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Even as his early reputation as a bandleader grew, Sonny Blount continued to struggle against the pull of destiny. Echoing his grandmother’s reservations about the lives of musicians, Sun Ra would later claim he’d hoped to avoid the kind of fate that hounded all sorts of artists and visionaries: “I had read about poets and writers and wise men all having a difficult time as human beings,” he said, “so I didn’t intend to get into that.” Instead, in 1935 he enrolled in college.
“I decided that I didn’t want to be a leader on this planet, in any capacity. So I left the band and went to college, ‘cause I had a scholarship: A&M College in Huntsville, Alabama. That college didn’t fool around; you had to get your lessons, because they wanted to keep their A rating.” He enrolled in teacher training courses and told his Birmingham bandmates he was giving up music. “And then,” he said, “here comes the band — everybody in the band came to the college. … I said, ‘You can’t do this!’ They said, ‘Wherever you go, we’re going.’”
The band refused to let Sonny off the hook, and the college decided to accommodate the whole group. “They moved into the dormitory, got their beds and everything. Then the dean came around; he wanted to know about the situation; they still said they’re going to stay if I stayed. The president…of the college got in it, and finally they decided they’d let the band stay, and they gave them scholarships, everybody scholarships.
“So I wound up still being a leader.”
If Sun Ra’s account of this event seems at all far-fetched, it’s worth remembering that for Southern black colleges of the era, student jazz bands could be important sources of income. In Montgomery, Sonny’s friends in the ‘Bama State Collegians had all been granted scholarships and transportation by their college’s president, and — before the group went fully professional as the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra — their tours around the country raised crucial funds for the school.
Similarly, Alabama A&M encouraged Sonny to develop his band.“They bought a bus,” he told Sun Ra Research in 1990, “streamlined bus; they gave them uniforms, they bought books — and there I was, stuck with a band again. … And ever since I know that my destiny is to be a composer and to be the leader of a band. So it wasn’t determined by me, you see; something wanted me to be in the position I am.”
First step in outer space
Though he would not stay in college for long, the experience at A&M would prove transformative for Sonny. It was here, he would explain in years to come, that he had his first encounter with the spaceways.
Sun Ra told the story many times: he was contacted by spacemen, who brought him onto their ship and, he said, to “a planet that I identified as Saturn.” The alien race told him to stop his teacher training and instructed him in their own discipline (“discipline,” for Sun Ra, was always a key word), conveying to him a much fuller vision of his destiny. In a 1990 interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer he explained: “They would teach me some things that when it looked like the world was going into complete chaos, when there was no hope for nothing, then I could speak, but not until then. I would speak, and the world would listen. That’s what they told me.”
Soon, Sonny was back on this planet and in Birmingham, leading bands, making entertainment headlines, and speaking over the course of late-night rehearsals new and unusual truths he’d brought back from the cosmos.
Finally, he’d stopped arguing with destiny.
During this period, Sonny’s sense of otherness and isolation from his fellow man continued to grow. Part of his difference was physical: he suffered from a testicular hernia which brought him tremendous periods of pain, highlighted for him a sense of personal deformity, and left him uninterested in sex. As the United States entered World War II, Sonny applied for and was granted classification as a conscientious objector; assigned to non-military public service in a Civilian Public Service (CPS) Camp, he sought deferment on the basis of his physical condition.
In the masterful 1997 biography Space is the Place, author John Szwed uncovers in Sonny’s letters the fascinating, heart-breaking details behind what would become for Sonny a traumatic, life-changing experience. Writing to the National Service Board for Religious Objectors, Sonny explained that his “whole left side from head to foot is burning and aching,” and that doctors had been unable to explain or treat his condition. “I don’t see,” he said, “how the government or anyone else could expect me to agree to being judged by the standards of a normal person.”
Sonny’s heightened sense of difference, he wrote the board, drove him further into his music as his only solace: “Music to me is the only worthwhile thing in the world, and I think of it as a full compensation for any handicaps I have.” His letter emphasized his utter otherness, his distance from and distrust of the “normal” world, and it stressed, by contrast, the alternate world granted him through music. “I am sure no one could begrudge me this one happiness. … Of a truth it is all I have in the world, being motherless, fatherless and friendless, too, for that matter. Unfortunately, I have learned not to trust people. I am a little afraid of normal people. Their greatest desire in life seems to be to maim and destroy either themselves or others.”
