Sun Ra (May 22, 1914–May 30, 1993) was an innovative jazz composer, bandleader, piano and synthesizer player, who came to be known as much for preaching his bizarre "cosmic philosophy" as for his phenomenal musical compositions and performances.
Born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, he was nicknamed Sonny from his youth. He later abandoned his birth name and took on the name and persona of Sun Ra (Ra being the name of the ancient Egyptian god of the Sun). He led The Arkestra, an ensemble with an ever-changing lineup, which also used a variety of names: "The Solar Myth Arkestra," the "Blue Universe Arkestra," and many other permutations.
Claiming that he was of the "Angel Race" and not from Earth, but rather from Saturn, Ra developed a complicated persona of "cosmic" philosophies and lyrical poetry that preached "awareness" and peace above all. Some regarded him as a kook in this regard, but most recognized his immense musical talents.
He eschewed racism (having been a victim of it many times experienced during his touring and booking schedule with the Arkestra) and insisted his musicians avoid drug abuse, though he rarely came out and directly spoke about any controversial subjects.
There is some disagreement as to Sun Ra's date of birth. Sun Ra himself stated that he "arrived on earth" at any number of ancient dates. The date listed above appeared on Sun Ra's passport, but others place his birth anywhere from 1910 to 1918, with most sources supporting a birth year of 1914 or 1915. Incidentally, Sun Ra reported that his astrological sign was Gemini.
Little is known about his early life; much of it was obscured by Sun Ra himself. He even went so far as to deny his birth name was "Herman Blount."
He demonstrated an early talent for piano, studying both performance and arrangements in his youth. Blount played professionally as early as 1932, touring throughout the southern and midwestern United States with various blues, jazz and R&B performers. Blount joined a musicians' union in 1934, and relocated to Chicago, Illinois at about that time. He was intermittently leading his own groups by the early 1940s.
Blount was drafted during World War 2 (October, 1942). He filed as a conscientious objector, noting both his religious objections to war, and a chronic hernia. After serving five weeks in jail, Blount was transferred to a Civilian Public Service Camp in Pennsylvania. There, in March, 1943 he was declared physically unable to serve due to his hernia . Though he never divulged details, Blount reported he had been treated poorly while in jail.
His early musical career included stints as an arranger and performer with Wynonie Harris and Fletcher Henderson, both about 1946. Sun Ra's arrangements for Henderson initially showed a degree of bebop influence, but the band members resisted the new music, despite Henderson's encouragement.
Sun Ra's speech and mannerisms were seen by some as effeminate, and there was speculation that he was homosexual. Others, however, discounted such ideas, noting that Sun Ra seemed to have no interest in any sort of romantic or sexual relationships. When asked directly why he had never married, Sun Ra paraphrased the Gospel of St. Matthew, stating, "They neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like angels that shine forth like the sun."
Sun Ra's musical development can be loosely divided into three periods: the 1950s, the 1960s, and the 1970s and later.
Sun Ra's recording career as a bandleader began in Chicago, in the early 1950s.
The first period of the 1950s was when his music evolved from big-band swing into the outer-space-themed "cosmic jazz" for which he was best known. Music critics and jazz historians say some of his best work was recorded during this period. Sun Ra's music in this era was often tightly arranged, and sometimes reminiscent of Duke Ellington's, Count Basie's, or other important swing music ensembles. There were, however, touches of the exotic and hints of the experimentalism that would dominate his later music.
By 1952, his "cosmic philosophy" was developed, and Blount had legally changed his name to "Le Sony'r Ra." One observer has argued that this change was similar to the way "Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali ... [dropped] their slave names in the process of attaining a new self-awareness and self-esteem." 
Notable Sun Ra albums from the 1950s include Sun Ra Visits Planet Earth, Interstellar Low Ways, Angels And Demons At Play, We Travel The Spaceways, and Jazz In Silhouette (among many others).
This move also found the Arkestra's sound change significantly: Sun Ra's music underwent a free jazz-influenced experimental period. Recordings began to utilise new technological possibilities, such as extensive use of tape delay systems to assemble spacial sound pieces which are far removed from earlier compositions such as "Saturn". Recordings and live performances often featured passages for unusual instrumental combinations and passages of collective playing which point towards free improvisation. Seeking to broaden his compositional possibilities, Sun Ra insisted all band members double on various percussion instruments--predating world music by drawing on various ethnic musical forms--and most saxophonists began performing on more than one instrument, such as flutes, oboes or clarinets.
Newcomers to Ra's music may have difficulty with his albums of this era;these recordings may seem noisy or chaotic. Notable titles from this period include The Magic City, When Sun Comes Out, The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume One, and Other Planes Of There.
In the late 1960s, Sun Ra and the Arkestra relocated to Philadelphia, which remained their base of operations until Sun Ra's death.
1970s and later
Starting with concerts in France, Germany and the UK in 1970, the Arkestra began to find opportunities for working further afield, playing to audiences who had had hitherto known the music only through the records.
