Saturday, May 22, 2010

Sun Ra

Today is the birthday of Sun Ra, born on May 22, 1914. Named Sonny Blount by his parents, Sun Ra was an internationally acclaimed source of breath-taking musical creativity.

Sun Ra believed in eternal being, and was deliberately obscure about his origins. However, a common story is that he grew up in Birmingham, Alambama and played piano by ear almost from infancy. He played local concerts as a child and became a student of famed music teacher John T. "Fess" Whatley while in high school. Before he graduated, Blount was playing piano professionally at society dances and in nightclubs.

In 1936 Blount was awarded a scholarship to Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University, where he had a visionary experience that was to have a major long-term influence. He claimed that a bright light appeared around him, and 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 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.

Blount left college and from that point on he became a devoted musician. He rarely slept, and transformed the first floor of his family's home into a conservatory-workshop where he wrote songs, transcribed recordings, rehearsed with the many musicians who were nearly constantly drifting in and out, and discussed Biblical and esoteric concepts with whoever was interested.

In October 1942 Sun Ra was drafted but declared himself a Conscientious Objector, citing religious objections to war and killing, and refused to serve. At his hearing, Blount declared that if he were inducted, he would use his military weapons and training to kill the first high-ranking military officer he could. He spent five weeks in jail in Jasper, Alabama, then was sent to a Civilian Public Service Camp in Northwestern Pennsylvania. He was classified as 4-F due to a hernia and briefly returned to Birmingham before leaving for good. Blount legally changed his name to Le Sony'r Ra in 1952.

Over his life, Sun Ra's collaborators ranged from tight swing trios to his massive Arkestra, which could include more than 30 musicians, dancers, singers, fire-eaters, and special effects. Over all, he led bands for nearly 60 years, made at least 125 records, and performed every kind of music from hotel-band schmaltz to massive percussion suites to synthesizer pieces that twittered and clunked like a demented video game. He played free regular gigs in a park near his Philadelphia home, and traveled to Egypt several times with the Arkestra to play before the pyramids. Even after a stroke in 1990, Sun Ra kept composing and performing, ending his career on double-bill concerts with Sonic Youth.

Sun Ra left this world permanently in 1993. More of his epic biography here. Below is a fun video collage set to an Arkestra recording from the late 1960's. Many more such things to be found on the Youtube.

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