Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Sun Ra (May 22, 1914–May 30, 1993) was an innovative and individual jazz composer, bandleader and piano and synthesizer player, who came to be known as much for preaching his bizarre "cosmic philosophy" as for his phenomenal musical compositions and performances.
Born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, he was nicknamed Sonny from his youth. He later abandoned his birth name and took on the name and persona of Sun Ra. (Ra being the name of the ancient Egyptian god of the Sun) He led The Arkestra, an ensemble with ever-changing lineup, which also used a variety of names: "The Solar Myth Arkestra" the "Blue Universe Arkestra" and many other permutations.
Claiming that he was of the "Angel Race" and not from Earth, but rather from Saturn, Ra developed a complicated persona of "cosmic" philosophies and lyrical poetry that preached "awareness" and peace above all. Some regarded him as a kook in this regard, but most recognized his immense musical talents.
He eschewed racism (having been a victim of it many times, in regards to the touring and booking schedule of the Arkestra) and insisted his musicians avoid drug abuse, though he rarely came out and directly spoke about any controversial subjects.
(Note: There is some disagreement as to Sun Ra's date of birth. Sun Ra himself stated that he "arrived on earth" at any number of ancient dates. The date listed above appeared on Sun Ra's passport, but others place his birth anywhere from 1910 to 1918, with most sources supporting a birth year of 1914 or 1915. Incidentally, Sun Ra reported that his astrological sign was Gemini.)
Very little is known about his early life; much of it was obscured by Sun Ra himself. He even went so far as to deny his name had ever been "Herman Blount."
He demonstrated an early talent for piano, studying both performance and arrangements in his youth. Blount played professionally as early as 1932, touring throughout the southern and midwestern United States with various blues, jazz and R&B performers. Blount joined a musicians' union in 1934, and relocated to Chicago at about that time. He was intermittently leading his own groups by the early 1940s.
(One observation of Sun Ra's piano technique notes that "His piano style ranged across a variety of influences, including blues, Count Basie's bounce, Thelonious Monk's dissonance and a degree of European impressionism." )
Blount was drafted during World War 2 (October, 1942). He filed as a conscientious objector, noting both his religious objections to war, and a chronic hernia. Aften serving five weeks in jail, Blount was transferred to a Civilian Public Service Camp in Pennsylvania. There, in March, 1943 he was declared physically unable to serve due to his hernia.  Though he never divulged details, Blount reported he had been treated poorly when in jail.
His early musical career included stints as an arranger and performer with Wynonie Harris and Fletcher Henderson, both about 1946. Sun Ra's arrangements for Henderson initially showed a degree of bebop influence, but the band members resisited the new music, despite Henderson's encouragement.
Sun Ra's speech and mannerisms were seen by some as effeminate, and there was specualtion that he was homosexual. Others, however, discounted such ideas, noting that Sun Ra seemed to have no interest in any sort of romantic or sexual relationships. 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."
Sun Ra's musical development can be loosely categorized into three periods: The 1950s, the 1960s, and the 1970s and later.
Sun Ra's recording career as a bandleader began in Chicago, in the early 1950s.
The first period of the 1950s was when his 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. Sun Ra's music in this era was often tightly arranged, and sometimes reminiscent of Duke Ellington's ensembles. There were, however, hints of the experimentalism that would dominate his later music.
By 1952, his "cosmic philosophy" was developed, and Blount had legally changed his name to "Le Sony'r Ra." One observer has argued that this change was similar to the way "Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali ... [dropped] their slave names in the process of attaining a new self-awareness and self-esteem." 
Notable Sun Ra albums from the 1950s include Sun Ra Visits Planet Earth, Interstellar Low Ways, Angels And Demons At Play, We Travel The Spaceways, and Jazz In Silhouette (among many others).
This move also found the Arkestra's sound change signifigantly: Sun Ra's music underwent a chaotic, free jazz-influenced experimental period. Recordings and live performances often featured extended free improvisation passages. 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 musics--and most saxophonists began performing on another instrument or two, such as flute, oboe or clarinets.
