My good friend Todd M. enjoyed the Sun Ra reference on my last post, so I thought that it would be fun to take a closer look at the great Sun Ra. (Todd is a veteran advertising art director in Detroit, a musician, and a general connoisseur of cultural coolness.)
Sun Ra (also known as Sonny Blount): In many respects, the strange and enigmatic Sun Ra operated outside of the main stream of jazz—yet, he is a major figure in the history of jazz and can not be overlooked.
Sun Ra was an innovative jazz composer, band leader, piano and synthesizer player, and poet who came to be known as much for his “cosmic philosophy” as for his musical compositions and performances. Ra claimed that he was a member of the “Angel Race” and not from Earth, but from the planet Saturn. The “cosmic” orientation of his philosophy, poetry, and often-bizarre music, along with costumes that combined elements of ancient Egypt and outer space, caused many people to regard his as a crank, or “nut”. Still, he has been widely recognized for his immense musical talents.
Sun Ra was a prolific recording artist and frequent live performer. His music ranged from keyboard solos to big bands of more than thirty musicians, singers, and dancers, all in costume. His music touched on virtually the entire history of jazz, from ragtime to swing music, from bebop to free jazz. He was also a pioneer of electronic music and “free” improvisation, and was one of the first musicians to use electronic keyboards.
As a synthesizer and electric keyboard player, Sun Ra ranks among one of the earliest and most radical pioneers. His live albums from the late '60s and early '70s feature some of the noisiest, most bizarre keyboard work ever recorded.
Although Sun Ra operated on the outer limits of jazz, he has been extremely influential on a great many musicians for his pioneering spirit, and willingness to take the music as far as it could go.
Ra recorded over 200 albums; some were on major or semi-major record labels such as A&M, Inpulse, and Rounder. Most of his releases, however, were on more obscure labels, and many were released by Saturn Records, his own label.
Here is a sampling of Sun Ra album cover art. I find the illustrated covers in particular to be very appealing. Stylistically, many of them could be described as being somewhere between surrealism and something related to folk or outsider art, and often have sort of a "home-made" appearance. Unfortunately, I do not have information on any of the artists. If anyone has any information about this, it would be nice to know.
I had the good fortune to see Sun Ra perform at least a half-dozen times. The first time, I was fifteen years old, and just kind of stumbled upon a performance at the Canterbury House in Ann Arbor, where I grew up. I had never seen or heard anything like this before in my life, and musically, it was a life-changing event that I will never forget.
SPACE IS THE PLACE!