Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(From Saturn, Zodiac sign Gemini, arrival zone USA, aka Le Sony'r Ra) Keyboards, other instruments; composer, bandleader. In another incarnation he closely resembled Herman Poole 'Sonny' Blount (b 22 May 1914, Birmingham AL; d 30 May 1993). He attended Industrial High School, began transcribing Fletcher Henderson arrangements from records and wrote 'Chocolate Avenue', which was recorded by a Clarence Williams quintet in 1933 and for which he was never paid, strongly influencing his attitude towards the financial side of the business. He led a popular swing band in Alabama, backed Lil Green and Wynonie Harris on the road in the Spring of 1946 (recorded with Harris on Bullet in Nashville), went to Chicago and played piano and wrote for Henderson's band at Chicago's Club Delisa from August '46 to May '47. He produced, arranged and played piano for Eugene Wright and his Dukes of Swing on the Chess brothers' Aristocrat label '48; the group included Hobart Dotson on trumpet, Yusef Lateef, vocal group the Dozier Boys; he worked with Red Saunders's R&B combo '50-4, bassist Al Smith's combo (probably recorded on Modern '53, Vee-Jay '55); backed strippers, touring artists Lowell Fulson, Della Reese etc in Chicago clubs, jammed with Coleman Hawkins, Stuff Smith (one of his first known records as leader in the early '50s had Smith on it). Ra was listening to everything, including Les Baxter (who was using a theramin on albums in the early '50s); it all went into the mix.

He formed the Space Trio '51 and began to build a rehearsal band, soon to become the Arkestra. He changed his name to Le Sony'r Ra on 20 October 1952. The notion of having come from some other world was well established in the African-American community; from the earliest days of slavery, life in this world had made no sense, as in an old slave song,

This world is not my home;
This world is not my home.
This world's a howling wilderness!
This world is not my home.

Henceforth Ra's home was in outer space.

Coleman Hawkins said that Ra was the only person who ever wrote anything he couldn't play (an arrangement of 'I'll Remember April'). Sun Song '56 and Sound Of Joy '58 on Delmark were seminal; the first, originally on Transition, included 'Call For All Demons', 'Brainville', etc as idiosyncratic and witty as the contemporary work of Thelonious Monk, advancing the colours of big-band jazz in the manner of Duke Ellington and others; i.e. 'Possession' is a lovely ballad in the Tadd Dameron mould. When Sun Song was reissued on Delmark, Chicago critic J. B. Figi wrote, 'The band moves like a big loose threshing machine through a field of heavy, sun-swollen grain ... driven by donkey-engine rhythms, [it] roars, stomps, chugs along full of its own purpose, sounding like a Midwestern riff-jump band and a wig band at one and the same time...' They used unusual instrumentation for the era, such as electric guitar and tympani; also Julian Priester on trombone (b 1935, Chicago; later with Ellington), John Gilmore on tenor (b 1931, Summit MS; d 19-20 August 1995, Philadelphia PA), also worked with Art Blakey, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Elmo Hope, Andrew Hill; Pat Patrick on baritone (b Laurdine Kenneth Patrick, 23 November 1929; d 31 December 1991; also played other reeds and Fender bass; also worked with James Moody, Quincy Jones, Ellington, Latin bands including Mongo Santamaria); Von Freeman had also played with the band.

