Sun Ra

Sun Ra (Born Herman Poole Blount; legal name Le Sony'r Sun Ra; born May 22, 1914 in Birmingham, Alabama, died May 30, 1993 in Birmingham, Alabama) was an innovative jazz composer, bandleader, piano and synthesizer player, poet and philosopher known for his "cosmic philosophy", musical compositions and performances.

He abandoned his birth name and took on the name and persona of Sun Ra (Ra being the ancient Egyptian god of the Sun). Claiming that he was of the "Angel Race" and not from Earth, but from Saturn, Sun Ra developed a complicated persona of "cosmic" philosophies and lyrical poetry that made him a pioneer of Afrofuturism as he preached "awareness" and peace above all.

He led The Arkestra (a deliberate mis-spelling of "orchestra"), an ensemble with an ever-changing lineup and name (it was also called "The Solar Myth 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.)

A prolific recording artist and frequent live performer, Sun Ra's music ranged from keyboard solos to big bands of 30-odd 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.

He eschewed racism, and insisted his musicians avoid drug abuse, but he rarely spoke directly about politics or any controversial subjects.

Early life

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 he 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 birthday.

Named after the popular vaudeville stage magician Black Herman who'd 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, and had an older sister and half-brother, and was doted upon by his mother and grandmother.

At ten years old, Sun Ra joined the Knights of Pythias, and remained a member until he graduated from high school. His family was deeply religious, but was not formally associated with any Christian church or sect.

Even as a child, Sun Ra was a skilled pianist. By 11 or 12 years old he was writing original songs, and was able to sight read sheet music. Birmingham was an important stop for touring musicians, and he saw famous musicians like Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, along with less-famous performers who were often just as talented as their better-known peers, with Sun Ra once stating "the world let down a lot of good musicians." In his teen years, Sun Ra demonstrated prodigious musical talents: many times, according to acquaintances, he would see big band performances, and, from memory, produce full transcriptions of the bands' songs.

Ra had few or no close friends in high school, but was remembered as kind-natured and quiet, an honor roll student and a voracious reader. The Black Masonic Lodge was one of the few places in Birmingham where African-Americans had essentially unlimited access to books, and the Lodge's many books on Freemasonry and other esoteric concepts made a big impression on him.

By his mid-teens, Sun Ra was performing semi-professionally as a solo pianist, or as a member of various ad hoc jazz and R&B groups. He attended Birmingham's "Industrial High School", where he studied under famed music teacher John T. "Fess" Parker, a demanding disciplinarian who was widely respected and whose classes produced many professional musicians.

Also by his teens, Sun Ra suffered from cryptorchidism, a chronic testicular hernia that left him with a nearly constant discomfort that sometimes flared into severe pain. The condition also left him with a sense of shame and increased his sense of isolation.

Sun Ra rejected the invitation to be his high school class valedictorian, writes Szwed, because the young pianist "wanted nothing to do with leadership."

It has been reported that Sun Ra was homosexual. When asked directly why he had never married, Sun Ra paraphrased the Gospel of St. Matthew, stating, "They neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like angels that shine forth like the sun." Others, however, discount his being gay, noting that Sun Ra seemed to have no interest in any sort of romantic or sexual relationships. In a rare insight into his personal life, he wrote in a 1943 letter, "I have never been able to think of sex as a part of my life though I have tried to but I just wasn't interested"; (see Asexuality). Other scholars of sexuality argue that, whether or not physical intimacy occurred, Sun Ra's attractions were to men, therefore he was gay.

Early professional career and college

In 1934, Blount was offered his first full-time musical job when Industrial High School English teacher Ethel Harper organized a band and decided to pursue a career as a singer. Blount joined a musicians' union, and Harper's group toured through the U.S. southeast and Midwest. Harper left the group mid-tour to move to New York (she later was a member of the modestly successful singing group the Ginger Snaps), and Blount took over leadership of the group, renaming it the Sonny Blount Orchestra. They continued touring for several months before dissolving the unprofitable group.

Though the first edition of the Sonny Blount Orchestra was not financially successful, they earned positive notice from fans and other musicians, and Blount afterwards found steady employment in Birmingham.

The clubs of Birmingham often featured exotic trappings such as vivid lighting and murals with tropical or oasis scenes that were believed to have influenced Sun Ra's later stage shows. The big bands also imparted a sense of pride and togetherness to black musicians: musicians were highly regarded in the black community, and were expected to be disciplined and presentable, and in the segregated south, black musicians arguably had the most acceptance in white society, often performing for white high society audiences (though they were typically forbidden from associating with the audiences).

