Sun Ra; an out of this world approach to jazz music
Known mainly for his out-of-the-box free jazz and limitless confines of music, artist Sun Ra, born Herman Poole Blount, made a huge splash in the jazz world. He was not only a jazz musician, but a composer, poet, synth player and piano player. Not extremely popular due to the avant-garde essence of his music, he is well known in many Black alternative and jazz communities. Because of this, his path to fame was somewhat of a unique one.
A quick listen to one song would be telling enough that Sun Ra has an unusual style of music. While being alternative and “weird,” it also has more uniqueness in itself. The fact that he will change style of song so quickly and easily is unlike any popular artist like him. He could go from a steady structured swing to a free jazz in seconds. Sun Ra is not confined to the limits of genre and style. His “genres” would range from Avant-garde jazz to free jazz to bebop to space music to jazz fusion and black prog. Most of his songs have a free, calm but unorganized feeling. Notes would float in the space without being cemented into any logical structure. rhythms would pause and then fall out all at once, like talking to yourself or trying to make up a dance. Just small independent ideas yet to be pieced together. But they were pieced together in the grand scheme of things; in his mind they made sense.
While being known for experimental and seemingly outlandish music, He is also known for his seemingly outlandish claims, beliefs, and standpoints. Named Le Sony’r Ra, later shortened to Sun Ra, he drew inspiration from the Egyptian god of the sun, Ra. Born in Alabama, he claimed he was an Alien from Saturn put on this earth to preach peace. He would go about the rest of his life denying any ties or associations to his previous identity. He painted is past life and identity over with an opaque, mysterious coat.
Not only a musician, playing his instruments, playing in a band and performing for crowds, he was also a composer and arranger. He arranged and composed music for bands to preform live. He also recorded his albums on his label “Saturn.” This would make him one of the first Jazz musicians to record and sell their own music. Sun Ra’s band also became one of the first bands to use electronic instruments as early as the 1960’s. They would play the electric piano, clavioline, celeste, and synthesizers.
After moving his band to New York in 1960, he created a communal home for the musicians called the Sun Palace. When his band started touring Europe, his shows shifted and evolved from just playing music, to including dancers, creative costumes and film, and even having martial arts practitioners on stage. His shows became an elaborate multimedia attraction, really communicating the extra-terrestrial nature of his music and of his personality. The Sun Ra Arkestra still plays on today without the man who started it all. They were featured in their own episode of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts. Even on Spotify they have a separate artist profile from Sun Ra.
Today, you can find Sun Ra’s influence on Afrofuturistic media all over pop culture. From Janelle Monet to Black Panther, Afrofuturism plays a big role in African American media. Sun Ra was and is one of the most influential Afrofurturist musicians to date. Linking the African American experience to ancient Egyptian mythology, he was ahead of his time as a jazz musician. While his band continues to play on under the direction of Allen, his death surely was a big loss in the world of jazz, the world of Afrofuturism, and the world of creativity, and out-of-the-box thinking altogether.