In 1971, Sun Ra was artist-in-residence at UC Berkeley, in Berkeley, California. He taught a course called "The Black Man In The Cosmos." Rather few students enrolled, but the classes were often full of curious persons from the surrounding community. One half-hour of each class was devoted to a lecture, the other half-hour to an Arkestra performance or Sun Ra keyboard solo. Reading lists included the works of Madame Blavatsky and Henry Dumas, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Alexander Hislop's The Two Babylons, The Book of Oahspe and assorted volumes concerning Egyptian hieroglyphs, African American folklore and other topics.
During their third period, beginning in the 1970s and onward, Sun Ra and the Arkestra settled down into a relatively conventional sound, often incorporating swing standards, though their records and concerts were still highly eclectic and energetic. Ra was explicitly asserting a continuity with the ignored jazz tradition: "They tried to fool you, now I got to school you, about jazz, all about jazz" he rapped, framing the inclusion of pieces by Fletcher Henderson, Jelly Roll Morton, etc. The spectacle of the Arkestra became a familiar feature on the international jazz festival circuit, which provided a useful financial support structure for the Arkestra.
Ra took a liking to the films of Walt Disney. He incorporated smatterings of Disney's musical numbers into many of his performances from then on. In the late 1980s the Arkestra even performed a concert at Walt Disney World. The Arkestra's version of "Pink Elephants on Parade" is available on Stay Awake, a compilation of Disney tunes by many artists.
A number of Sun Ra's 1970s concerts are available on CD, but none have received a wide release in comparison to his earlier music. The album Atlantis can be considered the landmark that led into his 1970s era.
The Arkestra continues
The Arkestra continues to tour and perform as of October 2005. First directed by John Gilmore, then after his death, by alto saxophone player Marshall Allen who celebrated his 80th birthday on stage during an Arkestra performance at the Vision Festival in New York City.
Legacy and influence
While some of Sun Ra's experiments may be seen as noble failures, many other innovations remain important: "Ra was one of the first jazz leaders to use two basses, to employ the electric bass, to play electronic keyboards, to use extensive percussion and polyrhythms, to explore modal music and to pioneer solo and group freeform improvisations. In addition, he made his mark in the wider cultural context: he proclaimed the African origins of jazz, reaffirmed pride in black history and reasserted the spiritual and mystical dimensions of music (all important factors in the black cultural/political renaissance of the 60s)." 
- The Residents, the veteran anonymous avant-garde quartet, have claimed Sun Ra as a major influence on their music and their decision to self-release their own material.
- Ken Vandermark leads a trio called Spaceways Inc.--titled after a Sun Ra song—which regularly performs Sun Ra compositions.
- Trey Anastasio of Phish organised a recording session called Surrender to the Air. While not an overt Sun Ra tribute, it does feature several Arkestra members performing a suite very similar to much of Ra's music.
- Derek Trucks of Frogwings, Derek Trucks Band, and the Allman Brothers Band is often seen wearing a Sun Ra t-shirt and claims Sun Ra is one of his greatest influences. It can be heard, at times, in his slide playing and in other members of his own band.
- Grindcore band Brutal Truth covered Sun Ra's song "It's After The End Of The World" on their album Sounds Of The Animal Kingdom.
- Coil recorded a track called "Sex With Sun Ra (Part One - Saturnalia)" which can be found on the album Black Antlers. The lyrics are somewhat based off of Ra's "black folks in space" prophecy from the film Space Is The Place.
- Madvillainy, a 2004 album by the Madlib and MF Doom incarnation Madvillain, has a song entitled "Shadows of Tomorrow" which heavily samples audio clips of Ra from Space Is the Place.
Jazz great Pharoah Sanders is an obvious disciple of Sun Ra with his Afro-centric themes, psychedelic aesthetic, aggressive free jazz sound, and extensive use of African percussion.
Sun Ra's discography is vast and sometimes confusing.
During his career Sun Ra recorded over one hundred albums; many of them were printed on microlabels. His own Saturn Records were usually printed in editions of 75 copies per album, and were sold primarily at live performances. Many of Sun Ra's early albums were recorded at home by Ra himself on wire or early tape recorders, and are decidedly lo-fi. Despite the technological limitations, Ra used some innovative recording techniques, and these recordings provided an unprecedented level of documentation, and were inspirational in showing how artists could take control of the means of production and distribution of their works.
Prior to the 1970s, most of these were produced out of Chicago through the El Saturn Research enterprise established by Ra and his colleague Alton Abraham. A batch of the most significant recordings were licenced to Impulse! Records in the mid-1970s. Soon these became available around the world as cheap "cut-outs" so making the music more widely available.
Later Saturn Records were produced from Philadelphia. Most were hand-decorated by Arkestra members, and these LP records sometimes sell for high prices among collectors. These Saturn Records releases typically had little or no information as to performers or recording dates, often pressing one side from one era with another from a different decade, leading to some confusion among completists and fans.
