Saturday, February 15, 2014

A Star Comes Down From The Heavens: Sun Ra

Hello and welcome back to Old Highways Notes where we continue to explore the music of Chicago at the beginning of Route 66. The last time we were in Chicago, we talked about Glenn Miller. A band leader who arose from the poor side of Chicago to become a star that will endure through history. He may not have reached the heights he reached without the aid of Fletcher Henderson and his music. The artist we are talking about this week also has connections to Fletcher Henderson as well. But we will get to that as our story unfolds.

Sun Ra Tribute
Sun Ra

In 1914, Birmingham, Alabama welcomed a new arrival to the world. Named Herman Blount, and given the nickaname "Sonny". Not much is known about his early years. Later in his life that would be by design and he would further obscure the biography. We do know that by the age of 11 or 12 he was a talented piano player, who could play by ear and had begun transcribing and composing sheet music.

According to Wikipedia :
For decades, very little was known about Sun Ra's early life, and he contributed to its obscurity. As a self-invented person, he routinely gave evasive, contradictory or seemingly nonsensical answers to personal questions, and denied his birth name. He speculated, only half in jest, that he was distantly related to Elijah Poole, later famous as Elijah Muhammed, leader of the Nation of Islam.
In 1934 Sonny began his professional career, signing with a musicians  union at getting a job with Ethel Harper's band which would tour the Southeast and Midwest. Halfway through the tour Harper abandoned the band to go to New York to pursue a singing career. Blount took over the operation of the band and renamed the Sonny Blount Orchestra. He managed to keep the show on the road for a short while before financial difficulties caused it to shut down.

Returning to Birmingham, Sonny found work as a musician around town. His obvious skills caused him to be awarded a scholarship to Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University where he majored in music. He did not last long dropping out in 1936 or 1937, probably due to financial problems but also due to an out of body experience. The story is that he felt himself surrounded by a bright white light. As he later recounted:
"… my whole body changed into something else. I could see through myself. And I went up … I wasn't in human form … I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn … they teleported me and I was down on [a] 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 [attending college] because there was going to be great trouble in schools … the world was going into complete chaos … I would speak [through music], and the world would listen. That's what they told me.[9]
This experience would have ramifications to last throughout his life. In 1942, Sonny was summoned to the draft board for military service. He promptly claimed conscientious objector status. His case was rejected. Many of his family would ostracize him for his lack of duty and he was arrested shortly thereafter and sent to a work camp in Pennsylvania. He would be released 1943 after suffering a hernia. The death of his Aunt Ida in 1945 left him no reason to stay in Birmingham and he dissolved his band and joined the 2nd Great Migration in the early 1940's and relocated to Chicago.

He quickly found work and was recorded as a session musician with Wynonie Harris twice in 1946.In august of that year he would begin working with Fletcher Henderson writing arrangements, If he had some how been around 20 years prior, he likely would have written music that Benny Goodman would ultimately perform.

In October of 1952 Sonny Blount officially had his name changed to Le Sony'r Ra, or Sun Ra as he would be more popularly called.  It was a rejection of his "slave name" and embraced his new consciousness and persona that tied together Egyptian imagery and his claim that he was a visitor from a distant planet. Again from Wikipedia:
"Of all the jazz musicians, Sun Ra was probably the most controversial," critic Scott Yanow said,[2] because of Sun Ra's eclectic music and unorthodox lifestyle. Claiming that he was of the "Angel Race" and not from Earth, but from Saturn, Sun Ra developed a complex persona using "cosmic" philosophies and lyrical poetry that made him a pioneer of afrofuturism. He preached awareness and peace above all. He abandoned his birth name and took on the name and persona of Sun Ra (Ra being the Egyptian God of the Sun), and used several other names throughout his career, including Le Sonra and Sonny Lee.[3] Sun Ra denied any connection with his birth name, saying "That's an imaginary person, never existed … Any name that I use other than Ra is a pseudonym."[4]
It was during the mid 1950's in Chicago that Sun Ra started a record label, El Saturn Records, that would prove to be a vehicle for his work and related artists. Many tracks were recorded with Ra as a background artist behind local doo-wop and jazz singers. Also during this time, he would form the Arkestra, which would continue to perform to this day, several years after the death of the founder. Wikipedia makes another description of the persona Ra was adoting that he would stay with for the rest of his life:
During the late 1950s, Sun Ra and his band began wearing the outlandish, Egyptian-styled or science fiction-themed costumes and headdresses for which they would become known. These costumes had multiple purposes: they expressed Sun Ra's fascination with ancient Egypt and the space age; they provided a distinctive uniform for the Arkestra; they provided a new identity for the band onstage, as well as comic relief. (Sun Ra thought avant garde musicians typically took themselves far too seriously).
                                                             Amazon Store

The singles that he recorded on El Saturn records, along with a variety of later releases have been collected on cd set called The Singles. The fist Disc covers his Chicago years. Here is a track listing:

