Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Ra, Sun (Herman Poole Blount)
The greatest of all jazz eccentrics, Sun Ra inspires both fascination and controversy. The bandleader's singular, cosmic vision led him to transcend hardship, derision, and obscurity. An unparalleled performer, he led an expansive yet coherent band of as many as thirty players over four decades, and his vast recorded legacy refutes those who deny his talent.
Primarily known as the creator of the "Arkestra," his polymorphic big band, Ra could also be comfortably described as a composer, performer, poet, philosopher, and visionary.
Born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama on May 22, 1914, he legally changed his name to Sony'r Ra in October of 1952. After this date, when questioned about his early life, he insisted he was a visitor from the planet Saturn, and only gave vague indications of his past experiences.
Little Herman began playing piano early in life, and could sight-read and compose by age 11. Birmingham hosted many of the era's most famous performers, and the boy experienced the live sounds of, among others, the bands of Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, and Fats Waller. The young prodigy was said to be able to produce full transcriptions, from memory, of big band performances he had witnessed and was working as a semi-professional pianist by his mid-teens.
Now nicknamed Sonny, the boy attended Birmingham's Industrial High School, where he took lessons from music teacher John T. "Fess" Whatley. Whatley was renowned for his strict discipline and the fact that he graduated hundreds of professional musicians throughout his career, including Erskine Hawkins, Teddy Hill, and Joe Guy.
The boy was an honor student with a taste for reading, who kept to himself. With an expansive imagination to match his appetite for knowledge, he devoured the library at the local Black Masonic Lodge, which included an extensive collection of books on esoteric concepts and Freemasonry.
At this time, the boy was also discovered to suffer from cryptorchidism, a chronic testicular hernia, which brought him nearly constant discomfort and perhaps a sense of shame which deepened his isolation.
In 1934, Blount took to the road for the first time as pianist and arranger for a band organized by Ethel Harper, a teacher at Industrial High. When she left the band to continue to New York alone, he took over the organization, renaming it the Sonny Blount Orchestra, and continued until lack of funds ended the tour. This didn’t stop the band from garnering positive notices from musicians and the public, which helped Blount to find consistent work upon his return to Birmingham.
Working in Birmingham’s clubs exposed the young musician to elaborate stage settings with vivid lighting arrangements, which were considered an important element to a good musical presentation. This sense of showmanship, along with “Fess” Whatley’s stressing of bands being well dressed and a source of pride and community, are two elements that remained constants throughout his work as a bandleader.
In 1936, he was awarded a scholarship to Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University, where he stayed for only a year as a music education major. While money issues may have contributed to his leaving school, he always claimed the vision he received in a period of deep religious concentration at this time was a turning point which brought an end to his formal academic studies.
Vision or no vision, from that time on he became known around Birmingham as a truly obsessed musician, rarely sleeping and turning the first floor of his family home into his workshop. He also began lengthy daily rehearsals with whomever he could interest in joining him, and soon the new Sonny Blount Orchestra was known in the region as a tight band, able to play a diverse range of music.
After a difficult battle with the draft board through the winter of 1942 to affirm his status as a conscientious objector, Blount was finally classified as unfit for service due to his chronic hernia. This experience left him further embittered, and by 1945 he felt it was time to leave “The Magic City,” as Birmingham is known to its residents. He set out for Chicago, joining the wave of southern blacks who migrated north during the war.
Soon after arriving in Chicago and rejoining the musician’s union, Blount found work with blues singer Wynonie Harris and recorded for the first time with Harris’s band in Nashville in 1946. As the decade progressed, he also recorded as a sideman with Eugene Wright and his Dukes of Swing, along with saxophonist Yusef Lateef, and later with the Red Saunders band in 1953. These two stints offered opportunities to hone his arranging skills.
The first surviving recording of Blount is a duet with violinist Stuff Smith, recorded at the pianist’s Chicago apartment in 1953. They play “Deep Purple,” and in addition to the piano Sonny played the Solovox, an early electronic keyboard.