- 1957 - Super-Sonic Jazz by Sun Ra and his Arkestra
- 1958 - Jazz in Silhouette by Sun Ra and his Arkestra
- 1961 - The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra by Sun Ra and his Arkestra
- 1963 - Angels and Demons at Play by Sun Ra and his Myth Science Arkestra
- 1963 - When Sun Comes Out by Sun Ra and his Myth Science Arkestra
- 1965 - The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume One by Sun Ra and his Solar Arkestra
- 1965 - Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow by Sun Ra and his Solar Arkestra
- 1966 - Visits Planet Earth by Sun Ra and his Solar Arkestra
- 1966 - Other Planes Of There by Sun Ra and his Solar Arkestra
- 1966 - The Magic City by Sun Ra and his Solar Arkestra
- 1967 - Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy by Sun Ra and his Myth Science Arkestra
- 1969 - Atlantis by Sun Ra and his Astro Infinity Arkestra
- 1970 - Holiday for Soul Dance by Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Arkestra
- 1973 - Space is the Place by Sun Ra
- 1973 - Concert for the Comet Kohoutek by Sun Ra
- 1978 - Lanquidity by Sun Ra
- 1982 - Strange Celestial Road by Sun Ra
- 1984 - Nuclear War by Sun Ra Arkestra
Certainly dozens--perhaps hundreds--of musicians passed through Sun Ra's bands over the years. Some stayed with him for decades, while others made only a few recordings or performances.
The following is a list of notable, long-term musical collaborators and the eras in which they played with Sun Ra and/or the Arkestra:
- Marshall Allen, saxophone (1950s - present)
- Ronnie Boykins, double bass (1950s - 1973)
- James Jacson, bassoon
- Phil Cohran, trumpet (1959-61)
- Eddie Gale, trumpet (1960s)
- John Gilmore, saxophone (1950s - 1990s)
- Eloe Omoe, bass clarinet
- Pat Patrick, saxophone (1950s - 1990s)
- Julian Priester, trombone (1950s, 1980s - 1990s)
- Michael Ray, trumpet (1978 - 1990s)
- June Tyson, vocals
- Tommy Bugs Hunter, drums, sound engineer
- Darryl Brown drums (1970 - 1972)
- Donald Jones (musician) drums (1973 - 1974)
Documentaries, motion pictures and biographies
Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise is available on DVD. This one hour film by Robert Mugge highlights the Arkestra playing Ra's brand of 'cosmic jazz' interspersed with Sun Ra's commentary on various subjects ranging from today's youth to his own place in the cosmos. Of particular interest are two scenes: one with Sun Ra playing a more traditional jazz solo piano, and, the other, an improvisation which is almost classical-like (albeit modern classical) in its approach.
The Magic Sun - a 1966 film by Phil Niblock featuring Sun Ra & His Solar Arkestra was released on DVD on 08 March 2005 by Atavistic/Unheard Music Series (DJ-861). This film is part of the experimental underground genre and was shot using a black and white negative film process that utilizes extreme close-up shots of Sun Ra & the Arkestra as they find their groove during the following songs: Celestial Fantasy, Shadow World and Strange Strings. This short film is a gem for collectors and others familiar with the otherworldly jazz of Sun Ra, but is not a good starting point for beginners.
Sun-ra the brother from Another Planet BBC4 2005
BBC4 documentary, Sun Ra: Brother From Another Planet, is an attempt to make some sense of the man whom he describes as "The Salvador Dali of jazz", who was born in Alabama in 1914 but proclaimed himself to have come from Saturn, on a mission to save the black race in particular from the bondage of planet Earth. Letts himself, however, admits that, even having voyaged extensively through Ra's back catalogue, "a lot of the music goes right over my head. He certainly appeared to be a bit bonkers," he concedes. "But to him, all this stuff was deep and meaningful and had a continuity to it. But it was hard to get a handle on. [Even] Marshall Allen, his saxophonist, admits he didn't quite get it."
Some recommended albums (by no means all-inclusive): Atlantis, Supersonic Jazz, Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy, We Travel the Spaceways, Singles, Languidity, The Magic City, The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra and The Solar-Myth Approach Vol.1&2.
First time Sun Ra listeners cannot go wrong with the album - Jazz In Silhouette: Images and Forecasts of Tomorrow (1958) reissued on compact disc in 1991 by Evidence Records (ECD 22012-2).
Poetry and prose
Sun Ra's collected poetry and prose is available as a book, published May 2005, entitled Sun Ra, The Immeasurable Equation, ISBN 3-8334-2659-4.
- Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Harmonies
- An Interview with Sun Ra (1990)
- Space is the Place-Japanese translation
- Saturn Web: Sun Ra, the Arkestra & Free Jazz
- Sun Ra's complete online discography and forum
- Sun Ra Art and Album Covers
- Official website of the Sun Ra Arkestra under the direction of Marshall Allen