To read the other installments in the Sun Ra series, click here.
“Music is a language, and I’m saying things that can reach people. I’m not a prophet. I’m a destiny-changer. It’s all right to prophesy, but the best thing to do is change things, if you’ve got the power.”
– Sun Ra, The Birmingham News, 1988
It’s been, this month, exactly a century since the arrival on this planet, here in Birmingham, of Herman “Sonny” Blount — Sun Ra — jazz icon, spaceways traveler and hero of the avant garde. Entering this world on May 22 of 1914, he would become one of jazz music’s most creative, far-reaching and outrageous personalities: a composer, bandleader and poet-philosopher whose home, he said, was outer space and whose mission to communicate cosmic truths — via his band, the Intergalactic Arkestra — to the wayward citizens of this sad planet. He was, as he said, “another order of being.”
Dressed in a colorful blend of homemade Egyptian robes and way-out sci-fi space gear, Sun Ra merged his music with inward philosophy and outward spectacle, performing anthemic space chants and free-jazz explosions alongside pitch-perfect excursions into the long history of blues and swing. Through his music Sun Ra sought to expand the narrow consciousness of mankind, tuning us in to interplanetary vibrations and opening us up to a greater harmony with ourselves, each other and the larger universe.
It was a weighty ambition, to be sure, and Sun Ra never found (nor indeed exactly wanted) sustained acceptance within the mainstream; but from the musical and cultural margins he would build an influence and map out a legacy which today continues to grow. Celebrated all over this world at least, Sun Ra began and ended his earthly journey in Birmingham, where he heard and played his first music and first looked up and saw stars. And so, this month, in four weekly installments, Weld celebrates the first hundred years of the Sun Ra story by looking into the Birmingham roots of an intergalactic legend.
Arrival and legacy
“Sonny” Blount grew up just across the street from Birmingham’s Terminal Station and was still a boy when the city erected a huge sign there — one he could see every day from his home — pronouncing Birmingham “THE MAGIC CITY.” The nickname reflected the city founders’ giddiest ambitions and most hopeful premonitions of success, and it was a phrase that would stick forever with Blount, who’d later riff in his compositions and poetry on the overlapping themes of magic, Magi, imagination and majesty. (A year before his death, he told a reporter that he’d grown up “where the sign was,” referencing the landmark — by then decades-gone.)
The boy was marked, himself, for a kind of magic; he was named for Black Herman, an African-American itinerant magician famous for staging, among other feats, his own burials and resurrections. But Blount would soon leave his childhood home and his childhood name behind. Nicknamed “Sonny” in his youth, in 1952 he formally changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra, or Sun Ra, the “true” name he said predated his arrival on earth, connecting him also to ancient mythology with its echoes of the Egyptian sun god, Ra. Friends continued to call him “Sonny” or “Sunny.” As for “Blount,” he explained, “it wasn’t no good name for me.” As he pointed out, “it didn’t have no rhythm.”
For Sun Ra’s devoted and voracious followers — his fans can be characterized by an obsessive loyalty — recordings, readings and Sun Ra resources abound. A pioneer of independent, do-it-yourself record production and an inexhaustible well of new ideas, Sun Ra was one of the 20th century’s most-recorded musicians, releasing more than one hundred albums on various labels, including his own El Saturn imprint.
In The Earthly Records of Sun Ra, Robert Campbell and Chris Trent have painstakingly documented Sun Ra’s complete discography, along with concert dates and other details. In 2011 — collaborating clairvoyantly, he says, with the late Sun Ra — former Arkestra member and archivist Michael D. Anderson released the staggering 14-disc, 17-hour collection, Sun Ra: The Eternal Myth Revealed, Volume 1, gathering every known recording, up to 1959, on which Sun Ra functioned as sideman, arranger, producer or central performer. (This exhaustive collection also includes contextual narration by Anderson, interview excerpts, and a detailed booklet; Anderson is working on a second volume, covering 1960 to 1980.)