Sun Ra may have been the first musician to play electric and electronic keyboards in jazz. Later in his life, he was among the first to use synthesizers, even receiving a Minimoog prototype from inventor Robert Moog. His eclectic arrangements also earned him a reputation as a leading modernist on the postwar Chicago jazz scene.
From a philosophical perspective, Blount's interest in the study of Egyptian mythology and other “cosmic” philosophies placed him squarely outside of the mainstream. While he preached the high status of the earliest black mystics and thinkers, he was not a clear-cut black nationalist. The “Windy City” offered opportunities to congregate with other iconoclasts, and to find more resources to fine-tune his personal take on the world and his place in it.
African-Americans in Chicago in the 1950s had a vibrant cultural and political life, which made the city a good place to be a Black musician - and Sonny Blount, now known at times as Sonny Lee - found plenty of work. That sometimes involved working long hours, in less than ideal circumstances, playing bump-and-grind music for months in strip clubs throughout the city.
One of his most important encounters came when he met Fletcher Henderson at the Club DeLisa in 1946. Blount had long admired the older bandleader, whose career was fading and wasn’t attracting the caliber of players that he did in during his prime years in New York in the 1920s and 1930s. Henderson hired Blount as arranger and pianist, but when his arrangements began to show influences of bebop, the other band members protested.
Henderson, however, stood by Blount, who stayed on as the band's pianist and arranger at Club DeLisa through May of 1947. After Henderson moved on, Blount remained as rehearsal pianist, copyist and arranger at the club for the next five years working with the house band, where he backed B.B. King, Laverne Baker, Joe Williams and Sarah Vaughn, among others. In 1948, Blount performed briefly with saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, but sadly no recordings of this encounter are known to exist.
In 1952, Blount assembled his own band, which he called the "Space Trio," with drummer Tommy "Bugs" Hunter and saxophonist Pat Patrick. Musicians came and went through the history of his bands, but many stayed for long periods, sometimes decades, or left and returned at another time. Patrick was one whose tenure with the band spanned its entire existence, although he did leave from time to time early on. His replacement, John Gilmore, soon came on board also never really left except for an occasional sabbatical.
Soon after legally changing his name, Sun Ra began to call his ever-expanding band an Arkestra. This name endured countless transformations over the years: Solar Myth Arkestra, Cosmo Discipline Arkestra, Jet Set Omniverse Arkestra and many others, but the concept of the "Arkestra" remained a constant.
Sun Ra's music of this first period showed an evolution from big band swing, with distinct bebop and hard bop elements, towards seemingly otherworldly sounds, which at times shared affinities with experimental classical music. This not so gradual shift in turn served a major catalyst for Chicago's emerging cadre of avant-garde musicians, such as Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
In another forward-thinking move, Sun Ra and Alton Abraham started El Saturn Records in the mid-fifties, with the intention of selling recordings by the Arkestra and some other quite eccentric artists. Later in the decade, Sun Ra and the band members began wearing the elaborate costumes for which they became so famous.
While the sincerity of the Arkestra could not be doubted, these outfits, inspired by science fiction and Egyptology, did impart a joyful atmosphere to the band's proceedings. Sun Ra is also on record stating that avant-garde musicians sometimes took themselves way too seriously.
In 1961, Sun Ra and most of the band's core members left Chicago. After staying in Montreal for several months, the Arkestra landed in New York, yet found it difficult to get gigs. They were forced to live communally to survive, and some have posited that these hardships took the band deeper into the experimental sounds they started to explore in Chicago. The band's volume increased as multiple drummers and percussionists were introduced, and their recorded output began to use tape delays to create works far removed from the jazz of earlier decades.
Both live and studio recordings of Ra’s music from this period involved unusual combinations of instruments, as most members of the band were expected to play at least two if not multiple instruments. One of the advantages of living together was the ability to rehearse sometimes to the point of exhaustion, a holdover from Ra's early days in Birmingham.
