Sun Ra

By  Daniel Alarcón |  November 30, 2010

In Chicago, he set about the task of obscuring his past. He auditioned and rejected an alternate spelling of his given name: Bhlount. He steered clear of most Birmingham transplants, ducked conversations about his own story, preferring to let people speculate. When pressed, he was in the habit of telling folks he was from Saturn, and this was usually enough to preempt further questioning. By his sixth year up North, he had lost contact with his family and created a new one out of the community of musicians drawn to him—young men whom he mentored, berated, lectured, and molded into a band of startling musical, even spiritual, audacity. To them, he was Sonny—pianist, bandleader, mystic. For legal purposes, as of October 1952 he would be Le Sony'r Ra. The Washington Post once called him "a kind of black John Cage." Around the world, jazz aficionados would know him as Sun Ra.

There is something particularly American about changing one's name. Of course, plenty of performers from all over the world do it, but it is done here, I would argue, with a different spirit, and it is not limited to the arts. Whether through migration or marriage, whim or fantasy, we—more than those who have gone before us—decide what we wish to be called, as if it were a birthright of the New World. We invent names, trade them in for others that are more exotic, or more traditional, or that more accurately describe who we wish we were. It is tethered to the allure of mobility. The quintessential American illusion is that town where no one knows you or your past, that place where the content of the self is just one more detail to be filled in. We use names to point to a longed-for future or hark back to the past that may never have existed.

But there are names and there are names. Sun Ra is an audacious one to take: It has a messianic tinge in the referencing of Egyptian mythology, a nod to space and the universe of stars. But Sonny did not take his name lightly. Though there was humor in the music, he claimed sincerely to be from Saturn. He considered himself a student of science, philosophy, and linguistics, and was known for long, meandering lectures that might begin, interrupt, or close his epic ten-hour rehearsals. As John F. Szwed recounts in SPACE IS THE PLACE, his extraordinary biography of Herman Poole Blount (a.k.a. Sonny, a.k.a. Sun Ra), the man who claimed to be from Saturn, who insisted he had no parents, no family, and no birth date, was able to obtain, through the sheer strength of his personality, a United States passport that reflected his interstellar past. When the supervisor at the New York immigration office asked for more accurate information, Sonny simply held his ground—this is the information. Sun Ra versus the United States immigration service; the representative of the cosmos versus the stooge of an earthly government. Naturally, the bureaucrat buckled.

He would rename himself and rename others. It was Sun Ra who suggested that Farrell Sanders, a young tenor man from Little Rock, Arkansas, become Pharoah Sanders. The band Sun Ra would lead for more than thirty years, the Arkestra, played and recorded under dozens of names: the Cosmic Space Jazz Group, the Myth Science Arkestra, the Transmolecular Arkestra, the Intergalactic Infinity Arkestra, just to name a few. For Sun Ra, who seemed even at a very young age to exist outside what is conventionally known as reality, the renaming of the universe, of its inhabitants, its codes, and, of course, its music, would be nothing less than a life's project.

The Sun Ra we know, the mature Sun Ra of the outlandish costumes, of the inscrutable musings about space, of the challenging, almost militantly inventive music—this Sun Ra is so far out that some may assume he was all pose and no substance. George Clinton, founder and leader of Parliament-Funkadelic, a gaudy showman himself, said of his fellow traveler: "This boy was definitely out to lunch—the same place I eat at." But Sun Ra's trajectory—from gifted young piano player to self-styled interplanetary ambassador of music—from shy vegetarian oddball remembered for walking the streets of Birmingham wearing just a sheet and sandals, always with a book in hand, to flamboyant leader of a cult/big band—is both astonishing and instructive. It begins in the city of his birth.