As Sun Ra Research, brothers Peter and John Hinds have recorded, transcribed and made public numerous conversations with Sun Ra and his bandmates, hanging on (and preserving in print, audio and video) every offhand word. In Chicago, curator John Corbett has collaborated on a series of exhibits and books documenting art, artifacts and writings from a vast Sun Ra archive.
Sun Ra is captured on film, too: most notably in his own cult classic science fiction feature, Space is the Place (1974), and in Robert Mugge’s outstanding documentary, Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise (1980). John Szwed’s definitive 1997 biography, Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, chronicles its hero’s epic journey in unsurpassed depth, offering a world of detail unavailable in any other single source and illuminating, among other things, the musician’s hazy early years in Birmingham.
Sun Ra’s own writings, meanwhile, are collected in The Immeasurable Equation, a sprawling compendium of esoteric poetry and prose. And this month marks the publication of the first Sun Ra biography for children, Chris Raschka’s Cosmobiography of Sun Ra, to be released just in time for the big 100.
Beyond Birmingham, beyond time
For all this compulsive documentation by scholars, fans, critics and friends, those first Birmingham years — 1914 to 1946 — remain the most mysterious chapter in Sun Ra’s celebrated story. Sun Ra himself contributed more than anyone to this air of mystery. He never exactly claimed Birmingham as his hometown, citing instead his outer-space origins and speaking only of his “arrival” on this planet; conventional notions of a “birthplace” or “birth date” were therefore besides the point.
“I arrived from a distant solar system,” he once told a writer, “and combusted in the Magic City — Birmingham, Alabama.” In interviews, he refused to be tied to reporters’ preoccupations with the trivial details of “time zones,” calendar dates and geographical coordinates.
“You were born in Alabama?” one reporter asked.
“That’s where I arrived,” came Sun Ra’s characteristic answer: “Birmingham, Alabama. I grew up,” he continued, “in the Tabernacle Baptist Church. But I truly was an alien. And my father — I really believe my father was not a man. … He was another kind of spirit, a dark one. I was a baby in his arms.”
“You were raised by your mother and your grandmother?” the reporter continued, still pushing for a traditional sort of biography.
“I was really raised,” Sun Ra replied, “by the creator of the universe who guided me step by step.”
He was, he explained, like his music: neither was “born” in the traditional sense. Instead, the man and his music just happened — combusted, appeared, landed or arrived — and their essence was eternal. “JUST SAY,” he wrote, that “I ARRIVED ON THIS PLANET SOME OTHER WHEN AT SOME SEEMING-POINT OF THEN ON POSSIBLY THE LEFT SIDE OF NOW. TRUE MUSIC,” he added, “IS NOT BORN…IT BE: IT IS OF COSMO-BEING GIFT-MAGNIFICANCE [sic.].” In Sun Ra’s conception, then, the true musician — like all true music — existed beyond time.
If Birmingham was, in the mythic scheme of Sun Ra’s mission, no more than “some seeming-point of then” — an arbitrary point in time and space, irrelevant to his true identity — the specifics of the city’s culture, experience and influence nonetheless left some very real marks on Sun Ra’s early development and later sense of self. Genre-bending, ground-breaking and at times impossible to classify, Sun Ra’s music and performance were rooted, more than surface impressions might suggest, in Birmingham’s musical community and history; and — for all the otherworldliness that marked his career, for all the evasiveness with which he addressed his origins, and despite his long absence from his earthly hometown — Sun Ra would always, one way or another, return to Birmingham.
Frank Adams — a musician and educator known affectionately as “Doc” — is, today, the celebrated elder of Birmingham’s jazz community, and the only surviving alum of Sun Ra’s early Birmingham band. He first encountered Sonny Blount in the 1940s, and even then the musician seemed to defy conventional background.
