The man born Herman “Sonny” Blount, better known to his colleagues, fans and disciples as Sun Ra, would have turned 100 today. Or rather, he is turning 100 today. He’s just doing it somewhere on Saturn, after the end of time.
More than any other jazz artist, Sun Ra created a whole cosmology around his music. Dressed in his flowing gold robes and Egyptian headdresses, he presided over a cacophonous blend of hard bop, New Orleans stride, free jazz, African-inspired polyrhythms, squiggly synth excursions and psychedelic jazz-rock fusion that still sounds otherworldly today. He claimed to be from Saturn, which was revealed to him in a vision he had as a young man of aliens with “one little antenna on each ear” and “a little antenna over each eye,” who told him it was his mission to speak to the people of Earth through his music. And speak he did.
Sun Ra’s recording career spanned five decades and a bewildering array of styles, from early masterpieces of comparatively straightforward, Thelonious Monk-style bebop like 1959’s Jazz in Silhouette to more abstract but still very jazzy late-period works like 1990’s Purple Night. In between, he pioneered the use of the electric piano and synthesizer in jazz, released an Afro-futurist sci-fi film and a string of groundbreaking, space-themed jazz fusion albums, and built up a stage show so elaborate that his Sun Ra Arkestra became, according to his official online bio, “the only jazz orchestra that brings a tailor on tour.”
It’s hard to know where to start with Sun Ra’s prolific output—so much so that iTunes, which just began releasing digitally remastered versions of his catalog this week, has created something called the “Explore the Cosmos” series that breaks up his oeuvre into more easily digestible, thematically linked chunks (for example, you can download the “Outer Space” section of the Sun Ra catalog, or the “Hard Bop” section, or even just the “Percussion” section, if you’re really into the parts where it’s basically just a bunch of people chanting over bongos). But probably the best-known work from his golden ’60s/’70s era is his 1972 album Space Is the Place, which later also became the name of that sci-fi film we were telling you about. The title track became the Sun Ra Arkestra’s theme song over the years.
Here’s a fantastic clip of them performing “Space Is the Place,” along with one of their peppiest numbers, “Face the Music.” (Plus, at the six-minute mark, an excerpt of an interview with Sun Ra talking about his visit to Saturn and how “music can wash clothes.”) I’m not sure what year this is from, but Sun Ra’s band is really at the peak of their powers here, a Parliament/Funkadelic (one of many bands they influenced) for the jazzbo set:
And here’s another of Sun Ra’s most famous numbers, from the 1982 album Nuclear War, which asks the immortal question, “Whatchu gonna do without yo ass?”
Here’s a complete list of the albums that were just issued in iTunes, complete with downloadable PDF liner notes by our hero, outsider music guru Irwin Chusid. It’s our understanding that many of these titles have been out of print or hard to find for many years, although we haven’t researched the Sun Ra catalog deeply enough to confirm this. Some of them contain previously unreleased or bootleg-only bonus material; 1966’s The Nubians of Plutonia, for example, has four bonus tracks, including a previously unreleased studio version of “Spontaneous Simplicity,” a flute-fueled meditation best known from its live version on 1968’s Pictures of Infinity. If you’re willing to live with downloads instead of physical product, it’s a potential treasure trove of Sun Ra ephemera.
Supersonic Jazz (1957)
Sun Ra Visits Planet Earth (1958)
Angels and Demons At Play (1965)
Interstellar Low Ways (1966)
Jazz in Silhouette (1959)
Nubians of Plutonia (1966)
Sound Sun Pleasure (1970)
We Travel the Spaceways (1967)
Fate in a Pleasant Mood (1965)
Holiday for Soul Dance (1970)
Bad and Beautiful (1972)
The Invisible Shield (1974)
When Sun Comes Out (1963)
Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy (1967)
Monorails and Satellites, Vol. 1 (1968)
Other Planes of There (1966)
The Magic City (1966)
Strange Strings (1967)
Astro Black (1972)
Universe in Blue (1972)
- The Sun Ra Arkestra official site (still touring, led by 90-year-old saxophonist Marshall Allen)
- Astroblack (fan site)
- Sun Ra’s catalog on Amazon.com