Personalities | Sun Ra | Sixties | Jazz & Blues

From the 1950s through to the 1990s there was rarely a stranger experience for jazz audiences than witnessing the stage shows of Sun Ra and his Solar-Myth Arkestra. The mysterious, robed keyboardist and his exotic big band blended theatrics with pure jazz and free exploration, crafting a unique brand of ‘space jazz’ that reflected the mid-century’s curiosity about exploring the unknown universe.

Swinging Beginnings

Although Sun Ra claimed to have come to Earth from Saturn, he was in fact born Herman ‘Sonny’ Blount in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914. He was mostly self-taught as a pianist and performed with his own bands from the age of 20. Later, at Alabama State College, Blount proved to be such an exceptional student that he was permitted to teach from time to time.

Acclaimed as a creative, knowledgeable pianist, young Blount was also an inventive arranger. In 1946 he was hired by bandleader Fletcher Henderson, but his arrangements were so difficult and unusual that the musicians’ complaints got him fired within a year. Around this time, Blount had been discussing Egyptian cosmology and science fiction with record producer Alton Abraham. The pair decided to put together a band that combined jazz, mythology, black pride and pulp science fiction. At the helm would be Blount, who assumed the persona of ‘Sun Ra, Traveler of the Spaceways’. They built up a fantastic backstory for Ra as a sojourner from Saturn who searched the galaxy to find a new home for the mistreated black race on Earth.

Space Is The Place

By the mid-1950s Sun Ra was leading the first incarnation of his big band, called the Arkestra (sometimes augmented with spacy appellations such as ‘Solar-Myth’ or ‘Myth-Science’). Blount’s expansive knowledge of jazz history, from Jelly Roll Morton to the modern day, was filtered into his arrangements and compositions for the Arkestra. The band boasted several excellent musicians, among them trombonist Julian Priester, bassist Ronnie Boykins and saxophonists John Gilmore, Marshall Allen and Pat Patrick. Sun Ra used a number of keyboards, including Wurlitzer organ, clavinet and Moog synthesizer. The Arkestra’s unusual sonic palette added to the other-worldliness of its music. Ra was a strict enforcer of rules, leading the band as a sort of commune and counselling its members against drug abuse and other unwelcome excesses.

The Arkestra debuted on record in 1957 with Jazz By Sun Ra (reissued on Delmark as Sun Song). The combination of straight jazz, heavy percussion and far-reaching improvisation heralded a new direction for jazz, but the album received scant distribution and little notice. That same year Ra formed his own record label, Saturn, which issued new Arkestra albums in haphazard form with hand-painted covers and unreliable sound quality. Saturn was one of the earliest labels run completely by musicians, and the enterprise endured even after Ra’s death.

Other Worlds Of Sound

However, taut musicianship and consistently interesting music were not sufficient for the Arkestra to be taken seriously by many audiences or music...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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