“You just couldn’t figure him out,” says Adams. “Did he have a mother, or did he have a brother? Everything was a mystery about him.” In fact, Sonny did have an older sister and half-brother; his parents separated when he was young, and he was raised by his grandmother and great-aunt. Some years later, Mary Blount Jenkins, Sonny’s sister, would smart at her brother’s refusal to acknowledge home or family, and she bluntly dismissed the myth and mystery in which “Sonny” carefully wrapped his origins. “He was born at my mother’s aunt’s house,” she told The Birmingham News in 1992, “over there by the train station. I know, ‘cause I got on my knees and peeped through the keyhole.
“He’s not,” she insisted, “from no Mars.”
For his part, however, Sun Ra preferred the space story. In 1978 he gave a lengthy interview to critic Bob Rusch for Cadence magazine. Rusch suggested “a vagueness” about Sun Ra’s early career and began, “Perhaps we could go back to your earliest memories.”
“Well,” responded Sun Ra: “actually the vagueness comes from the fact I never been part of the planet, I’ve been isolated from a child and away from it. Right in the midst of everything and not being a part of it. … It was as if I was somewhere else that imprinted this purity on my mind, another kind of world. … It’s like someone from another planet trying to find out what to do. That’s the kind of mind or spirit I have, it’s not programmed — from the family, from the church, from the schools, from the government. I don’t have a programmed mind.”
While Sun Ra typically spoke of his outer-space origins in the most literal language, here his talk emphasizes the metaphoric nature of those claims: “It was as if…”; “It’s like someone…”; “That’s the kind of mind or spirit I have.” Whatever his origins, Sun Ra from his earliest memories had felt himself secluded from his surroundings; lonely as a child, he was fundamentally, somehow, different, and his difference from those around him lent him a sort of distance, eccentricity and originality of perspective.
Years later, Frank Adams would defend Sun Ra against critics who called him a fake, accused him of gimmickry or even questioned his sanity. Sun Ra, Adams says, was wholeheartedly genuine: “He was that way,” says Adams, “because he was that way. He didn’t conceive of himself as being a part of the world. So his evaluations of the world were not the evaluations we have.” Sun Ra, Adams suggests, “had never seen anyone who was like him”; the metaphor of outer space and faraway planets, then, offered a meaningful vocabulary and symbolism for a being who always understood himself as a stranger in a strange land.
An education in music
In interviews Sun Ra often insisted that he never wanted to be a musician — never wanted, for that matter, to be any kind of “leader.” Destiny, though, conspired to make him both. His first instrument, he guessed, “was a kazoo, or maybe it was blowing through a comb,” around the age of six. A few years later he received from his mother a piano — an “arrival-day present” — and, he claimed, he could immediately play it by ear; he could also, without training, play any sheet music placed before him. Sonny’s sister Mary already played piano and gave her brother some of his first lessons. As Sun Ra would tell it, Mary resented the fact that he, not she, received this gift; Sonny had never expressed an interest in music, and Mary already played piano, which in those days was regarded as a woman’s instrument anyway. Sonny’s grandmother had resisted the idea of giving the boy a piano, too, arguing that musicians always died young; she did, however, make an exception for church music.
Sonny was also exposed to music from more secular sources. His family owned a collection of blues records, and from an early age Sonny encountered many of the musicians in person. “I saw,” he said, “the whole panorama of black culture,” witnessing, even “as a baby in the cradle,” some of the legends of the blues, in person and on record. In the era of Jim Crow, hotels were unavailable to touring black artists, so the day’s leading blues and jazz acts slept instead in black-owned boarding houses and in the private homes of black families; the Blounts lived next door to such a house. “Everybody stayed there that was an entertainer,” he explained. “We was right next door. So then they always gave us passes.”
Even before he realized the significance of such artists, Sonny was absorbing their culture: “I was acquainted with them, but I was just 7 and 8 and 9 years old. I didn’t know nothing but then I come to find out Ethel Waters was great; Bessie Smith was great. Clara Smith, Mamie Smith…I was right there with all of them.” For all its way-out and future-leaning experimentation, Sun Ra’s later music would always return to these early pioneers, working and reworking their themes, repertoires and sounds, and building on their role as the crafters of black identity and culture.
