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Thu May 22, 2014

Saturn Still Swings: Celebrating Sun Ra At 100

Originally published on Thu May 22, 2014 9:18 am

Today marks 100 years since Sun Ra was born — or, as the musician might have put it, since he arrived on Earth. An influential jazz composer, keyboardist and bandleader, Sun Ra always insisted he was just visiting this planet.

"Since I don't consider myself as one of the humans, I'm a spiritual being myself," he said in A Joyful Noise, a documentary released in 1980.

Ra dressed himself and his band in elaborate costumes that were part ancient Egypt, part science fiction. Sometimes he claimed to be from Saturn.

"I'm not part of history," he said. "I'm more a part of the mystery which is my story."

Ra didn't like to talk about his childhood on Earth. In fact, the trail was nearly cold when biographer John Szwed started asking questions in the 1990s.

"He had a passport that said Saturn," Szwed recalls. "It had no birth dates."

Eventually, Szwed did uncover some basic biographical facts about Sun Ra. Herman "Sonny" Blount was born May 22, 1914 in Birmingham, Ala. By the 1950s he had moved to Chicago, worked as an arranger for jazz great Fletcher Henderson, and backed up a wide range of musicians playing blues, doo-wop and R&B.

"Even in Chicago, when he was doing fairly straight things — blues, dance tunes, whatever — there was this hint of something else," Szwed says.

Blount changed his name to Sun Ra and began leading a big band called the Arkestra.

"He was the first one to really introduce me in the higher forms of music," said John Gilmore, who played tenor saxophone in the Arkestra for four decades.

Gilmore died in 1995, but was interviewed in A Joyful Noise. At first, Gilmore said, he had a hard time understanding Ra's music.

"Then one night, I heard it," he recalls. "We were playing this number 'Saturn.' I had been playing it for six months, every time we worked. But then I really heard the intervals this one night and I said, 'My gosh, it's unbelievable that anybody could write meaner intervals than Monk or Mingus. But he does.'"

In the early '60s, Ra moved his Arkestra to New York. He explored collective free improvisation and was one of the first jazz musicians to embrace electronic instruments and synthesizers. John Szwed says Ra's stage act also got weirder and bigger.

"He went to extremes," Szwed says. "He'd have musclemen painted gold, jugglers, women carrying glowing balls like turn-of-the-century dancers. And depending on where you were coming into the thing, you either saw him as this avuncular, sweet old guy — or he was scary."

Ra's interest in ancient Egypt and African cultures led some to associate him with the Black Nationalist movement of the '60s and '70s. But he wasn't concerned with terrestrial politics.

"I'm not looking for liberty. I'm not looking for equality," Ra said. "I am moving forward with my music, universal language, expressing things of value. And if there's some people want to listen, they're welcome. I'm just like the birds. They sing. Those who like can listen and those who don't, don't have to."

For all the freedom in his music, Ra demanded discipline from his musicians. He was constantly writing or rehearsing. In 1969, he moved the band out of New York to a house in Philadelphia that belonged to the father of the band's alto saxophonist, Marshall Allen.

Allen is celebrating his 90th birthday this month. He's still leading the Arkestra, which rehearses in that same modest row house in Philadelphia. It's full of sheet music, art, instruments, and mementos of Sun Ra's time on Earth. The band members still bunk together in the bedrooms, just like they did when Ra lived there. Allen says the communal living arrangement meant the band could rehearse without distractions.

"All your free time was taken," Allen recalls. "All this running around doing nothing — chasing girls or whatever you do. You devoting most of your time to music 24 hours a day."

In fact, the band members jokingly called it the "Ra jail." They're laughing, but you can tell it's not entirely a joke. Saxophonist Knoel Scott has been in and out of the Arkestra since the 1970s.

"Sun Ra was, for people who didn't know Sonny, he was an insomniac," Scott says. "He did not sleep. Maybe two hours, take a little nap — that was it. So 22 hours out of the day, he's awake and he's creating."

Ra wrote poetry, and he wrote his philosophy down in pamphlets and leaflets. But mostly, Ra wrote music, and was one of the first musicians to release it on his own record label. He wrote thousands of songs, filling dozens and dozens of albums.

"Every song I write tells a story — a story that humanity needs to know about," Ra said. "In my music I speak of unknown things, impossible things, ancient things, potential things. No two songs tell the same story."

Ra left the planet in 1993 after a series of strokes. The Sun Ra Arkestra will mark today's centennial with a concert in Zurich, Switzerland. It's the first show of the Arkestra's month-long tour of Europe, as the band still brings Sun Ra's message to the people of Earth.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Hey, today marks 100 years since the musician Sun Ra was born. Or as he might have put it: Since Sun Ra arrived on Earth. He was known for his eccentric costumes and his embrace of Afrofuturist philosophy. He was also influential as a composer, arranger, keyboardist and bandleader. And he is still revered by musicians and audiences across the universe.

NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Sun Ra always insisted he was just visiting Earth.

SUN RA: I don't consider myself as one of the humans. I'm a spiritual being myself.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSE: That's Sun Ra in the 1980 documentary "A Joyful Noise."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "A CALL TO DEMONS")

ROSE: Ra dressed himself and his band in elaborate costumes that were part ancient Egypt and part science fiction. Sometimes Ra claimed to be from Saturn.

RA: I'm not part of history. I'm more a part of the mystery which is my story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "A CALL TO DEMONS")

ROSE: Ra didn't like to talk about his childhood on Earth. The trail was nearly cold when biographer John Szwed started asking questions in the 1990s.

JOHN SZWED: He had a passport that said Saturn. It had no birth dates.

ROSE: Eventually Szwed did uncover some basic biographical facts about Sun Ra. School records show that Herman Sonny Blount was born May 22, 1914 in Birmingham, Alabama. In the 1940s, Blount moved to Chicago. He worked as an arranger for jazz great Fletcher Henderson. He backed up a variety of blues, doo-wop and R&B singers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNMASK THE BATMAN")

RA: (Singing) I'm going to unmask the Batman. I'm going to unmask the Batman...

ROSE: Blount changed his name to Sun Ra and began leading a big band he called, among other things, the Arkestra.

SZWED: So even in Chicago, when he was doing fairly straight things - blues, dance tunes - there was this hint of something else.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOHN GILMORE: He was the first one to really introduce me in the higher forms of music. You know?

ROSE: John Gilmore played tenor saxophone in the Arkestra for four decades. Gilmore died in 1995, but he was interviewed for the documentary "A Joyful Noise." At first Gilmore said he had a hard time understanding Ra's music.

GILMORE: Then one night I heard it.

(LAUGHTER)

GILMORE: We were playing this number, "Saturn," and I had been playing it for six months, every time we worked. But then I really heard the intervals this one night. And I said my gosh, it's unbelievable that anybody could write any meaner intervals than Monk or Mingus, you know. But he does.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSE: In the early 1960s, Ra moved his Arkestra to New York. He was one of the first jazz musicians to embrace electronic instruments and synthesizers, while the band experimented with collective free improvisation. Biographer John Szwed says Ra's stage act also got weirder and bigger.

SZWED: He went to extremes. You know, musclemen painted gold or something, jugglers, women carrying glowing balls like turn-of-the-century dancers. And depending on where you were coming into the thing, you either saw him as this avuncular sweet old guy or he was scary.

ROSE: Ra's interest in ancient Egypt and African cultures led some to associate him with the Black Power movement of the 1960s and '70s. But Ra wasn't concerned with terrestrial politics.

RA: I'm not looking for liberty. I'm not looking for equality. I am moving forward with my music, the universal language; expressing things of value. And if there's some people want to listen, they're welcome. I'm just like the birds. They sing. Those who like can listen. And those don't, don't have to.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSE: Ra demanded discipline from his musicians. He was constantly writing or rehearsing. In 1969 he moved the band out of New York to a house in Philadelphia that belonged to the father of the Arkestra's alto saxophonist, Marshall Allen.

MARSHALL ALLEN: And you see all this music stacked around me? All that was handwritten.

ROSE: The modest row house is full of sheet music, art and instruments.

ALLEN: See, that's just two or three numbers. Imagine I'll be doing that with a thousand.

ROSE: Allen, who celebrates his 90th birthday this week, still leads rehearsals here. Band members bunk together in the bedrooms, just like they did when Sun Ra was alive. Allen says the communal living arrangement meant the band could rehearse constantly.

ALLEN: All your free time was taken. All this running around and doing nothing, chasing girls or whatever you do. You devoted most of your time to music, 24 hours a day.

ROSE: In fact, the musicians sometimes called it Ra Jail. They laugh when they say it now, but you can tell it's not entirely a joke. Saxophonist Knoel Scott has been in and out of the Arkestra since the 1970s.

KNOEL SCOTT: Sun Ra was an insomniac. He did not sleep. Maybe two hours, take a little nap. That was it. So we're talking 22 hours out in a day, he's awake. And he's creating.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSE: Ra wrote poetry. He wrote his philosophy down in pamphlets. But mostly, Ra wrote music, thousands of songs, filling dozens and dozens of albums. He released many of those records on his own label, one of the first musicians to do that too.

RA: Every song I write tells a story. A story that humanity needs to know about. In my music I speak of unknown things, impossible things, ancient things, potential things. No two songs tell the same story.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPACE IS THE PLACE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Space is the place...

ROSE: Sun Ra left the planet in 1993 after a series of strokes. The Arkestra will mark today's centennial at a concert in Zurich, Switzerland, the beginning of a month-long tour of Europe. Still bringing Sun Ra's message to the people of Earth.

Joel Rose, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: There's an interplanetary guide to Sun Ra's vast recorded legacy on our website, NPR.org/music.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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