Jazz great Herman “Sonny” Blount, better known as Sun Ra, was born in Birmingham (probably in 1914) but did not claim it as his birthplace.
In fact, the avant garde giant – poet, pamphleteer, philosopher, flamboyant stage performer and, most important, innovative and prolific musician – claimed to have come from another planet, according to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame website.
This is not hard to understand.
After all, if you had been a brilliant, creative African-American artist growing up in Birmingham in the 1920s, an artist as intense and hard-working as Blount, or Sun Ra, wouldn’t you want to think you were from another planet?
It makes a lot of sense to me.
In any case, Sun Ra – in addition to being a flamboyant stage presence – secured his place in the American music and pop pantheons with decades of great music in different genres, much of it recorded with musicians who stuck with him for decades.
And now his hometown, whether he claimed it or not, has a chance to celebrate the life of a great home-grown musician, a guy who the Jazz Hall site calls “one of jazz music’s most creative, outrageous, and boundary-bending personalities” and “the great space-age angel of jazz.”
There will be “A Sun Ra Celebration” on Friday, May 25, at the Hall, housed in the historic Carver Theatre downtown.
Attendees will watch director Phil Niblock’s experimental film featuring Sun Ram titled The Magic Sun. This 17-minute short was made in 1968.
Birmingham jazz icon Frank “Doc” Adams, a member of Sun Ra’s first band, will discuss his experiences with Blount.
“A Sun Ra Celebration” will also feature Sun Ra giveaways and readings of his poetry by local poets. There will be a showing of a second short film drawn from archival Sun Ra interviews, according to the Jazz Hall website. The Jazz Hall’s museum, including its permanent Sun Ra exhibit, and bar will be open during the event.
It is certainly high time that Sun Ra get more credit in his hometown.
He was not a mainstream star, but he left a huge recorded catalog, with everything from small-group jazz to big bands, from swing to experimental music.
According to Wikipedia, he was one of the first musicians, of any genre, to make extensive use of electronic keyboards.
And Sun Ra is still relevant. For example, in April, the MTV Hive website reported that “in the past few years, Sun Ra’s influence on modern dance music makers has come to the fore,” citing such popular techno producers as Theo Parrish, Moodymann, Rick Wilhite and Mike Huckaby.
His old band, the Arkestra, still tours. In 2011, they played at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival in Australia.
As local improv musician Hunter Bell once told me, “[Sun Ra] is so popular around the world, except in Alabama.”
Maybe that will begin to change.
“A Celebration of Sun Ra” will take place at the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, located in the historic Carver theatre at 1631 Fourth Avenue North, Friday, May 25, 7-9 p.m. Admission $5. For information, visit www.jazzhall.com. The event is presented by Birmingham Mountain Radio’s The Lost Child.
Jesse Chambers is the managing editor of Weld for Birmingham and the editor of Weld Local. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.