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Though Sonny Blount would begin by the 1940s to push the boundaries of Birmingham’s musical culture, the city’s tradition of elite “society” bands played an important role in his early development, forging a surprising influence that has been overlooked in discussions of Sun Ra’s later career.
“I did a lot of traveling in southern states, in school bands,” Sun Ra told Bob Rusch in 1978. “At 13 or 14 years old I was playing with a school teachers’ band, a dance band. That’s more than likely why I liked big bands. Staying up all night, sometimes rehearsing with other bands of people my same age in school. … I played with the band all through high school,” he said, adding, “they only played for exclusive people. Mostly only played for white people in exclusive places and social clubs where the black people at. Black society and white society.”
Those bands’ wide-ranging repertoire and stylistic diversity laid the important groundwork for Sun Ra’s own all-encompassing tastes. “He had a huge repertoire,” Sun Ra remembered of Fess Whatley, the celebrated bandleader who fostered a number of musical careers. Regarding Whatley’s Sax-o-Society Orchestra he said, “They played everything…that’s the reason I know about standards, because he had everything all the way back to the stomp, Dixieland. We played everything.” Indeed, throughout Sun Ra’s later career, his performances brought together the entire history of jazz, incorporating blues, swing and standards alongside the wildly experimental, linking the past to the future in an expression of what he considered a kind of musical infinity. This catholicity of taste was, in part, a product of Sun Ra’s Birmingham training.
Indeed, the Birmingham bands established, early on, several key themes that would run through Sun Ra’s career: the sheer size of the bands; the diversity of their repertoires; the camaraderie and communal, musical journey of the late-night rehearsal — all of these hallmarks of Sun Ra’s later career found their roots in the Magic City. Moreover, the dazzling spectacle of those early bands would serve as launching pad for Sun Ra’s own exaggerated sense of spectacle. As Arkestra member Danny Thompson told Sun Ra Research in 1998: “If you just look at what happened to all the bands that came before Sun Ra, that came out of the South, first and foremost it was a show…. you could play anything as long as you had a show. And Sun Ra believed in that. And the more outrageous the show was the more people liked it.” Sun Ra himself reminisced: “When jazz first started, musicians were the fashion-plates, really. Louis Armstrong had almost a thousand suits. And you could see musicians back there; they dressed … they were wearing things that put another image out there, and they were successful.”
In the early years of jazz, black musicians offered an alternate model of existence, not only through their music but also through the sophistication of their dress and demeanor. If Sun Ra ultimately abandoned the usual tuxes and suits for colorful, homemade costumes evoking both ancient Egypt and sci-fi other-worlds, he was nonetheless building on the standing jazz tradition of the “show,” of pageantry and spectacle; like his own early idols, he could offer — not through music alone but through the full packaging of a musical event — “another image,” providing black audiences with glimpses into alternate possibilities and realities.
A final lesson Sun Ra absorbed from the early bands was the sense of unity, which those bands made possible. The big bands provided a different, community-driven and ultimately empowering sort of existence in direct contrast to the corrupt and oppressive societies Sun Ra had seen the earth offer, both in Birmingham and on the road. “The black people were very oppressed,” he told jazz historian Phil Schaap in 1988, “and were made to feel like they weren’t anything, so the only thing they had was the big bands. Unity showed that the black man could join together and dress nicely, do something nice, and that was all they had. … So,” Sun Ra said, describing the music of his youth, “it was important for us to hear big bands.”
“A band,” he said elsewhere, “can demonstrate unity among men more than anything else in the world.”
Seeking new worlds
Sonny himself, meanwhile, was emerging more and more as a bandleader by the mid-‘30s, and coverage in the black press of that era offers insight into the beginnings of the man who would become Sun Ra.
In November of 1934, the Pittsburgh Courier reported that Fess Whatley, “rated as one of the South ’s oldest maestroes [sic], is presenting Sonny Blount and his orchestra to the dance lovers” of Asheville, North Carolina. In December, the Courier reported that “Sonny Blount’s orchestra of Birmingham, Ala.,” had most recently “created quite a sensation” before “a capacity crowd” in Danville, Illinois. The band, said the paper, “has been on tour since Sept. 18. This orchestra consists of 13 young musicians, all graduates of Industrial High, they are also former pupils of J.C. [sic] Whatley better known as ‘Fess.’ They are returning south by way of Cincinnati for the winter season in Florida.”
