Sun Ra


Born Herman Sonny Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, between 1910 and 1916, maybe 1914. His high school director, Professor John Tuggle Whatley, was known for helping a lot of musicians (like Philly Jo Jones, Erskine Hawkins and Teddy Hill) to the road of fame, and he was very impressed by Sun Ra's playing. Later, Whatley bought a bus for the Arkestra and organized a tour through the southern United States for Sun Ra. Sun Ra made his way north in the 1930's and studied in Washington under private tutor, Lula Randolph. His first record was made for the Bullet label in 1946, backing Wynonie Harris on her record in Nashville. Soon after, he settled down in the South Side of Chicago and played piano in the orchestra of Fletcher Henderson (1946-1947). He also arranged music for striptease shows at the Club of Lisa, which was the "in" place in the mid 1940's.

In November of 1948, he recorded with Eugene Wright's Duke of Swing with Yuseff Lateef playing sax. Coleman Hawkins and Stuff Smith also lived in Chicago, and Sun Ra played with them for a month at the North Side of town. In the early 1950's, he worked at the Birdland and Robert's Lounge Club in Chicago, playing for Red Saunders, Red Holloway, Sonny Stitt and accompanying B.B. King on a tour through the States. In 1953, Sun Ra led a trio with Richard Evans and Robert Barry. Soon, John Gilmore and Charles Davis joined the band, and in 1954, Marshall Allen, Pat Patrick, Art Hoyle, Julian Priester and James Scale followed. It was the birth of the Sun Ra Arkestra, or as they called themselves, Mythscience or Solar Arkestra.

They recorded their first album titled, "Jazz By Sun Ra - Sun Song," for an "official" label called "Transition" on July 12, 1956. Sun Ra had already issued a few sessions on his Saturn label, and most of the concerts were recorded on his huge tape machine. In 1957, the Arkestra recorded an album for Delmark label, but most recordings saw their release on Saturn. Sun Ra composed the score for the documentary, "The Cry Of Jazz," in 1959, and then the Arkestra left Chicago in 1961 for a concert in Montreal, followed by various concerts in a holiday town in the mountains near Quebec. Next stop was New York, where they arrived completely broke and without any money or a car. They began to work as studio musicians, backing pop bands and playing with various jazz musicians. All the money they made went into new productions for the Saturn label. Between 1961 and 1965, they recorded ten albums for their label in New York. The Arkestra was very active in the "October Revolution in Jazz" in 1964, and Sun Ra was a member of the Jazz Composers Guild, but turned away from them. A few months later, they saw their first recording for ESP-DISK (ESP 1014) titled, "Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra Vol. 1," followed by Vol. 2 on November 16, 1965. The Arkestra recorded one album with Pharaoh Sanders, who replaced John Gilmore at their session in May of 1966 for their last album for ESP titled, "Nothing Is."

Sun Ra began to develop his style to suit ensemble play. During their performances, the Arkestra produced a distinctive environment through their music and dress. From 1966 until 1972, the Arkestra had a regular job at Slug's Saloon in the Lower East Side in New York, a few blocks away from Sun Ra's home. In the late 1960's, Sun Ra made his first solo album titled, "MONORAILS AND SATELLITES," and in 1970, the Arkestra played at the Berlin Jazz Festival. Although many visitors of the concert misunderstood the dancing, lighting, walking, and playing of the Arkestra, MPS in Germany issued an album of the performance. The Global Unity Orchestra was playing the same day, but what a difference between these two orchestras! BYG-Actuel released a double album with the Arkestra titled, "THE SOLAR MYTH APPROACH, VOLUMES 1 & 2," in 1970. Then in 1971, one of Sun Ra's biggest wishes came true. He played with the Arkestra in front of the pyramids in Egypt. In 1972, they toured and recorded all through the States and then returned to Chicago, where they played the Ann Arbor Festival. Since the late 1960's, Philadelphia has been their home base, and from there they toured and played throughout the 1970's. Sun Ra made a duo album in 1978 with Walt Dickerson. It should not be forgotten that Sun Ra was a great experimenter on electronic instruments. In 1957, he used an electric piano; in 1963, he used the clavoline; and in 1969, he used the Moog synthesizer. He also played celesta, organ, rocksichord, harpsichord, and piano. He was also a great composer and arranger.

In the 1980's, until Ra's death in 1992, the Arkestra continued their recording (DIW, Black Saint, A&M, Leo, and Hat Art) and touring activities. Even when he was confined to a wheelchair, he continued to paint pictures of infinity through his inter-galactic music.