Sun Ra, one of the most extraordinary composers and bandleaders of the 20th Century, was born Herman Poole Blount in Bimingham, Alabama, on 22nd May 1914. From the 1950s, until his death in 1993, he led various combinations of musician in bands with various permutations of names involving the word Arkestra, such as the Blue Universe Arkestra and the Solar Myth Arkestra. He himself played keyboards, sometimes solo and sometimes with huge 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 one of the first musicians, in any genre to make extensive use of electronic keyboards.
He never achieved mainstream commercial success, but was a prolific recording artist with a cult following, partly fuelled by his outrageous claims to have been born not on Earth but on Saturn and the fact that much of his music was to do with space travel. Quoted in Jazziz magazine
They really thought I was some kind of kook with all my talk about outer space and the planets. I’m still talking about it, but governments are spending billions of dollars to go to Venus, Mars, and other planets, so it’s no longer kooky to talk about space
Quite. In fact, Sun Ra developed a complex performing identity based on his music, “cosmic” philosophy, and poetry. He abandoned his birth name, took on the persona of Sun Ra (Ra being the ancient Egyptian god of the sun), and often dressed in the style of an ancient Egyptian pharoah, as in the video clip. In other words, he was very odd.
However, although I admit Sun Ra’s music is eclectic, outrageous and sometimes downright mystifying, it also has a marvellous coherence to it maintained as his style evolved over four decades and is consistently imbued with a powerful sense of the Jazz tradition. In fact, I think Charlie Parker would have approved. I know I do! Anyway, whatever I think, the music of Sun Ra has withstood its skeptics and detractors for generations and long may it continue to do so. The world needs more of his kind.
Here’s a typically psychedelic number, Calling Planet Earth.