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Oh man, where to begin with Sun Ra. Sun is this week’s Awesome Man Throughout History, and a man who managed to pack so much fun-to-talk-about craziness into his life that it’s hard to pick a starting point for discussion. I mean, simply referring to him as a jazz musician who claimed that he was an angel from Saturn and named himself after the Egyptian sun god just doesn’t cut it somehow.
I’ll pause to let that sink in for you.
Welcome back. I guess the first thing I should say about Sun Ra is that he was an enormously gifted musician. He was writing original songs on the piano before his thirteenth birthday (which was more impressive in the era before readily available YouTube geniuses) and could sight-read sheet music at that age, too. It didn’t stop there; as a teenager, he could transcribe big band performances he’d seen onto sheet music from the memory of what he’d heard. He also studied music under John T. “Fess” Whatley, whose discipline and tireless work ethic influenced Sun Ra’s future career as a bandleader.
Sun was an impressive bandleader too, with a career spanning several decades and three distinct phases; his Chicago phase in the 1950s (notable for his tight, accessible swing compositions with hints of modal jazz and bebop), his New York phase in the 1960s (notable for extremely loud experimental compositions full of percussion and tape delays and free improvisation, and for Sun Ra’s prescient embrace of electronic keyboards and synthesizers), and his Philadelphia phase in the 1970s and onward (notable for his band’s calmer fusion of swing and multi-instrumental weirdness, and also for Sun Ra incorporating projected images into his live performances).
Sun was a demanding boss too, insisting on daily rehearsals and firing unimpressive band members by deserting them in whatever city, state, or country they’d pissed him off in. It’s been said that the State Department had to step in and tell Sun to just fire people the normal way, because he’d left a few ex-band members stranded in Europe and created some diplomatic issues for the United States in so doing. Not sure how true that is, but the fact that it’s even plausible says a lot about Sun’s personality.
Okay, so the “I’m from Saturn” thing goes like this: Sun Ra claimed to have an extraterrestrial experience in the 1930s in which, after being surrounded by a bright light, he was taken from Earth and, in his own words, “landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn … they teleported me and I was down on [a] stage with them. They wanted to talk with me … I would speak [through music], and the world would listen. That’s what they told me.”
This experience, real or not, changed Sun’s whole life and planted the seed for the complex philosophy that he would spend his life constructing. Yes, of course he had a personal philosophy. Sun Ra’s outlook on life drew upon stuff he read as a child and during Chicago’s Black Renaissance, including numerology, Freemasonry, black nationalism, and Gnosticism. He never really explained it all at once, and the things he did talk about sounded either stupid or brilliant, depending on what mood the listener was in.
Andrew Cyrille, one of Sun’s drummers, had a similar take on Sun’s philosophical side, noting that “a lot of times it was humorous, and a lot of times it was ridiculous, and a lot of times it was right on the money.” While most of Sun’s bandmates were skeptical of his belief system, they were nonetheless inspired by the determination, focus, and creativity Sun was able to draw from it.
For more about his world view and rumored Saturnian origin, here’s an interview with him that goes about as well as they ever did. But more importantly, here’s his music.