Since the very beginnings of jazz, meanwhile, Birmingham had been home to an important tradition of its own. In many ways it grew out of the city’s black schools. Though the schools themselves officially rejected jazz, they nonetheless offered a unique, crucial training and an active community for young musicians like Sonny. Founded in 1901, Industrial (now Parker) High was for many years Alabama’s only public high school for blacks. (By the ‘30s, it was known as the largest black high school in the world.) Borrowing Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of educating black students in industrial and manual trades, the school emphasized instruction in such fields as shoe repair, printing, sewing and brick masonry: menial jobs which assured work opportunities upon graduation.
But under the guidance of John T. “Fess” Whatley, a printing instructor and popular local bandleader, music was added to the roster of “practical,” “manual” disciplines: students who concentrated in music would be prepared to make their livings playing, and Whatley grilled students on their strict musical and personal discipline. Whatley’s own dance bands — the Jazz Demons, the Vibra-Cathedral Orchestra and the Sax-o-Society Orchestra — were enormously popular with elite “society” audiences, both black and white. Most of Whatley’s players were fellow teachers — a distinction unique to the Birmingham environment — but he also sometimes employed students like Sonny Blount.
Despite the school’s rigorous and influential music program — and despite Whatley’s reputation as the “maker of musicians” whose training and encouragement helped launch many jazz careers — Sun Ra and other Birmingham players would point out, in later years, an important distinction: the school training itself discredited jazz in favor of more reputable forms. Several students recall punishments for deviating in the band room from the repertoire of marching, classical and genteel popular music.
“Educated people,” Sun Ra said in a 1968 radio interview, favored white bandleaders like Guy Lombardo; at assemblies and other school functions, “they didn’t play no jazz.” The school’s emphasis on refined, middle-class values — and a rigid, intellectual adherence to the printed score — had this ironic effect: “I wouldn’t have known nothing about jazz,” Sun Ra said, “and I was going to an all-black school. They considered jazz as being indecent, I suppose.” Fess Whatley’s professional bands, meanwhile, provided the constant soundtrack to Birmingham’s exclusive functions — fraternal dances, debutante balls and other society gatherings — and though Whatley musicians could play in a variety of styles, they tended in that milieu toward polite, careful sounds.
Still, Sonny found himself in an active community of young musicians, and through his teenage years he played in several bands, at local functions, over the airwaves and on the road. He collaborated with the loose-knit group of Birmingham players who in a few years would become famous as the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra, working in saxophonist Paul Bascomb’s local band and trading ideas with pianist Avery Parrish (years later, he would echo Parrish’s famous instrumental “After Hours,” a song, and album, he called “Hours After”). In 1933 Sonny wrote a tune called “Chocolate Avenue,” which he ambitiously sent to New York publisher Clarence Williams; Williams recorded the song himself, and though Sonny apparently received no compensation or credit, Williams’ record stands as the first document of Sun Ra’s efforts at composition, reflecting, too, the conventional sounds of Birmingham’s early jazz scene.
Another of Sonny’s earliest bands, the Rhythm Boys, was made up of Industrial High School students and fronted by a teacher named Ethel Harper. As Sun Ra later explained, the very idea of Harper — an attractive young teacher sidelining in the summer as a singer, conducting a stage full of teenage boys — created some local scandal. Though the Chicago Defender noted in 1936 that “Miss Harper is to be commended” for her summer tours, Sun Ra remembered that people in Birmingham, especially women, looked with jealousy and suspicion on the arrangement; in truth, Harper’s ambitions were elsewhere anyway. As Sun Ra told Sun Ra Research in 1990, “Everybody was talking about her, so some kinds of way, they voted to give me the band. … And the next thing I knew, I saw my name out there — and I didn’t ask for it, they just said that I was the person that should be the leader of a band.”
Sun Ra always insisted in interviews that he didn’t want to lead the band.
What it was, he said, was destiny.
Next week: the series continues with Sun Ra’s forgotten years: we explore the influence of Birmingham’s “society” orchestras on Sun Ra’s later music and examine 1930s press coverage of the emerging, unusual bandleader from Birmingham.