Herman Blount (1914-1993), who later became known as Sun Ra, was a Birmingham native and visionary musician whose jazz styling and personal mythology left a lasting impression on modern music. His eccentric persona, experimentation with electronic music and free jazz, and the often unusual make-up of his performances left indelible marks on the world of jazz.
Herman "Sonny" Blount was born May 22, 1914, in Birmingham. At an early age, Blount showed considerable musical talent, which he developed through participation in school bands and as a hired musician for social club functions. At places such as the Masonic Temple and other clubs vital to the black community, Blount was first exposed to the world of jazz and big band music.
As a student at Birmingham Industrial High School, he was taught by John "Fess" Whatley, a well-respected teacher whose students went on to play for people such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. The summer after graduating from high school in 1932, Blount traveled the Southeast and Midwest as a pianist with a band financed by Whatley.
Young Herman Blount showed promise not only in his musical talent but in his academic pursuits as well. In 1935, he entered Alabama A&M University in Huntsville, but left the following year; although he did not graduate, opting instead to pursue his music career, his time in Huntsville did lead to an important element of the mythology that would surround him in his Sun Ra persona: his claim that he was abducted by a UFO. In his recounting of the experience, Blount described a beam of light that took him to Saturn. He said aliens warned of impending chaos on Earth and told him he "would speak, and the world would listen" during that time of chaos. This view of himself as an outer-space visionary became a huge part of the mythology Sonny Blount created to go along with his music.
Blount returned to Birmingham and devoted himself to his music. He became a talented transposer (that is, changing the key for a piece of music so that it could be more easily played or so it could be played by an instrument like a clarinet that does not play at concert pitch) and arranger, and he kept abreast of electronic musical developments. He was one of the early proponents of electronic music and associated technologies and purchased an electric keyboard when they first became available. He also used early tape recorders to record his own band as well as other music acts that visited Birmingham.
Blount's time in Alabama was not marked only by success, however. He was constantly reminded of his disenfranchised position as an African American in the segregated South and kept a journal of mistreatment or inequalities he experienced or witnessed. He also fell on hard times when he resisted the draft as a conscientious objector in October 1942. Blount spent time in jail and at a civilian public service camp in northwest Pennsylvania before finally being released because of poor health in March of 1943.
Blount moved to Chicago in 1946 and continued along his musical path. In 1952, he officially changed his name to Le'Sony'r Ra and began to distance himself from his southern past, eventually losing contact with family in Alabama. Gradually, he left behind the old Sonny Blount and completely assumed the persona of Sun Ra.
The persona of Sun Ra combined the mystery of outer space with the history of ancient Egypt to empower the black community. In a time of civil rights struggles, Sun Ra and his band proudly displayed an identity that celebrated and affirmed ancient black history while coupling it with the endless possibilities of space travel. He was interested in major religions and the occult and was drawn to Egyptian culture and new scientific discoveries. He was especially interested in scientific advances that would lead to new musical possibilities (as with electronic instruments) and advances related to space travel. He also was fascinated by language and word play, finding connections and meaning in the manipulation of words and letters. Sun Ra's band, the "Arkestra" got its name from one such language experiment. The word of course derives from "orchestra," but Sun Ra also used "Ark" as in the ark of the covenant from the Old Testament and as in the ark that transported the Egyptian god Ra.
During the mid to late 1950s in Chicago, Sun Ra's band, the "Arkestra," took shape. The group of musicians who comprised Sun Ra's band underwent numerous name changes, but the term Arkestra found its way into many of these names and represented a new approach in the jazz world. Rather than merely a collection of musicians, the Arkestra was multifaceted performance art and a mythological world. Sun Ra and the Arkestra recorded more than 100 records, with some Arkestra members staying for a only few months, and others for decades.
The Arkestra in its earlier years reflected the big band phenomenon. Sun Ra encouraged improvisation and sound experimentation, however, and the Arkestra gradually moved away from the big band sound to more fully embrace improvisational and more modern sounds. Although Sun Ra and the Arkestra did not formally align themselves with any particular movement, they did employ improvisation and collaboration similar to the free jazz movement. Sun Ra and free jazz musicians did away with predictable rhythms and eschewed the patterns and repetition that listeners were accustomed to.
An Arkestra performance was not just the music but the presentation of an ideal, the pursuit and embodiment of a mythology that included elements of science fiction, Egyptology, and Afrocentrism. Sun Ra and the Arkestra performed in long robes made of richly decorated metallic fabric. He wore elaborate headpieces that were inspired by Egyptian costume or that had a cosmic theme. Dancers dressed in science-fiction attire, and light displays also accompanied Arkestra performances.
Sun Ra and the Arkestra moved from Chicago to New York in the early 1960s and finally to Philadelphia in 1968, continually influencing jazz and American experimental music. The Arkestra's influence can be seen and heard in bands such as Pink Floyd and Parliament Funkadelic as well as in jazz bands. Sun Ra was inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in 1979.
Sun Ra and the Arkestra kept up a grueling schedule of tour dates thoughout the 1980s and early 1990s until Sun Ra's health declined. He returned to Birmingham in 1993 to be with family, and died that year on May 30 of pneumonia. Sun Ra was buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham. The Arkestra continues to perform today, directed by alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, who joined the group in 1958. Although unmarried and childless, Sun Ra's legacy lives on with his music, mythology, and the continuation of the Arkestra.
Lock, Graham. Blutopia. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.
Lock, Graham. Blutopia. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.
Szwed, John F. Space is the Place. New York: Pantheon Books, 1997.