Herman Poole Blount aka Sun Ra

As the centenary of his birth approaches (May 22, 1914), we honor Sun Ra, born Herman Poole Blount, legally named Le Sony’r Ra, and going also at various times by the names Le Sonra and Sonny Lee.

That’s a lot of names, but a mere fraction of the number of albums (over 100) or songs (over 1,000). Sun Ra was among the most prolific recording artists ever. He was also one of the first to adopt the electric piano and synthesizer, and to self-produce and distribute his own music–now standard practice in the techno and hip-hop worlds. He has influenced a vast number of musicians, from Daft Punk to Lady Gaga, who sampled Sun Ra in her song “Venus.”

"I never wanted to be a part of planet Earth, but I am compelled to be here, so anything I do for this planet is because the Master-Creator of the Universe is making me do it. I am of another dimension. I am on this planet because people need me."

“I never wanted to be a part of planet Earth, but I am compelled to be here, so anything I do for this planet is because the Master-Creator of the Universe is making me do it. I am of another dimension. I am on this planet because people need me.”

Rooted in jazz but exploring ever diverse music beyond categories, Sun Ra and his “Arkestra” anticipated hip-hop and techno decades in advance. Andy Beta describes his initial encounter with Sun Ra’s music, nicely capturing its dizzying range:

Sun Ra’s music suggested an entirely new universe of sound (and the bass line of “Moon Dance” [1959] still kills me). And there were entire galaxies of Sun Ra’s music to explore in his four decades of recording: swinging Ellingtonian big band and primitive synth sounds, woozy doo-wop singles and skronk fests, astral space chants, nuclear war noise and whimsical polyrhythmic miniatures.

I groove on this older stuff, including the accessible Jazz in Silhouette (1967). But I confess, the wilder more theatrical work is a struggle. I feel the same about Captain Beefheart, another explosively creative outsider who paralleled Sun Ra in many ways (though by all accounts he was a lot less likeable as a person). But also like Beefheart, the music can definitely grow on you.

Was Sun Ra simply ahead of his time, or beyond space-time itself? Space themes suffused his music and poetry, as well as the flamboyant stage act and costume design of the Arketsra–the only jazz band to tour with its own tailor. Sun Ra famously claimed extra-terrestrial origins.

“Space is the Place” (1979)

Sun Ra was a deeply spiritual man. An unyielding pacifist, he was jailed during WWII after an unsuccessful application for conscientious objector status. His philosophy, a system of “equations,” was a kind of gnostic syncretism encompassing Freemasonry, Egyptology, black nationalism, Astral New Ageism, and other elements inlcuding Afrofuturism (another movement he anticipated by decades). His cryptic comments were sometimes said to resemble Zen koans, triggering profound insights when recollected later.

Sun Ra passed from this world May 30, 1993, travelling on, we hope, to a much better one. Back on earth, posthumous compilations of Sun Ra’s music keep pouring out, and the Arkestra keeps on playing (quite a tight rhythm section IMO).

“Angels and Demons” (2012).

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11 Responses to Herman Poole Blount aka Sun Ra

  1. Dave says:

    This is a good reminder to listen to more Sun Ra. It has been ages!

    How did he get the name Sun Ra – was it related to his spirituality?

    • wdydfae says:

      I didn’t really get into the music until pretty recently, mostly just trying to get this post backgrounded.

      I think Sun Ra is totally an Egyptian thing. Ra is the sun god in Egypt.

  2. Arto says:

    Gotta love a great spiritual musical leader of this dimension who is born with the name Herman. Happens a lot.

    I’ve never heard Sun Ra, I don’t think. Got to dig into that stash. Thanks Internet!

    • wdydfae says:

      Now that you mention it, yeah! Herman and the Hermits (and what is a hermit but a spritual ascetic), Hermann Hesse, Herman the Munster, who was a beat poet:

  3. kerbey says:

    I admit it; I’ve never heard of Sun Ra, but probably because he wasn’t on the Weekly Top 40. This post has a lot of bigger words than my brain knows, so I feel certain you can answer my questions: Is it pronounced “rah” like Rah Rah Oh Gaga or “Ray” like “Sunray,” which is more warming? I would guess someone who is a self-proclaimed extra-terrestrial would be the antithesis of warming. I hear space is cold.

    Also, the mention of his desire for conscientious objector status in WWII made me wonder when that started. I knew you could apply for that in Nam, but not earlier. Surely that wasn’t an option during the Civil War.

    The Arkestra has more members than Kool n the Gang and Sly and the Family Stone combined.

  4. Liz says:

    wow–that’s awesome. Had no idea. You continue to enlighten me, Diddy. Especially love that he was ahead of his time musically and continues to influence today’s performers. Seems a shame he is not better known. Glad you put this out here!

  5. Pingback: BoFN Gig: Sun Ra | What Do You Do for an Encore?

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