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Act Like You Know: Sun Ra

by Patrick Jarenwattananon
May 22, 2014

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Astro Black. Lanquidity Interstellar Low Ways Cosmic Tones Sun Ra's music sounds like it was intercepted from another world.

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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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