Soon, the Chicago Defender noted, Blount and company were playing a return engagement at Louisville, Kentucky’s Cotton Club, making their way back south, “direct from the Savoy Ballroom in Chicago”; “Sonny Blount,” the paper noted, “won the favor of the Cotton Club’s many patrons on his last appearance here just two weeks ago. … The orchestra will feature its red hot rhythm, its melodic crooner and unusual tap dancer.”
In 1935, the Atlanta Daily World included at least a dozen favorable references to Sonny Blount and his orchestra, mostly detailed in writer Lucius Jones’s “Society Slants” column. The band, by Jones’ enthusiastic descriptions, was one of the most exciting and original in the business. In February the group visited Atlanta, drawing some 500 people to the Sunset Casino. “Sonny Blount and his torrid 14-piece jazz orchestra will seek new worlds tonight,” Jones announced in his column, declaring the group “one of the sweetest and most versatile jazz bands to play the local populace.” (The reference to the band “seek[ing] new worlds” seems an almost prophetic turn of phrase and hints, perhaps, at Sonny’s penchant, even then, for pursuing musical unknowns.)
The successful engagement led to a much-touted musical battle, held the next month at the same venue. A popular entertainment gimmick of the era, such battles were lively musical stand-offs pitting two groups against each other, often squaring an out-of-town ensemble against the reigning hometown “team.” In his February engagement, Sonny had announced to the audience that “his band could whip the Troubadours” — the Sunset Casino’s regular act — “in their own premises.” During intermission, Jones wrote, “Sonny actually got up on the bandstand and challenged the Troubadours to active competition.” A month later the paper could report that “the whole city is all worked up about this unusual attraction.”
The “Society Slants” column did much to publicize the showdown. “Atlantans,” wrote Jones, “will be given the opportunity of hearing and seeing the Troubadours, progressive local jazz unit, defending their honor in the world of jazz tomorrow night, 9 till 1, against Sonny Blount and his sweet, swingy orchestra, fresh from a series of dance hall and radio engagements in the Magic City.” The article went on to pit the strengths and star players of the two bands against each other: “Sonny Blount and his men are given credit generally for having the best reed section among the bands performing in this circuit, while there is little doubt as to the all-round excellence of the Troubadours. … Sonny Blount is a pianist of unusual capabilities, but Jay Gholston, the former Temple University musician, is certainly one of the flashiest young orchestral pianists and arrangers in the band game. … Claude E. Tarver, a long and lean youth of about twenty-three summers, is one of the colorful entertainers who enables the Sonny Blount gang to go over big, while Will (Cab) Hall [of the Troubadours] is about as good a ‘front’ man as most any band could want.”
Jones continued to build suspense in the next day’s column. Blount, the headline read, was “Set For War,” and Jones anticipated with dramatic exuberance the “staccato of piano notes…the vibration of tenor banjo and bass viol strings…the purr of the orchestral drums…the wailing of saxophones…the sobbing of trumpets and trombones…and the resonance of dancing feet,” as the Troubadours “combat the invading band of Sonny Blount tonight.” Sonny’s aspirations, Jones indicated, were high: he believed his own to be “dixie’s best young band,” and, with old friends Erskine Hawkins and the ‘Bama State Collegians now performing professionally in New York, “he and his band bar nothing in the southern circuit.”
For the event, Jones anticipated a crowd of 800 dancers. Later that year, Jones would recall the “record-breaking crowd” drawn in by Blount’s “tussle” with the Troubadours; when Blount returned for a third Atlanta engagement, Jones described his band as a “red-hot jazz orchestra” which capably “extended those Troubadours to the breaking point in their much-heralded ‘Battle of the Bands.’” “Sonny Blount and his men,” Jones concluded, “have some of the hottest and most distinctive jazz in Dixieland and it’ll be a grand and colossal mistake not to hear them.”