In 1936, Parker's intercession led to Blount being awarded a scholarship at Alabama A&M. He was a music education major, studying composition, orchestration, and music theory, but after a year, he dropped out.

Sun Ra's "trip to Saturn"

Finances and his increasing sense of isolation are believed to have been a factor in Sun Ra's leaving college, but perhaps more importantly, he claimed a visionary experience as a college student, a strange event that was to have a major long-term influence on the young pianist. In 1936 or 1937, in the midst of deep religious concentration, Sun Ra claimed that a bright light appeared around him, and, as he later stated,

….my whole body changed into something else. I could see through myself. And I went up … I wasn't in human form … I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn … they teleported me and I was down on [a] stage with them. They wanted to talk with me. They had one little antenna on each ear. A little antenna over each eye. They talked to me. They told me to stop [attending college] because there was going to be great trouble in schools … the world was going into complete chaos … I would speak [through music], and the world would listen. That's what they told me."

Sun Ra said that this experience occurred in 1936 or '37, but according to Swzed, even his closest associates cannot date the story any earlier than 1952 (Sun Ra also stated that it occurred when he was living in Chicago, a town he did not regularly inhabit until the late-1940s). With no substantial variations, Sun Ra discussed the vision to the end of his life. The trip to Saturn allegedly happened a full decade before flying saucers entered public consciousness, about fifteen years before the contactees and their stories of benevolent Space Brothers were publicized, and almost twenty years before sinister UFO abductions were a public concept. Szwed writes that in later years, Sun Ra's experience would classify as a "classic UFO-abduction story" Additionally, Szwed states,

…even if this story is revisionist autobiography … Sonny was pulling together several strains of his life. He was both prophesying his future and explaining his past with a single act of personal mythology.

Philosophy

Sun Ra's world view was often described as a philosophy, but he rejected this term, describing his own manner as an "equation" — he claimed that while philosophy was based on theories and abstract reasoning, his method was based on logic and pragmatism. Many of the Arkestra cite Sun Ra's teachings as pivotal, and for inspiring such long-term devotion to the music that they knew would never make them much money.

His equation was rarely (if ever) explained as a whole; instead, it was related in bits and pieces over many years, leading some to think his worldview was naïve, or comprised of nonsensical new-age platitudes. However, Martinelli argues that, when considered as a whole, one can discern a unified world view that draws upon many sources, but is also unique to Sun Ra, writing,

Sun Ra presents a unified conception, incorporating music, myth, and performance into his multi-leveled equations. Every aspect of the Sun Ra experience, from business practices like Saturn Records to published collections of poetry to his 35-year career in music, is a manifestation of his equations. Sun Ra seeks to elevate humanity beyond their current earthbound state, tied to outmoded conceptions of life and death when the potential future of immortality awaits them. As Hall has put it, "In this era of 'practical' things men ridicule even the existence of God. They scoff at goodness while they ponder with befuddled minds the phantasmagoria of materiality. They have forgotten the path which leads beyond the stars".

He drew on sources as diverse as the Kabbala, Rosicrucianism, channeling, numerology, Freemasonry and Black Nationalism. Sun Ra's system had distinct Gnostic leanings arguing that the god of most monotheistic religions was not the creator god, not the ultimate god, but a lesser, evil being.

Sun Ra was wary of the Bible, knowing that it had been used to justify slavery. He would often re-arrange and re-word Biblical passages (along with re-working many other words, names or phrases) in an attempt to uncover "hidden" meanings. The most obvious evidence of this system was Ra's practice of renaming many of the musicians who played with him. Szwed argues this is reminiscent of the similar Rastafarian principle of "word-sound-power."

Bassoonist/multireedist James Jacson had studied Zen Buddhism before joining Sun Ra, and identified strong similarities between Zen teachings and practices (particularly Zen koans) and Ra's use of non sequiturs and seemingly absurd replies to questions. Drummer Art Jenkins admitted that Sun Ra's "nonsense" sometimes troubled his thoughts for days until inspiring a sort of paradigm shift, or profound change in outlook. Drummer Andrew Cyrille said Sun Ra's comments were "very interesting stuff … whether you believed it or not. And a lot of times it was humorous, and a lot of times it was ridiculous, and a lot of times it was right on the money."

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 bearhug, 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 Ave. in Philadelphia)

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