Album: The Singles Sun Ra

Disc 1 - 1954-60

  • A Foggy Day-The Nu-Sounds    1:05
  • Daddy's Gonna Tell You No Lie-The Cosmic Rays    1:5
  • Dreaming-The Cosmic Rays    2:45
  • Daddy's Gonna Tell You No Lie-The Cosmic Rays    3:05
  • Bye Bye-The Cosmic Rays    2:51
  • Sombody's In Love-The Cosmic Rays    1:49
  • Medicine For A Nightmare [Alternate Take]-Sun Ra    2:37
  • Saturn-Sun Ra    3:02
  • Supersonic Jazz-Sun Ra    2:36
  • Happy New Year To You-The Qualities    1:50
  • It's Christmas Time-The Qualities    2:46
  • Muck Muck (Matt Matt)-Yochanan    2:48
  • Hot Skillet Mama-Yochanan    3:15
  • Great Balls Of Fire-Sun Ra    5:31
  • Hours After-Sun Ra    2:47
  • Teenager's Letter Of Promises-Juanita Rogers & Lynn Hollings with Mr. V's Five Joys    3:44
  • I'm So Glad You Love Me Juanita Rogers with Mr. V's Five Joys    3:07
  • The Sun One      Yochanan With Sun Ra & His Arkestra    2:32
  • The Sun Man Speaks-Yochanan With Sun Ra & His Arkestra    4:37
  • The Sun Man Speaks [Alternate Take]-Yochanan With Sun Ra & His Arkestra    3:51
  • October-Sun Ra    4:42
  • Adventure In Space-Sun Ra    1:56
  • Message To Earthman-Yochanan With Sun Ra & His Arkestra    2:26
  • Message To Earthman [Alternate Take]-Yochanan With Sun Ra & His Arkestra    2:24
  • State Street-Sun Ra    3:31
I am going to try something new this post and I have assembled a YouTube playlist of the tracks I could find from this album,  I hope it makes the page load faster for you and allow you to hit play and have a bit of music to listen to in a sitting. Let me know if you like it and I will keep doing it in future posts.

In 1960, Sun Ra left Chicago and moved to New York City.  He would continue to claim to have come from Saturn and championed a Marcus Garvey like black exodus to outer space. He would create a stage persona of African Nationalism with colorful Egyptian styled robes and headdresses. At the same time he was an early proponent of computers and space age technologies. His band would live together in a communal/cult-like setting where they would practice their music and discuss Ra's philosophical and metaphysical teachings. He would be a fixture in the New York avante garde jazz scene and would be influential to some of jazz's biggest artists. He was often considered by the press or the public to be either a novelty charlatan showman, or a creative genius beyond our comprehension. Some even believe that he truly was a representative from outer space.  After his death in 1993, his Arkestra continues to perform and study his legacy. He would always be a sort of an underground artist, although he has developed quite a cult following over time, but his fame as possibly the most unique jazz man in the history of the genre earns him a place in history.

Sun Ra Poster
(Flickr user bunky's pickle/CC)

I do have a few more disc of his music from after the Chicago Era. They make it onto Old Highway note play list as well. Starting of With Disc 2 of The Singles, which spans the New York years :
Album: The Singles Sun Ra

Disc 2 - 1960-82

  • The Blue Set-Sun Ra    4:43
  • Big City Blues-Sun Ra    3:15
  • Tell Her To Come On Home-Little Mack    2:09
  • I'm Making Believe-Little Mack    3:16
  • The Bridge-Sun Ra    1:59
  • Rocket #9-Sun Ra    2:26
  • Blues On Planet Mars-Sun Ra    3:27
  • Saturn Moon-Sun Ra    2:16
  • The Sky Is Crying-Lacy Gibson    2:52
  • She's My Baby-Lacy Gibson    2:10
  • I Am Gonna Unmask The Batman-Lacy Gibson    2:46
  • I Want An Easy Woman-Lacy Gibson    2:46
  • I'm Gonna Unmask The Batman-Sun Ra    2:22
  • The Perfect Man-Sun Ra    4:56
  • Journey To Saturn-Sun Ra    3:45
  • Enlightenment-Sun Ra    3:28
  • Love In Outer Space-Sun Ra    3:51
  • Mayan Temple-Sun Ra    4:17
  • Disco 2100-Sun Ra    2:36
  • Sky Blues-Sun Ra    2:45
  • Rough House Blues-Sun Ra    3:37
  • Cosmo-Extensions-Sun Ra    4:26
  • Quest-Sun Ra    2:40
  • Outer Space Plateau-Sun Ra    2:21

My collection of music really barely brushes against Sun Ra's output. He has released over 150 albums. I only have 3 of them. The next album onto the list is his 1978 release Lanquidity. The reviews I read say that it is one of his more accessible albums. Drawing on more song oriented jazz and funk, I find it more accessible as well. His 1970's music that I have heard is often pretty challenging avante garde jazz. But what did you expect from a jazz man from Saturn? Here tour track listing, and download links:
Album: Lanquidity Sun Ra

  • Lanquidity 8:21
  • Where Pathways Meet 6:32
  • That's How I Feel 8:05
  • Twin Stars of Thence 9:34
  • There Are Other Worlds [They Have Not Told You Of] 10:57

The last album of Sun Ra's to make it onto our playlist is A Night in East Berlin/My Brothers the Wind and the Sun from1986. This live album suffers form poor sound quality but it does showcase the band performing a fine set, typical of that era in their history. The video is all different versions of the album tracks.
Album: A Night In East Berlin / My Brothers The Wind And Sun, No. 9 Sun Ra and his Cosmo Discipline Arkestra

  • Mystic Prophecy 10:11
  • Beyond the Wilderness of Shadows 2:23
  • Prelude To A Kiss 2:58
  • Space Is the Place>We Travel the Spaceways 3:29
  • Interstellar Low Ways 8:23
  • The Shadow World 9:04
  • Rocket #9 1:44
  • My Brothers the Wind and Son 20:49

The Sun Ra Arkestra carrying the torch in 2010
While Sun Ra has apparantly returned to Saturn, there a wealth of his music to explore that I did not discuss in this blog post. For More of Sun Ra's music, here are links to Sun Ra's catalog on ITunes and Amazon:

 Amazon Sun Ra Catalogue 

Thanks for joining us this week at Old Highway Notes, I hope you have enjoyed hearing about Sun Ra. Join us next week as continue crossing the border from Tijuana back onto old Highway 101. In two weeks we will be doing an overview of  Interstate 95, and in just three short weeks we will back here again on Route 66 where will continue to explore the music of the City of Chicago.

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