Newcomers to Ra's music may have difficulty with his albums of this era;these recordings may seem noisy or chaotic. Notable titles from this period include The Magic City, When Sun Comes Out, The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume One and Other Planes Of There.
In the late 1960s, Sun Ra and the Arkestra relocated to Philadelphia, which remained their base of operations until Sun Ra's death.
1970s and later
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.
In 1971, Sun Ra was artist-in-residence at UC Berkeley, in Berkeley, California. He taught a course called "The Black Man In The Cosmos." Rather few students enrolled, but the classes were often full of curious persons from the surrounding community. One half-hour of each class was devoted to a lecture, the other half-hour to an Arkestra performance or Sun Ra keyboard solo. Reading lists included the works of Madame Blavatsky and Henry Dumas , the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Alexander Hislip 's Two Babylons, The Book of Oahspe and assorted volumes concerning Egyptian hieroglyphs, African American folklore and other topics.
Ra took a liking to the films of Walt Disney. He incorporated smatterings of Disney's musical numbers into many of his performances from then on. In the late 1980s the Arkestra even performed a concert at Walt Disney World. The Arkestra's version of "Pink Elephants on Parade" is available on Stay Awake, a compilation of Disney tunes by many artists.
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.
The Arkestra Continues
The Arkestra continues to tour and perform as of May 2004. First directed by John Gilmore, then after his death, by alto saxophone player Marshall Allen who celebrated his 80th birthday on stage during an Arkestra performance at the Vision Festival in New York City.
Legacy and Influence
While some of Sun Ra's experiments may be seen as noble failures, many other innovations remain important: "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)." 
- Ken Vandermark leads a trio called Spaceways Inc. --titled after a Sun Ra song—which regularly performs Sun Ra compositions.
- Trey Anastasio of Phish organised a recording session called Surrender to the Air. While not an overt Sun Ra tribute, it does feature several Arkestra members performing a suite very similar to much of Ra's music.
Sun Ra's discography is vast and sometimes confusing.
During his career Sun Ra recorded over one hundred albums; many of them were printed on microlabels. His own "Saturn Records" were usually printed in editions of 75 copies per album, and were sold primarily at live performances. Most were hand-decorated by Arkestra members, and these LP records sometimes sell for high prices among collectors.
These Saturn Records releases typically had little or no information as to performers or recording dates, leading to some confusion among completists and fans.
Certainly dozens--perhaps hundreds--of musicians passed through Sun Ra's bands over the years. Some stayed with him for decades, while others made only a few recordings or performances.
The following is a list of notable, long-term musical collaborators and the eras in which they played with Sun Ra and/or the Arkestra:
- Marshall Allen, saxophone (1950s - present)
- Ronnie Boykins , double bass (1950s - 1960s)
- James Jacson , bassoon
- Eddie Gale , trumpet (1960s)
- John Gilmore, saxophone (1950s - 1990s)
- Eloe Omoe , bass clarinet
- Pat Patrick, saxophone (1950s - 1990s)
- Julian Priester, trombone (1950s, 1980s - 1990s)
- June Tyson, vocals
Documentaries, Motion Pictures and Biographies
To date, Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra by John F. Szwed is probably the definitive biography.
Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise is available on DVD. This one hour film by Robert Mugge highlights the Arketstra playing Ra's brand of 'cosmic jazz' interspersed with Sun Ra's commentary on various subjects ranging from today's youth to his own place in the cosmos. Of particular interest are two scenes: one with Sun Ra playing a more traditional jazz solo piano, and, the other, an improvisation which is almost classical-like (albeit modern classical) in its approach.
Some recommended albums (by no means all-inclusive): Atlantis, Supersonic Jazz, Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy, We Travel the Spaceways, Singles, Languidity, The Magic City.
- Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Harmonies
- An Interview with Sun Ra (1990)
- Space is the Place-Japanese translation
- Saturn Web: Sun Ra, the Arkestra & Free Jazz
- Sun Ra's complete online discography and forum
- Sun Ra Art and Album Covers
- Official website of the Sun Ra Arkestra under the direction of Marshall Allen
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