From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"Within the distinct worlds of reggae, jazz, and funk, Lee Perry, Sun Ra, and George Clinton have constructed worlds of their own, futuristic environs that subtly signify on the marginalization of black culture. These new discursive galaxies utilize a set of tropes and metaphors of space and alienation, linking their common diasporic African history to a notion of extraterrestriality." --Extended Play (1994) by John Corbett
Sun Ra (Born Herman Poole Blount; legal name Le Sony'r 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 who came to be known as much for his "cosmic philosophy" as for his 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, 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. Some regarded him as a crank because of these traits, but most recognized his immense musical talents.
He led The Arkestra, 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; 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 and free improvisation, and was one of the first musicians to use electronic keyboards.
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 world view was naïve or composed 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 Kabbalah, 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.
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 bear hug, 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 Avenue in Philadelphia).
Sun Ra and black culture
According to Szwed, Sun Ra's view of his relationship to black people and black cultures "changed drastically" over time. Initially, Sun Ra identified closely with broader struggles for black power, black political influence, and black identity, and saw his own music as a key element in educating and liberating blacks. But by the heyday of Black Power radicalism in the 1960s, Sun Ra was expressing disillusionment with these aims. He denied feeling closely connected to any race. In 1970 he said:
I couldn't approach black people with the truth because they like lies. They live lies … At one time I felt that white people were to blame for everything, but then I found out that they were just puppets and pawns of some greater force, which has been using them … Some force is having a good time [manipulating black and white people] and looking, enjoying itself up in a reserved seat, wondering, "I wonder when they're going to wake up."
Sun Ra was very involved with the Afrofuturist movement through his music and other works.
Influence and legacy
Many of Sun Ra's innovations remain important and groundbreaking. 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 1960s.
Detroit's MC5 played a handful of shows with Sun Ra and were influenced by his works immensely. One of their songs from their premiere album Kick Out the Jams featured a track called "Starship" , which was based on a poem by Ra.
Filmmaker and visual artist Cauleen Smith has heavily researched the life and legacy of Sun Ra. Her 2013 exhibition "17" "arises out of [her] research into the legacy of Sun Ra, who was himself a student of numerology and achieved a kind of cultural immortality the number 17 might be said to refer to." Her project, "The Solar Flare Arkestral Marching Band," includes several components related to Sun Ra. "One component (2010) of the project is the production of five flash mob street performances involving a marching band inspired by Sun Ra’s Arkestra. The second component of the project (to premiere in Chicago in the Fall of 2011) is a full-length video that chronicles the urban legends of Sun Ra’s time in Chicago as well as the contemporary artists who live and work in this city."