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Act Like You Know: Sun Ra

Sun Ra's music sounds like it was intercepted from another world.
Baron Wolman
Courtesy of the artist
Sun Ra's music sounds like it was intercepted from another world.

Records show that 100 years ago today, a boy named Herman Poole Blount was born in Birmingham, Ala. Between that moment and his passing in 1993, the man nicknamed "Sonny" developed huge musical talent, synthesized an all-encompassing Afro-futurist worldview and grew into the name Le Sony'r Ra — Sun Ra for short. And he lives on as a cultural hero at the intersection of flamboyant outsider and self-made genius.

For a man for whom outer space was a guiding metaphor, he was a lot of different things on Earth. Here's a short list:

  • He was a prolific composer who wrote over 1,000 tunes
  • He was an accomplished pianist on acoustic and electric keyboards of all sorts
  • He was a bandleader of small-to-medium-size experimental jazz combos
  • He was a ringleader of a 20-to-30-piece big band ("Arkestra") with full costumes, dancers and overhead projections
  • He was a well-read man whose personal philosophy drew from Egyptology, black Freemasonry, Biblical exegesis, science and science fiction and most anything else that lay outside the traditional domains of scholarship
  • He was an enigma to some jazz critics and enjoyed relatively little mainstream success
  • He appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine and as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live
  • He was lionized by both white bohemians and Black Arts pioneers
  • He was a black person who "arrived" in the American South in 1914, a conscientious objector in World War II and a participant — along with 6 million others — in the mid-century Great Migration of African Americans
  • He was, according to him, not from this planet, with no family and not a human
  • Behind his esoteric parables, contradictions and mythologies, there's at least one constant. Sun Ra was often recognized as one of the hardest-working musicians anywhere he went — and surely one of the most original.

    His is a huge oeuvre that people spend lifetimes exploring. In fact, the Sun Ra Archives are re-releasing 21 major albums remastered for iTunes for his centennial arrival date — just a fraction of a discography which some historians estimate at over 180 records. Here's a quick introduction to that catalog in five essential tracks.

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