black history month: the story of sun ra

February 10, 2012
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Nearly 40 years before George Clinton claimed his cosmic heritage and before Crass declared that if no-one else would release their anarchic noise then they’d just do it themselves, a pianist from Birmingham (or Saturn, depending on who you ask) named Herman Poole Blount (again, depending on who you ask) set out to redefine the possibilities of music on his own terms. Although there are many many origin stories out there for the great Sun Ra, here’s the version of the story that wouldn’t make for an awesome episode of the X-files.

Words by Nathan Leigh

Born in Alabama on May 22nd 1914, Blount studied piano from childhood. By his early teens he could sight-read music and was composing his own songs. He was a voracious learner and practiced constantly. He put his first band together in 1934 as the backing band for his biology teacher Ethel Harper’s bid at a singing career. The band toured semi-successfully, and when Ethel Harper relocated to New York, Blount took over the band and renamed it the Sonny Blount Orchestra. They became a fixture in the Birmingham music scene, though Blount was mostly recognized for his skills as a sideman.

It was sometime during Blount’s freshman (and only) year of college at the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University that he had an epiphany that would define the rest of his career. He would recount the story many times throughout his career with little variation, but with complete sincerity:

I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn … they teleported me and I was down on stage with them. They wanted to talk with me. They had one little antenna on each ear. A little antenna over each eye. They talked to me. They told me to stop because there was going to be great trouble in schools … the world was going into complete chaos … I would speak, and the world would listen.

The experience, whether literal or metaphorical (I may be a cynic but I still slept under a giant I WANT TO BELIEVE poster for most of my life) galvanized Blount. Finances forced him to drop out of school so he committed himself to music full-time. The Sunny Blount Orchestra became his full-time occupation, and his ability to transcribe popular songs by ear became the stuff of Birmingham legend. The band played exclusively for black audiences, and due to the segregated control of recording at the time were never recorded. Even the line-up is a matter of speculation; though from anecdotes about different musicians he played with in the early years, it is likely that the band had a similar free-flowing membership as his later legendary Arkestra.

When Blount’s draft notification arrived in 1942, he attempted to avoid service as a conscientious objector, but was denied. His battle with the draft board raged on for a year and a half, with Blount declaring in court that if drafted he would use his training and weapons to kill the first high-ranking officer he could find (that would be the best defense against being drafted until Arlo Guthries “sing a 20 minute folk song until the problem goes away” solution). He was sent to serve in the Civilian Public Service in Pennsylvania, but ultimately classified 4-F due to a lifelong hernia. Blount’s ordeal had alienated many of his friends and family, and after 2 years back in Birmingham isolated and frustrated, he dissolved the Orchestra and moved north to Chicago.

Chicago introduced Blount to bebop, a more free-form variant of jazz than the swing he had played in Birmingham, and to Afrocentric philosophy. Inspired by groups like the Black Hebrews, and other black nationalist literature, Blount began to view Western philosophy as having originated in Africa, with the knowledge of black (and specifically Egyptian) accomplishments suppressed by white Europeans. His increasing obsession with ancient Egypt synced with the burgeoning theory of Ancient Astronauts which posits that the ancient Egyptians were taught their inexplicably advanced technology from visiting aliens, alternately were themselves from another planet. He began going by Sun Ra (Ra being the Egyptian Sun God, which is the same as calling yourself Thor Lightning, which if any of you are looking for a name for your doom metal band, you’re welcome.), and in 1952 legally changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra, claiming that Herman Poole Blount had never existed.

With the help of a Chicago teen named Alton Abraham, Sun Ra put together the first line-up of the Arkestra and cut their first album in 1956. Jazz by Sun Ra was followed closely by Super-Sonic Jazz which was the group’s first release on Sun Ra and Abraham’s own label El Saturn records. Founded in 1955, El Saturn was one of the first, and certainly most active artist-owned record labels. The band designed and even packaged the sleeves entirely themselves and often printed very short runs (sometimes as low as 20 copies) for sale at shows. They took out no advertising and instead relied on word of mouth and distribution in local stores. Although the first few records were recorded in professional recording studios, many albums like The Nubians of Plutonia were recorded in rehearsal on low quality tape. Since the Arkestra maintained a release schedule of approximately 2 full length studio albums per year into the 80s, the quality varies wildly from one release to another. As a result, the Arkestra records have a decidedly DIY sound, 20 years before it was a term, and 40 years before it was a cultivated aesthetic.

