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 his "cosmic philosophy" as for his musical compositions and performances.
Legally 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," "The Jet Set Omniverse 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, which coincides with the above mentioned birthday.
1 Early life
4 1970s and later
5 The Arkestra continues
6 Legacy and influence
6.1 Other influence
8 Partial discography
10 Documentaries, motion pictures and biographies
11 Recommended recordings
12 Writings: Poetry, prose and interviews
13 External links
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.
Sun Ra's piano technique, "ranged across a variety of influences, including blues, Count Basie's bounce, Thelonious Monk's dissonance and a degree of European impressionism." .
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.
In 1948, Sun Ra performed briefly in a trio with Coleman Hawkins and Stuff Smith, both preeminent swing-era musicians.
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.
Even from his earliest recordings, Sun Ra's band was centered around three talented saxophonists: Marshall Allen, John Gilmore and Pat Patrick. Each would devote over forty years to Sun Ra's bands.
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." 
Sun Ra formed an independent label in the mid-50s (along with his business partner Alton Abraham), generally known as Saturn, though (as with the Arkestra) there were several variants upon the name. Though it initially focused on 45s by Sun Ra and other artists related to him, they did issue two albums during the 1950s through the label: Super-Sonic Jazz (1956) and Jazz In Silhouette (1958). Producer Tom Wilson was actually the first to release a Sun Ra album, through his independent label Transition Records in 1956, entitled Sun Song (Delmark Records, a Chicago-based label, reissued the album following the label's demise).
It was during the late 1950s that Sun Ra and his band began wearing the outlandish, Egyptian-styled or science fiction-themed costumes and headdresses for which they would become known.
Notable Sun Ra albums from the 1950s include Sun Ra Visits Planet Earth, Interstellar Low Ways, Super-Sonic Jazz, We Travel The Spaceways, The Nubians Of Plutonia and Jazz In Silhouette (among many others).
The Arkestra moved to New York City from Chicago in 1961. They initially had trouble finding performance venues, and began living communally due to New York's higher cost of living.
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.
In this era, Ra was among the first of any musicians to make extensive use of synthesizers and other various electronic instruments; he was given a prototype minimoog by its inventor, Robert Moog.
It was during this period that his popularity reached its peak, as the "beat generation" and the early psychedelic era embraced him.
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, Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy, When Sun Comes Out, The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume One, Atlantis, Secrets Of The Sun 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.
In 1971, Sun Ra fulfilled a long-standing desire by performing with the Arkestra at ancient Egyptian pyramids. 
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 'tribute album' of Disney tunes played by various artists, and produced by Hal Willner.
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.
On May 20, 1978, Sun Ra and the Arkestra appeared on Saturday Night Live.
Even after a stroke in the late 1980s, Sun Ra kept composing, performing and leading the Arkestra. Sun Ra opened a few concerts for Sonic Youth shortly before his death on May 30, 1993.
Sun Ra was personally responsible for the vast majority of the constant changes in the Arkestra's lineup. According to jazz contrabassist Juini Booth, who was himself a member of the Arkestra, Sun Ra would not confront any musician whose performance he was unsatisfied with. Instead, Sun Ra would simply gather the entire Arkestra minus the offending musician, and skip town, leaving the fired musician stranded. After repeated instances of U.S. Jazz musicians becoming stranded in exotic countries, many of which enforced conservative laws incompatible with American Jazz culture, Sun Ra's unique method of dismissal became a diplomatic liability for the United States. The U.S. State Department was compelled to tell Sun Ra to bring any fired musicians stateside rather than leaving them stranded.
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 Arkestra performances at the Vox Populi gallery in Philadelphia and 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)." 
George Clinton of P-funk fame based many of his early ideas ("Cosmic Slop") on Sun Ra.
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.
The heavy rock band MC5 covered "Starship" on their 1969 album Kick out the Jams.
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.
Romanian rock band IRIS released a song called "Sun Ra" on their 1998 "Mirage" album.
Deathgrind band Brutal Truth covered Sun Ra's song "It's After The End Of The World" on their album Sounds Of The Animal Kingdom.
In 2002, Yo La Tengo released a single consisting of four versions of Sun Ra's song "Nuclear War."
In 2003 Dutch label Kindred Spirits released a compilation of Covers by Broken beat/Jazz/Techno/Hip Hop Artists called 'Sun Ra Dedication: The Myth Lives On'
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 on Ra's "black folks in space" prophecy from the film Space Is The Place.
Madvillainy, the 2004 album from Madlib and MF Doom's incarnation Madvillain, has a song entitled "Shadows of Tomorrow" which heavily samples audio clips of Ra from Space Is the Place.
In 2005 the Belgian rock group dEUS released their album Pocket Revolution, which contained a track titled "Sun Ra". Lead singer Tom Barman and the other members are big jazz fans.
Sunn 0))), a two-man avant-garde metal band recently cited Sun Ra as being one of the earliest and most prominent influences on their musical sounds and philosophies in the New York Times Magazine.
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.
