Sun Ra (May 22, 1914 to May 30, 1993) was an innovative and individual jazz composer, bandleader and piano and synthesizer player, who came to be known as much for preaching his bizarre cosmic philosophy as for his phenomenal musical compositions and performances.
Born Herman "Sonny" Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, he abandoned his birth name and took on the name of Sun Ra (Ra being the name of the ancient Egyptian god of the Sun) and headed a band with an ever-changing ensemble known as the "Arkestra" (or sometimes "Solar Arkestra").
The musical development of Sun Ra can be (loosely) categorized into three periods:
The first period of the 1950s was when his music evolved from big-band Swing into the outer space-themed "cosmic jazz" he was best known for. Early inhis career, Ra worked as an arranger for Fletcher Henderson. Music critics and jazz historians say some of his best work was recorded during this period. Notable Sun Ra albums from the 1950s include Sun Ra Visits Planet Earth, Interstellar Low Ways, Angels And Demons At Play, We Travel The Spaceways, and Jazz In Silhouette (among many others).
It was during the 1950s that Sun Ra began wearing the outlandish, Egyptian-styled costumes and headdresses he would be known for. Claiming that he was not from the Planet Earth but rather from Saturn, Ra developed a complicated persona of "cosmic" philosophies and lyrical poetry that preached "awareness" and peace above all. He eschewed racism (having been a victim of it many times, in regards to the touring and booking schedule of the Arkestra), though he rarely came out and directly spoke about any controversial subjects. He preferred to make music, which he did, as the cast of musicians touring and working with him changed on an almost daily basis.
(The most notable graduate of the Sun Ra Arkestra was John Gilmore, a saxophonist whose work influenced that of John Coltrane).
During the 1960s, his music underwent a chaotic, free jazz experimental period. It was during this period that his popularity reached its peak, as the "beat generation" and the psychedelic era embraced him. In this era, Ra was among the first of any musicians to make extensive use of synthesizers and other various electronic instruments. Newcomers to Ra's music may have difficulty with his albums of this era. Notable titles from this period include The Magic City, When Sun Comes Out, The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume One and Other Planes Of There.
During their third period, beginning in the 1970s and onward, Sun Ra and the Arkestra settled down into a more conventional method (though still highly eclectic and energetic), and 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; and 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 compilation of Disney tunes by many artists.
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.
During his career Sun Ra recorded over one hundred albums, but many of them were printed on microlabels, and his music was largely unknown outside of the live jazz touring circuit. In the 1990s, after he had left this plane of existence, many of his recordings were released on compact disc for the first time under the Ihnfinity Music label.
The Arkestra continues to tour and perform as of November 2003, now led by alto saxophonist Marshall Allen.
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.
Some recommended albums (by no means all-inclusive): Atlantis, Supersonic Jazz, Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy, We Travel the Spaceways, Singles, Languidity, The Magic City.