In the first half of the twentieth century, Birmingham was home to a vibrant, creative, and cosmopolitan black community, but at its core it was tainted by the racial animus that would make the city a battleground of America's conscience during the 1960s. Birmingham was an anomaly—Southern and industrial—a city run by and for oligarchs whose continued prosperity depended on keeping the mines and the steel mills union-free. For decades, much of the work in North Alabama's coal mines was done by prisoners, unwilling participants in the state's convict-lease system: black men primarily—poor men, certainly—often convicted of petty misdemeanors and subsequently forced to serve out their sentences as cheap, disposable labor in the mines. In 1927, Alabama became the last of the ex-Confederate states to abolish this barbaric practice. In the dark days of the Depression, when Birmingham was, in the words of the writer James Agee, a "hard flat incurable sore," the city's industrialists preferred to ignore the desperate conditions in the run-down neighborhoods clustered around the mills. Illness and malnutrition were rampant, children were dying, but the moneyed classes had a more pressing concern: how to resist Roosevelt's "socialistic" New Deal.

Of course, segregation and the careful stoking of racial enmity were also crucial in keeping the workers divided, and these tactics were successful for a time. The mines and the mills were profitable, but the daily humiliations and indignities of this Southern apartheid would lead to the explosive 1960s. The streets of Birmingham's downtown shopping district were off-limits to blacks six days a week, and police harassment was constant. This was the city Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the most segregated in America, and the local KKK klavern boasted the highest membership in the country. There was a joke popular in those years that the Birmingham native Diane McWhorter cites in her Pulitzer Prize–winning memoir, CARRY ME HOME. A black man in Chicago tells his wife that Jesus has appeared to him in a dream, saying He wanted him to go to Birmingham. The wife is skeptical. "Did Jesus say He'd go with you?" she asks.

To which the husband responds: "He said He'd go as far as Memphis."

And so, it makes perfect, intuitive sense that a prodigiously talented, terribly eccentric black man growing up in this Birmingham would forsake his hometown and decide he would rather be from Saturn: Instead of the undignified trap of Southern racial politics, Sun Ra chose the promise of the dawning technological age, the era of intergalactic travel, its implied hope. You can hear it in the music: the longing for a future beyond race, scored to a new sound that would transcend it. Though Sun Ra was not often overtly political, he did not stray far from the concerns of black people in this country. To put it another way, in response to these concerns, he strayed very far, reinterpreting the struggle of blacks in the United States through a cosmic prism: The descendants of Africans in the New World become central players in an intergalactic search for identity. The details of political struggle were less important to Sun Ra than the spiritual health of his people. And in case the music didn't spell it out, the same idea was on display in the 1974 film SPACE IS THE PLACE, starring an elaborately garbed Sun Ra who arrives in Oakland, California, from outer space to assess the state of black America. He pontificates, destroys a nightclub with the ferocity of his piano playing, is spied on by the FBI, opens an intergalactic employment agency, and plays a game of cards with a pimp for the souls of black folk. Guess who wins?

Sun Ra grew up only a block from Terminal Station, the largest train depot in the South, with frequent departures for Chicago. The Magic City was booming in those years, and no cultural backwater either: Birmingham was an obligatory stop for most of the big bands touring in those days. Bandleaders like Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and Bennie Moten came through town, and young Herman Poole Blount saw them all. This was his musical education, and when he had outgrown Birmingham he landed in Chicago, the years spent in the Windy City playing strip clubs and writing arrangements for Fletcher Henderson's band constituting his apprenticeship and graduation. By the time Sun Ra moved the band to New York in 1961, he was unquestionably a leader, a musician's musician. He set up shop in the East Village, and life became an endless rehearsal. He existed to make music. The Arkestra pushed the conventions of jazz orchestration, and earned the respect of New York's avant-garde.

Sun Ra became, in time, a bandleader unlike any before him. He had always been absurdly talented—according to his band members, he was able, for example, to transcribe a big-band arrangement after just one listen—but he emerged slowly. As far out as his music would become, he was at heart a student of those early swing orchestras. The relentless inventiveness of his mature music was shaped by the sonic possibilities of the big band—the large sound, full of textured harmonies and layered melodies. While there were always virtuosos within the Arkestra, Sun Ra's band was also a place for jazz journeymen who didn't fit in with other combos. He was more impressed with daring than with technical skill, and so the players drawn into his sphere were challenged, cajoled, and forced to discover parts of their musical identity that they had not been aware of. He attacked music with a monastic devotion and demanded much the same from his understudies. Sun Ra taught them the importance of big dreams. He once led a group of a hundred musicians in New York's Central Park-an ensemble that included a half-dozen drummers, ten bass players, ten trumpets, and ten trombones. While this was certainly impressive, he had wanted a thousand. Excessive perhaps, but then again, the soundtrack to the space age requires music as outsized as the heavens.