In the 1990s, after Sun Ra had "left this plane of existence," as he might say, many of his recordings were released on compact disc for the first time by Evidence Records or Ihnfinity Music.
1957 - Super-Sonic Jazz by Sun Ra and his Arkestra
1958 - Jazz in Silhouette by Sun Ra and his Arkestra
1958 - The Nubians of Plutonia aka The Lady with the Golden Stockings by Sun Ra and his Myth Science Arkestra
1960 - Fate in a Pleasant Mood by Sun Ra and His Myth Science Arkestra
1961 - The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra by Sun Ra and his Arkestra
1962 - When Sun Comes Out by Sun Ra and his Astro-Infinty 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 Volumes One and Two 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
1968 - Sound of Joy by Sun Ra and the Arkestra (recorded 1957)
1969 - Atlantis by Sun Ra and his Astro Infinity Arkestra
1970 - Holiday for Soul Dance by Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Arkestra
1971 - Nidhamu by Sun Ra and his Astro Intergalactic Infinity Arkestra
1971 - Live in Egypt 1 by Sun Ra and his Astro Intergalactic Infinity Arkestra
1973 - Space is the Place by Sun Ra
1973 - Concert for the Comet Kohoutek by Sun Ra
1976 - Cosmos by Sun Ra
1978 - Lanquidity by Sun Ra
1978 - Disco 3000 by Sun Ra and his Arkestra
1982 - Strange Celestial Road by Sun Ra
1984 - Nuclear War by Sun Ra Arkestra
1984 - Cosmo Sun Connection by Sun Ra and his Arkestra
1986 - A Night in East Berlin by Sun Ra and his Cosmo Discipline Arkestra
1989 - Blue Delight by Sun Ra
1990 - Purple Night by Sun Ra
1991 - At the Village Vanguard by Sun Ra Sextet
1991 - Friendly Galaxy by Sun Ra Arkestra
1992 - Destination Unknown by Sun Ra & his Omniverse 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)
Tony Bunn, electric bass (1976)
James Jacson, bassoon
Phil Cohran, trumpet (1959 - 61)
Eddie Gale, trumpet (1960s)
Sam Davis, baritone saxophone (1964 - 69)
John Gilmore, saxophone (1950s - 1990s)
Eloe Omoe, bass clarinet
Pat Patrick, saxophone (1950s - 1990s)
Julian Priester, trombone (1950s, 1980s - 1990s)
Michael Ray, trumpet (1978 - present)
June Tyson, vocals
Joey DeStefano, alto saxophone (1968 - 69)
Tommy Bugs Hunter, drums, sound engineer
Darryl Brown drums (1970 - 1972)
Donald Jones (musician) drums (1973 - 1974)
Francisco Mora Catlett (musician) drums (1973 - 80)
Pharoah Sanders, saxophone
Documentaries, motion pictures and biographies
Sun Ra and his Arkestra were the subject of a documentary film made in 1972 and a feature film entitled Space Is The Place in 1974. The soundtrack, also by Sun Ra, is available on CD.
To date, Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra by John F. Szwed is probably the definitive biography.
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 Phill 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.
Brother From Another Planet - This documentary produced by Don Letts and shown on BBC4 in 2005, 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, Interstellar Low Ways, We Travel the Spaceways, Singles, Lanquidity, 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).
Writings: Poetry, prose and interviews
Sun Ra wrote an enormous number of songs and material regarding his spiritual beliefs and music.
A biography titled "Space is the Place" has been written by John Szwed.
A magazine titled Sun Ra Research was published for many years providing extensive documentation of Sun Ra's perspectives on many issues.
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.
NAME Ra, Sun
ALTERNATIVE NAMES Ra, Le Sony'r; Blount, Sonny; Blount, Herman Poole
SHORT DESCRIPTION jazz composer and bandleader
DATE OF BIRTH May 22, 1914
PLACE OF BIRTH Birmingham, Alabama, United States of America
DATE OF DEATH May 30, 1993
PLACE OF DEATH Birmingham, Alabama, United States of America
Booking the Arkestra
For those who have serious proposals with venues and promoters that are interested in booking the Sun Ra Arkestra under the direction of Marshall Allen, the following are the official booking agents that you should contact depending on the region of the planet where the Arkestra would be performing:
USA & Canada:
Phone: 1-401-275-5878 (United States)
Fax: 1-401-275-6082 (United States)
Phone: 49-74-64-2177 (Germany)
Fax: 49-74-64-3195 (Germany)
Phone: 55-11-227-2732 (Brazil)
Please also keep Elson Nascimento do Santos, Band Manager for the Sun Ra Arkestra under the direction of Marshall Allen, in the loop on any initial communications about booking the Arkestra. This is critical to coordinate Arkestra activities, avoid scheduling conflicts, and for planning purposes.
Elson Nascimeto do Santos
El Ra Records
Phone: 1-212-932-2725 (United States)
Fax: 1-212-222-0957 (United States)
The Sun Ra Arkestra under the direction of Marshall Allen thanks all those interested in booking for their cooperation in working with the above people.