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.
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 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, Tam 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 Ra told 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 about the avant garde and the New things. 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, Sun Ra 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 21st 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.
by Jane Spear
Sun Ra's Career
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.
Sun Ra's 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.
- Selected discography
- 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.
- Duke Ellington & Anthony Braxton, Duke University Press, December 1999.
- 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.