Of all the jazz musicians, Sun Ra was probably the most controversial. He did not make it easy for people to take him seriously, for he surrounded his adventurous music with costumes and mythology that both looked backward toward ancient Egypt and forward into science fiction. In addition, Ra documented his music in a very erratic fashion on his Saturn label, generally not listing recording dates and giving inaccurate personnel information, so one could not really tell how advanced some of his innovations were. It has taken a lot of time to sort it all out (although Robert L. Campbell's Sun Ra discography has done a miraculous job). In addition, while there were times when Sun Ra's aggregation performed brilliantly, on other occasions they were badly out of tune and showcased absurd vocals. Near the end of his life, Ra was featuring plate twirlers and fire eaters in his colorful show as a sort of Ed Sullivan for the 1980s.
Sun Ra was a major innovator. Born Herman Sonny Blount in Birmingham, Alabama (although he claimed he was from another planet), Ra led his own band for the first time in 1934. He freelanced at a variety of jobs in the Midwest, recording with blues singer Wynonie Harris in 1946 and working as a pianist/arranger with Fletcher Henderson in 1946 and 1947. He also performed with swing musicians Coleman Hawkins and Stuff Smith in 1948, but really got started around 1953. Leading a big band (which he called the Arkestra) in Chicago, Ra started off playing advanced bop, but early on was open to the influences of other cultures, experimenting with primitive electric keyboards, and playing free long before the avant-garde got established. Following several singles, including songs recorded with doo wop and R&B vocal groups such as the Qualities and the Cosmic Rays, early albums released by the Arkestra on El Saturn Records included Super-Sonic Jazz and Jazz in Silhouette. Jazz by Sun Ra, Vol. 1 also appeared on producer Tom Wilson's Transition Records.
Ra performed some of his most advanced work. This period saw the release of The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, both on the famed ESP-Disk label, and often regarded as some of his best work. In 1966, the Arkestra had a weekly Monday night gig at Slug's Saloon, a jazz club in the Lower East Side in Manhattan, which greatly increased his fan base among beatniks and music critics. While Ra's music, mythology, and appearance went over the heads of many listeners and audience members, he was praised by jazz legends Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.
In 1968, he relocated his group to Philadelphia, and the group undertook their first tour of the West Coast of the United States, exposing their elaborate performances to hippies and Deadheads. Ra was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1969. The ensemble began performing in Europe in 1970, and they traveled to Egypt for the first time in 1971. Their concerts alternated free improvisations and mystical group chants with eccentric versions of swing tunes, sounding like a spaced-out Fletcher Henderson orchestra. Many of Ra's most important sidemen were with him on and off for decades (most notably John Gilmore on tenor, altoist Marshall Allen, and baritonist Pat Patrick).
Sun Ra recorded an album called Space Is the Place, as well as an experimental science fiction movie of the same name. The album, led by the 21-minute title track, was released in 1973, and endures as one of his most popular and influential works. The film, directed by John Coney, was released in 1974, and is often cited as a seminal work of Afrofuturism. The Arkestra recorded an original soundtrack for the film (unrelated to the Space Is the Place album), and it was eventually released on CD in the '90s.
The Arkestra continued recording and performing, and albums appeared on labels large (Impulse!, Atlantic) and small (Philly Jazz, Sweet Earth Records). Releases on Y Records, including the infamous Nuclear War (1983), exposed Sun Ra's work to post-punk/indie audiences. Ra became a fixture of Philadelphia radio stations and regularly gave lectures. After appearing on Hal Willner's Disney tribute album Stay Awake in 1988, Ra became obsessed with the music of Disney animated films, and incorporated renditions of these tunes into live performances. Ra suffered a stroke in 1990, but he still continued to lead the Arkestra and compose music. Gilmore led the Arkestra on dates when Ra was too ill to perform. Ra died in 1993, and Gilmore led the Arkestra until his death in 1995, at which point Allen took over.
Ra has been well served by Evidence's extensive repackaging of many of his Saturn dates, which have at last been outfitted with correct dates and personnel details. The label released a double-CD collection of his limited single releases in 1996. Posthumous albums of live material have appeared on labels such as DIW, Leo Records, and Kindred Spirits. In 2010, Norton Records released a series of "Space Poetry" LPs containing Ra's spoken word material. U.K. label Strut also released a few notable compilations, including In the Orbit of Ra (presented by Allen) and To Those of Earth... and Other Worlds (mixed by Gilles Peterson), as well as a more extensive compendium of his singles.