Sonny was playing also, in this period, with Birmingham’s Society Troubadours, an outfit led at various times by local musicians Fred Averytt, Jimmy Luverte and Sonny himself. (The band recorded two sides in 1937, and although Sonny wasn’t in the session, the recordings represent two of Birmingham’s best and earliest jazz records and offer a taste of the sort of music Sonny would have played in those days.) In September of 1940 this band, under Sonny’s direction, took part in a musical battle at Birmingham’s Colored Masonic Temple, where a capacity crowd witnessed five of the Magic City’s top bands compete in a “mammoth benefit” for Local 733, the black musicians’ union.
On another occasion, Birmingham’s elite Esquire Club, “composed of prominent young men in the business and professional world,” hosted a spring dance at the Colored Elks Rest. The Chicago Defender, which recorded social items of interest to black readers across the country, noted that “Music was furnished by the swing Society Troubadours’ orchestra. Vocals were jingled by the lovely Dolly Brown with individualistic piano interpretations of Sonny Blount.”
Making his name
Viewed with the benefit of hindsight, press coverage of Sonny Blount’s doings in the ‘30s and ‘40s reveals a popular, talented, versatile and infectious bandleader very much rooted in the red hot swing of the era, while hinting also at some of the more inventive and atypical elements of his performance. References to Blount’s “individualistic piano interpretations,” and his band’s ensemble cast, from the “colorful” front man to the “unusual tap dancer” — as well as frequent references to the band’s virtuosity — all suggest a showman whose performances transcended mere music, offering something at least a little different from the usual, a striking voice and vision, and some sense, too, of the jazz performance as an occasion for spectacle.
Sun Ra fans today will doubtlessly see in these references foreshadowing of the Arkestra’s later, famously elaborate shows. Particularly noteworthy is a reference by Lucius Jones to the bandleader’s chosen instrument. When Sonny Blount brought his “famous swing band” to Atlanta in August of 1941, Jones could predict that the “famous Hammond organ will be worked overtime as Sonny, widely heralded for his lofty rank as an artist on the ‘solo-vox,’ will be a singular treat for the guests.” Introduced by the Hammond Organ Company in 1939, the SoloVox was a small, amplified keyboard that could be attached to a traditional piano to create moody electric vibes. Even in his Birmingham years, bandmate Frank Adams recalls, Sonny had been drawn to experiment with unusual electronic technologies, from transistor radios and wire recorders to the synthesized keyboard; by the early forties, he was producing with the SoloVox electric sounds that would not enter the mainstream for another couple of decades.
Among early press appearances, one recently unearthed item is of particular interest: a photo of Sonny Blount that appeared in the Birmingham World in October of 1940. Republished here for the first time, it seems, in some 70 years, it’s a tantalizing photo for Sun Ra fans, offering a tiny window into the musician’s roots. The Ripple Rhythm Four, the caption reads, were “making a name for themselves in the radio world,” broadcasting Monday through Friday at 12:30 on station WSGN; immediately recognizable, the youthful Sonny Blount stands with the three other singers, two of them holding guitars, each dressed in matching white jackets and black pants.
Certainly in Birmingham Sonny would have been exposed to Jefferson County’s influential gospel quartet tradition, and Sonny carried an interest in vocal groups with him after leaving Birmingham. Relocating to Chicago in 1946, he would work as a writer, arranger, vocal coach and producer for several groups; under his guidance, singing ensembles like the Cosmic Rays and the Nu Tones would inhabit the outer edges of 1950s doo-wop, experimenting with unconventional harmonies, rhythms and lyrics (including some of Sun Ra’s earliest lyrical references to outer space). Though no recordings exist of the Ripple Rhythm Four, and there’s no record of their repertoire, the group surely offered Sonny important experience in arranging and performing vocal material.
By the mid-1930s and into the ‘40s, press coverage of Blount’s several bands revealed an exciting young frontman whose reputation was very much on the rise. In his personal life, meanwhile, changes were at work that would transform Sonny’s sense of himself and of the world(s) around him.
It was during this period that Sonny Blount had his first encounters with outer space.
Next week: Sonny goes to college, and to Saturn; wages peace; goes to jail; and begins a strange, new kind of Birmingham band.