Sun Ra: 100th Birthday Tribute
Last Call salutes Sun Ra and his musical legacy on this, the year that marks the 100th anniversary of his arrival on Earth. Mystical and otherworldly but always imbued with a powerful jazz consciousness, the music of Sun Ra has withstood detractors and an indifferent public for more than three generations. And well it should, since Sun Ra has been both apart of and ahead of the jazz tradition, swinging on Earth and on Saturn, with a compositional ability"up there" with Ellington and Mingus.
Sun Ra was born in Birmingham, Alabama on May 22, 1914. His birth name was Herman Poole Blount. Starting as a pianist and bandleader in the 1930s, Sun Ra gained invaluable experience as a pianist and arranger for the legendary Fletcher Henderson’s big band in Chicago.
It was also during that time that Sun Ra claimed to have a close encounter of the third kind with extraterrestrials, who according to Ra, took the future bandleader to the planet Saturn.
It was a life changing experience.
For years Sun Ra provided the piano backing for assorted doo-wop vocalists, R and B acts and straight-ahead jazz artists. In 1948 he made his recorded debut with bassist Gene Wright, who was a future Dave Brubeck sideman.
In the 1950’s Ra gradually built a rehearsal band which became his Arkestra. During that time he publicly affirmed his spirituality by changing his name to Sun Ra. Previously it had been "Herman Poole Blount".
Sun Ra’s personal spirituality, a rich mix of ancient Egyptian and space age interplanetary lore, was decades ahead of the “new age” movements that arrived in America in the 1970s and 80s.
Like Duke Ellington and swing-era pioneer Fletcher Henderson, (Sun Ra wrote and arranged for Henderson) Sun Ra learned early on to write music in an arranged form that showcased the specific talents of his individual Arkestra members. Longtime Arkestra members included John Gilmore, Julian Priester and Marshall Allen. They joined the band in the 1950's. It is also been confirmed that John Coltrane was a member of the band for a brief period. There is a possibility that Sun Ra's benevolent spiritual influence assisted Coltrane with kicking his drug habit and revitalization, so he could go on to make jazz history.
Sun Ra was the first jazz musician to perform on electronic keyboards, the first to pursue full-scale collective improvisation in a big band setting, and his preoccupation with space travel as a compositional subject predated bands like Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi Band by about 15 years. All this from someone who refused to even cite the earth as his home planet and prefers to have arrived from Saturn. As Sun Ra once explained it, "I never wanted to be a part of planet Earth, but I am compelled to be here, so anything I do for this planet is because the Master-Creator of the Universe is making me do it. I am of another dimension. I am on this planet because people need me".
Sun Ra passed away on May 30, 1993.
Marshall Allen, who has been with the Sun Ra Arkestra since the 1950s, now leads the band and continues the tradition of big band jazz music that swings, through the spaceways.
For more information you may visit http://www.sunraarkestra.com/