played local jobs as a teenager but wrote music and poetry. He had a song of his (“Chocolate Avenue”) recorded by the New York bandleader Clarence Williams in 1933 and the following year led his own band for the first time.
By then, he was known by the nickname of Sonny. He attended Florida A&M, returned to Birmingham, and led a local band for years as he developed his skills as a pianist, composer, and arranger. A very advanced player during the swing era, when bebop emerged in the mid-1940s, he easily adapted to the new music. After moving to Chicago in 1946, he worked with veteran bandleader Fletcher Henderson during 1946-47 and during the next few years had opportunities to play in a variety of settings, including with blues singer Wynonie Harris and saxophone great Coleman Hawkins.
He also wrote arrangements for many singers including B.B. King, Joe Williams, and Sarah Vaughan. At the same time, his piano playing—when he was not working for others—became very adventurous while his extensive readings about Egypt, religions, and other planets led to him forming his own philosophy and beliefs. He also changed his name, which after a bit of evolution (including being briefly known as Le Sony’r Ra), became Sun Ra.
While he made a few obscure recordings, including a duet with violinist Stuff Smith in which he played a piano connected to an electronic device called the Solovox in 1953, by then his main interest was with his new big band, the Arkestra. The orchestra started off playing advanced bop but, even from its beginnings it was quirky, had its own style, and was open to the influences of other cultures. In addition to playing piano, Ra often doubled on primitive electric keyboards as he sought to add otherworldly sounds to the ensembles.
By the time that Ra and his Arkestra relocated to New York in 1961, Sun Ra’s music had not only become largely free form, but his shows could accurately be called “out of this world.” The Arkestra dressed in wild outfits that often had them looking like space-traveling Egyptians. Their music included group chanting (including their motto “Space is the place”) and complex but catchy phrases. Ra had become an enigmatic figure who was treated as royalty on stage by his loyal musicians, even as many in the jazz world were completely puzzled by his music, his image, and his message.
Sun Ra never made it easy for those who wanted to evaluate his music. Along with the outer space trappings, his documenting of his music on his Saturn label often lacked dates and personnel listings. The Arkestra, which teamed brilliant musicians with amateurs for whom Ra thought there might be potential, could sound very ragged. And those outfits made it easy for detractors to laugh at him or just write him off completely. Ra, who inhabited an insular world with his Arkestra (many of whom lived in the same building), did not pay much attention to the criticism for he had succeeded in creating his own musical universe, one with a growing following of loyal fans who loved the live shows.
In 1970 Sun Ra and his Arkestra moved permanently to Philadelphia. During his later years, he rediscovered the music of Fletcher Henderson and his performances became even more eclectic and wild. Typically his band would play free form music for a long period before Ra emerged on stage, launching into an unexpected obscurity from the swing era that was inspired by Fletcher Henderson. His shows sometimes included fire eaters and plate twirlers (shades of Ed Sullivan!) along with the heated solos, electronic explorations, crazy ensembles, and “space is the place” group chanting. It was unlike anything ever heard before or since.
Sun Ra remained active, unique, and enigmatic up until the time of his death on May 30, 1993 at the age of 89. Even though the remains of the Sun Ra Arkestra live on under the leadership of Marshall Allen, his music and image have never been duplicated.