Like its line-up, and the quality of it’s recordings, the band’s sound varied wildly from one album to another. Musicians would flow in and out of the band, often sticking around for a few years before moving on. At its height, the Arkestra had 100 members, but tended to average around 20. Sun Ra was both a strict disciplinarian, and open to the creative whims of his musicians. He demanded regular daily rehearsal sessions, but allowed his musicians to bring their own unique styles to the band. As such, the band covered everything from traditional swing, to be-bop, to ragtime, to swing, and even experimented in electronic music.

In the early-60’s with Other Planes of There and Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy, The Arkestra began playing with more abstract forms. They integrated free jazz ramblings, African rhythms, and bits of studio manipulation largely unheard of in jazz circles at that point. Instrumentation-wise, the closest comparison is Juan Garcia Esquivel’s now iconic Space Age Bachelor Pad Music (also referred to as Exotica and Beautiful Music depending on how pretensions you are), but even Esquivel at his strangest was attempting to reinvent standard pop music. Sun Ra and his Arkestra had a more cosmic goal in mind.

I never wanted to be part of planet Earth, and I did everything not to be a part of it. I never wanted their money or their fame, and anything I do for this planet is because the Creator of the universe is making me do it. . .If I can get out of enlightening this planet, I’ll do so with the greatest of pleasure, and let them stay in their darkness, cruelty, hatred, ignorance, and the other things they got in their houses of deceit.

By the late 60’s, Sun Ra began to return to more traditional ideas of form and song structure while maintaining his experiments and general experimental bent. The landmark albums Atlantis and My Brother The Wind Vol. 1 were released in 1969 and 1970 respectively, and are generally cited as the purest synthesis of Sun Ra’s aesthetic. They combined unusual instrumentation and arrangement, with a free spaced out form, a strong unique sense of melody, and virtuosic performance. The title track to Atlantis stands as one of Ra’s greatest musical accomplishments. A 22 minute spaced out track that somehow evokes both deep personal yearning and the landscapes of distant planets.

It was around this time that Sun Ra also began experimenting with synthesizers. He purchased one of the first Moog synths in 1969, and used it to record the truly bizarre (almost dubstep-esque) album Space Probe in August 1969. The album was one of the first albums to make prominent use of one of Robert Moog’s legendary synths (beaten to the punch by the Monkees two years earlier. No, seriously.) The possibilities of sound and technique generated by synthesizer inspired the nearly 60 year old Sun Ra. Heavily dividing the jazz community, he would make prominent use of synths for the rest of his career.

Through the 70’s, the Arkestra continued their rigorous schedule of weekly performances, daily rehearsals, and constant album releases. Although their albums from that period are now nearly entirely out of print, their live shows from that era have become the stuff of legend. Incorporating Egyptian imagery, fire-breathers, dancers, and elaborate costumes, their concerts bewildered fans of traditional jazz, and hippies alike. When they became the house band for the notorious Squat Theatre in New York City in 1979, the Arkestra found an unlikely audience in New York’s vibrant art-punk scene. Debbie Harrie, John Cale, Nico, and Thurston Moore were all avowed fans of the Arkestra and regulars at their shows.

The Arkestra continued performing regularly, though as Sun Ra’s health declined, so did their constant outpouring of material. In contrast with their roughly 30 full length studio albums in the 70’s, the Arkestra released only 8 in the 80’s. They recorded 2 final albums in 1990 before Sun Ra suffered a stroke and had to retire from performing. He continued to compose and lead the band, but his health deteriorated rapidly. On May 30th, 1993 at 79 years old Sun Ra was sent back to Saturn.

The Arkestra’s reach has been enormous. Although his career did not begin in earnest until his 40’s, his innovations in sound and style have had reach far outside the jazz world. His singular and unique commitment to artistic expression as a means for black intellectual liberation went on to heavily influence George Clinton and the entire Afrofuturist movement. And his pre-punk devotion to DIY ethos has stood as a landmark to the punk and indie communities that when the mainstream musical establishment shuns you, it is still possible to achieve success on your own terms.