Le Sony’r Ra (born Herman Poole Blount, May 22, 1914 – May 30, 1993), better known as Sun Ra, was an American jazz composer, bandleader, piano and synthesizer player, and poet known for his experimental music, “cosmic” philosophy, prolific output, and theatrical performances. For much of his career, Ra led “The Arkestra”, an ensemble with an ever-changing name and flexible line-up.
Born and raised in Alabama, Blount became involved in the Chicago jazz scene during the late 1940s. He soon abandoned his birth name, taking the name Le Sony’r Ra, shortened to Sun Ra (after Ra, the Egyptian God of the Sun). Claiming to be an alien from Saturn on a mission to preach peace, he developed a mythical persona and an idiosyncratic credo that made him a pioneer of Afrofuturism. Throughout his life he publicly denied ties to his prior identity.
His widely eclectic and avant-garde music echoed the entire history of jazz, from ragtime and early New Orleans hot jazz, to swing music, bebop, free jazz and fusion. His compositions ranged from keyboard solos to works for big bands of over 30 musicians, along with electronic excursions, songs, chants, percussion pieces, and anthems. From the mid-1950s until his death, Ra led the musical collective The Arkestra (which featured artists such as Marshall Allen, John Gilmore and June Tyson throughout its various iterations). Its performances often included dancers and musicians dressed in elaborate, futuristic costumes inspired by ancient Egyptian attire and the Space Age. (Following Ra’s illness-forced retirement in 1992, the band remained active as The Sun Ra Arkestra, and, as of 2018, continues performing under the leadership of veteran Ra sideman Marshall Allen.)
Though his mainstream success was limited, Sun Ra was a prolific recording artist and frequent live performer, and remained influential throughout his life for his music and persona. He is now widely considered an innovator; among his distinctions are his pioneering work in free improvisation and modal jazz and his early use of electronic keyboards and synthesizers. Over the course of his career, he recorded dozens of singles and over one hundred full-length albums, comprising well over 1,000 songs, making him one of the most prolific recording artists of the 20th century.
He was born Herman Blount on May 22, 1914, in Birmingham, Alabama, as discovered by his biographer, John F. Szwed, and published in his 1998 book. He was named after the popular vaudeville stage magician Black Herman, who had deeply impressed his mother. He was nicknamed “Sonny” from his childhood, had an older sister and half-brother, and was doted upon by his mother and grandmother.
For decades, very little was known about Sun Ra’s early life, and he contributed to its mystique. As a self-invented person, he routinely gave evasive, contradictory or seemingly nonsensical answers to personal questions, and denied his birth name. He speculated, only half in jest, that he was distantly related to Elijah Poole, later known as Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam. His birthday for years remained unknown, as his claims ranged from 1910 to 1918. Only a few years before his death, the date of Sun Ra’s birth was still a mystery. Jim Macnie’s notes for Blue Delight (1989) said that Sun Ra was believed to be about 75 years old. But Szwed was able to uncover a wealth of information about his early life and confirmed a birth date of May 22, 1914.