In June 1960 the band included Marshall Allen on reeds (b 25 May 1924, Louisville KY), Ronnie Boykins on electric bass (through '66), Phil Cohran on drums; there was an all-day session recording 30 or 40 tunes, many later on Evidence CDs Fate In A Pleasant Mood, Holiday For Soul Dance, Angels And Demons At Play, We Travel The Spaceways and Interstellar Low Ways. Then they left Chicago for a Montreal gig where the club owner expected a rock'n'roll band, their costumes and lighting assuming otherworld aspects; they ended up in NYC with no money. For the next 25 years they were seen as weird: 'I'm actually painting pictures of infinity with my music, and that's why a lot of people can't understand it,' said Ra, who told his soloists to play 'free' years before the experimental era of the late '60s; the band stayed together because it regarded the big band as still an important mode of contemporary black music and even though Ra was a hard-driving leader ('I tell my Arkestra that all humanity is some kind of restricted limitation, but they're in the Ra jail, and it's the best in the world'). In later life Ra refused to fire anyone from the band because it was the Creator's band, not his, and errant musicians would have to fire themselves. They were sometimes known as the Solar Arkestra, the Band from Outer Space, the Astro-Intergalactic-Infinity Arkestra; musicians took other gigs to eat and helped the band record on Saturn. Alton Abraham had met Ra in 1951, became a fast friend, helped form the Saturn label as well as publishing companies; records were available at the band's gigs or at a few shops (strictly on a 'no bullshit C.O.D.' basis), in plain sleeves and with no discographical information.

Sun Ra has influenced many; some say that it was meeting him that helped John Coltrane to find his path and kick his drug habit. His music was no longer considered weird, the rest of the world having caught up with his long-distance vision by the 1980s; the band still came from Saturn, but their Halloween costumes now had a strong African flavour. Ra played keyboards including synths, and most members of the band also played percussion instruments; the act included exciting bouts of African-style drumming, furious duels among the reedmen (playing superbly even while chasing one another around the platform), dancing and singing: they would stop playing to march around chanting 'Space is the place!' until the listener would fly with them wherever they wanted to go; they might pause in the middle of all this to play Ellington's 'Lightnin'', Jimmie Lunceford's 'Yeah Man!', both from '32, or Henderson's 'Big John Special' '34: they carried with them the whole history of black music. Astro-Black and Space Is The Place '72 were made for Impulse, but the latter came out on Blue Thumb; five Saturn LPs from '58 onwards (The Magic City, Jazz In Silhouettes etc) had also been on Impulse; two-disc The Heliocentric Worlds Of Sun Ra '65 was made for ESP, appeared on other labels. A Night In East Berlin released '87 on Leo captures the act of that era as well as any. Ra contributed 'Pink Elephants On Parade' to Hal Willner's Disney tribute album, then began playing whole concerts of Disney stuff: Second Star To The Right '89 on Leo was recorded live in Austria, the rest of that gig on two-CD Stardust From Tomorrow. Reflections In Blue '86 on Black Saint, made in Milan, was a joyous tribute to the Swing Era, original compositions (some by Patrick) in the style of the big bands of yore. Ra also played piano and celeste in the Walt Dickerson Quartet '66 on MGM, made piano and vibes duo album Visions '78 on Steeplechase with Dickerson; there were also two LPs of piano solos '71 on Improvising Artists. The Horo label was formed in Italy c.1974 by Aldo Siresio (d 2013); 2-LP sets of Sun Ra included Unity, Other Voices, Other Steps and New Steps (the last two by 'Sun Ra & John Gilmore'), but Siresio left the music business in disgust; at one point a reissue project was announced, but nothing came of it. Saturn had released 71 mostly incredibly obscure LPs in small numbers; in '91 a reissue series began on the Evidence label, good transfers beginning with the earliest recordings. Among other things, the band had released singles in pressings as small as 50; two-CD The Singles '96 on Evidence is as good an introduction as any, showing Ra open to everything from '54 to '82, including doo-wop: outer space began on the street corner.

The tributes began quickly after the master left the planet: Wavelength Infinity is a two-CD tribute on Rastacan, lovingly produced by percussionist Gino Robair (whose Splatter Trio also blazes its own trail), various groups included many people who played with Ra, proceeds going to the Arkestra. Love In Outer Space '95 on Knitting Factory is a quintet led by bassist Reuben Radding, who is not imitating but broadcasting from the Ra universe to the masses. The Arkestra kept going, but in mid-'98 there was a struggle between trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah and the rest over control of it. Cadence Jazz Books published Robert L. Campbell's The Earthly Recordings Of Sun Ra, 250 pages covering 500 sessions. Space Is The Place: The Life And Times Of Sun Ra was published '97 by John F. Szwed.