Of all the arts, music is the closest kin to mysticism. Everything is implied; the narrative, if there is one, has no visible architecture. The humor, the drama—these assault the listener, or seduce him, and all of it happens at a level just below consciousness. It's alchemy: a bass line, rhythm stroked on a hi-hat—now you're tapping your feet. A melodic line slithers off key, and you feel, quite unexpectedly, ill at ease. The horn dips back toward the tonic, and you breathe again, relieved. How does it all happen?

There is no sense in looking for a single piece of music that could represent the many facets of Sun Ra's oeuvre, but as an introduction, "We Travel the Spaceways" functions nicely. The fascination with space is there, and the inclusion of extra-musical elements points toward the late experimentations with noise. The composition is sparer than much of his work, although even a stripped-down Sun Ra is too much for some listeners.

"We Travel the Spaceways" was recorded in October 1960, but not released for six years. (The version on the OA CD was recorded in 1972.) Even then it sounded ahead of its time. The track opens with chromatic block chords, fading in, announcing the mood, the rhythm somewhere between a march and a dirge. The beat is accented with an incongruously bright bell, and then a harmony of voices comes in singing the simple phrase, stretching out the last syllable of every second word in a descending melody:

We travel
the spaceways
from planet
to planet

The words are sung twice, and then there is a pause, enough to discern the repeated left-hand piano figure that had almost been lost behind the voices. The horns come in, replicating the sung melody, and the musicians seem poised to swing. And they do, in their own way: slowly, never releasing you from the disquieting ambience of the opening phrase. There are no solos, no improvised notes in this succinct and carefully constructed mood piece. The song ends in a whirring of motors, a fade-out, and that lonely, luminous bell, ringing in space when all the other instruments have packed up and gone home.

Sun Ra would eventually leave this planet in a manner befitting an artist whose entire life had been a performance; that is, with a surprising yet inevitable resolution. Just before passing away on May 30, 1993, already in ill health, Sun Ra returned to Birmingham. He had, by this time, achieved a reconciliation of sorts with his hometown: He had brought the Arkestra down twice to play a local music festival, City Stages, and in 1988 he was inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. That occasion had been a strange homecoming: He refused to provide the organizers with any biographical data, and so it was Herman Blount who was recognized, but Sun Ra who was there to accept the honor on his behalf.

Coming home to die was a fitting end for a consummate traveler. Birmingham had changed, and so had its most daring native son. The city had become the epicenter of the nation's most important human-rights struggle, had since elected a black mayor, and was in the process of remaking its reputation. The Arkestra was known internationally, having played all over the United States, across Europe, in Russia, Japan, and Egypt. Sun Ra's work had been recognized as an important contribution to the musical avant-garde of the twentieth century, and, by keeping the Arkestra together and touring for close to forty years, he had outlasted even the venerable Duke Ellington as a bandleader. More than a thousand compositions, over a hundred and twenty albums—the outpouring of creative energy, it would seem, was endless. Sun Ra had set out from Birmingham, looking for a language with which to express himself. He took the conventions of the big band and challenged its instrumentation. He created a unique brand of Afrocentrism and used it to guide his musical adventures. He never hesitated to experiment with electronic sound, with musicians of idiosyncratic skills, with the pleasures of costume and dance and voice. A performance of the Arkestra was an experience that went far beyond the merely musical: With a flair for the theatrical, Sun Ra might interrupt a performance to order costume changes or instrument-switching, or to lead the musicians off the bandstand and into the crowd to march in circles. He was an artist who listened intently to the whims of his imagination: Finding out who he was—spiritually, musically—involved erasing who he'd been and creating something entirely new in its stead.

Sun Ra is buried in Birmingham's Elmwood Cemetery, beneath a footstone that reads simply herman blount (aka le son'y ra). His music is where it belongs: floating in the atmosphere, escaping into space.