The National Service Board suggested he appeal to his local draft board, but his appeal was rejected outright; when Sonny failed to report to the CPS camp, he was arrested. “I dread tonight,” he wrote from a Jasper, Alabama, jail cell, “and the days are so lonely, being musicless [sic].” After a month, he was shipped to a CPS camp in Pennsylvania, where he continued to argue he was unfit for work. Finally, after almost two months at the camp, he was discharged for his disability, and he returned to Birmingham. As John Szwed explains, he came home “changed,” full of a rage his fellow musicians had never seen in him. He plunged himself back into music, filling his days and nights — compulsively, sleeplessly — with the only relief this world had afforded him.
“Man, that was jazz”
Frank Adams was a teenager when, in the early ‘40s, he joined Sonny Blount’s band. Adams knew that Sonny had a reputation as an eccentric — he was known to walk the streets of Birmingham in wild homemade robes — but he was known also as an innovative and exciting bandleader: “Sun Ra, man, that was jazz,” Adams says today.
According to Adams, Sonny’s players expressed in their music — a sense of their own individualism and an openness to exploratory improvisation — that was absent from the careful, score-oriented society bands like Fess Whatley’s. In Whatley’s band, “when they finished the music in front of them, that was the end of it,” says Adams. “But Sun Ra went into this wild improvisation,” extending the tunes for chorus after chorus. In his band, Sonny developed an approach to rehearsal which would become legendary in his later career: rehearsal could begin anytime — if Sonny sent for you, says Adams, you came — and the session could last all night.
Sonny emphasized a dedication to craft, sometimes driving his musicians to rehearse a single musical passage again and again until it finally clicked; even on stage, he would stop a number mid-performance and work it over and over until the musicians got it just right. At the same time, he encouraged musicians to have fun, to experiment, to stretch themselves and seek new forms of expression. At times he would put on a record and have his young players study the soloist’s message (“Listen at it,” he’d say, “listen at what he’s saying”), and he pushed his musicians to find their own unique, inborn and inevitable modes of personal expression (“If it’s in you,” he prophesied to Adams, “it will come out.”). Often he launched into long and meandering lessons that blended musical instruction with talk of outer space and his developing otherworldly philosophy.
Adams — today, the only surviving member of Sun Ra’s Birmingham band — remembers the community of musicians who, in those days, made up the group: among them, Teddy “’Velt” Smith (alto sax), George “Jarhead” Woodruff (alto sax), Big Joe Alexander (tenor sax), Warren Parham (tenor sax), Walter Miller (trumpet) and Nat Atkins (trombone). There was a bassist named Swine; sometimes Ivory “Pops” Williams, a local music veteran, sat in on bass. Singer Fletcher Myatt — nicknamed “Hootie” for his long, improvised performances of the “Hootie Blues” — was a crowd favorite. A friend of the group, a one-armed pianist named Dan Michaels, composed complex and cutting-edge arrangements for the band to perform.
Adams notes that by the mid-‘40s, Sonny was no longer playing the “bow-tie jobs” — the elite dances and society functions — that had given him his early successes. Adams remembers playing instead, weekend after weekend, in the Smithfield housing project, constructed in 1938, and at informal gatherings in Birmingham’s poorer black neighborhoods; Adams was also playing in those days with Whatley’s Vibra-Cathedral Orchestra, and the two environments could not have been further apart.
“The common man: they just wanted something to get hot and sweaty, and they didn’t pay but about fifteen cents to get in.” The musicians weren’t making much money, either — “We’d go after a gig to ‘pick up our dust,’ says Adams;“that was a musician’s term. Your ‘dust’ was your little earnings.” — but the rewards were much deeper, and the scene itself was electric. “They would play this ‘Hootie Blues’ that would go 15 minutes. Teddy Smith would be out there playing, playing, swaying from side to side; the people would be hot and sweaty and perspiring, and he’d go on and on and on.”
Sonny Blount left Birmingham in 1946. Though his music and public persona would undergo many developments in the years to follow, he had already established, in the Magic City, key themes which he would expand, refine and revisit throughout his career.
It would be four decades before he returned.
Next week: The Magic Citizen returns — Sun Ra’s final years in Birmingham.