The band began to play tightly structured pieces which featured collective improvisation, that would suddenly drop down into a completely different dynamic, all conducted by Sun Ra’s hand and body gestures. Added to this was his continued use of the latest electronic keyboard innovations, which he sometimes modified himself to create new sounds, as well utilizing microtonality in his compositions.
Despite these innovations, Sun Ra was not comfortable with the notion that his music was “free,” to use the coinage of the era, stating that every note his band played was intentional, correct and under his control.
By March of 1966 the Arkestra had a Monday night gig at Slug's Saloon on the Lower East Side. This became a pivotal engagement for the band, lasting into the early 1970s, and they began to attract a new audience as well a critics and notable jazz musicians. The band was not without detractors but it’s worth noting that jazz musicians of the caliber of Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk praised the band's performances and Sun Ra’s writing.
In late 1968 Sun Ra and crew made their way to the West Coast for the first time, where they often played for a younger crowd who, for all their openness, didn’t quite know what to make of the large ensemble which by now included 20 to 30 musicians, dancers, fire eaters and theatrical lighting. By 1969, Sun Ra was on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, and the band’s fortunes continued to rise. 1970 found the Arkestra embarking on their first European tour, where their recordings had long been prized. They would return to Europe many times over the remainder of Sun Ra’s career.
Academia beckoned to Ra in early 1971, when UC Berkeley offered a course entitled "The Black Man In the Cosmos" taught by Ra as an artist-in-residence. The course involved handouts and homework as well as performances either by the Arkestra or solo piano. That same year, Sun Ra fulfilled a long-standing dream of traveling to Egypt and performing with the Arkestra at the pyramids. Home movies of the trip were often featured as a backdrop to live performances.
In the late 1960s the band escaped New York City for good when rents got out of hand, moving to the Germantown section of Philadelphia, where their Morton Street residence became home base until Sun Ra’s death. The band would sometimes give free outdoor shows in a park near their home on Saturday afternoons and Sun Ra became a regular presence in the city, appearing on the radio and lecturing to local groups.
From the seventies onward the band began incorporating chestnuts from the jazz canon into their performances. It was not unusual to hear the sounds of Fletcher Henderson and Jelly Roll Morton, bookended by something from the leader's extensive book or a lengthy, semi-improvised percussion jams. Oh, and don’t forget the Walt Disney movie classics!
Throughout these changes, the band kept soldiering on, touring, recording as the tradition of the great big bands of an earlier era. As someone who was fortunate enough to see the band perform live on numerous occasions in the seventies and eighties, I never once saw the band perform a listless show.
Ra suffered a stroke in 1990, but continued composing, performing, and leading the Arkestra for a few more years before he handed over the reins to John Gilmore. Sun Ra returned to Birmingham, where he reconciled with his sister after an estrangement of almost 40 years.
He contracted pneumonia shortly after his return to Birmingham, and died on May 30, 1993. He is buried in the Elmwood Cemetery where a small footstone reads "Herman Blount (aka Le Son'y Ra)."
The Arkestra continues to perform, and was lead by John Gilmore until the saxophonist and drummer's death in 1995, and now by alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, who first joined the band in Chicago in 1954. Allen celebrated his 80th birthday on stage during an Arkestra performance at the Vision Festival in New York City in 2004.
As to Ra's musical legacy, he was one of the first jazz leaders to use the electric bass, as well as two basses, and was also one of the first to use extensive percussion and polyrhythms, modal music and group freeform improvisation in a big band setting.
Ra championed the African origins of jazz before this became fashionable, and strove to reconnect modern music to what he viewed the spiritual and mystical content of its origins. Like Ellington before him, he often wrote music designed to feature the strengths of individual players, who demonstrated their devotion to him by remaining at his side for many years – some cases, for most of their adult lives, when they could have easily been more “successful” in other arenas.
Ra led a life of few compromises, centered on his love of jazz and the musical mysteries he perceived in this music. As a musician who had the good fortune to experience the magic of Sun Ra in live performance on many occasions, I can attest that he gave me a new understanding not only of jazz, but also of art and life.
Contributor: Frank Murphy