Sun Ra (born Herman Poole Blount, legal name Le Sony’r Ra May 22, 1914 – May 30, 1993) was an American jazz composer, bandleader, piano and synthesizer player, poet and philosopher known for his experimental music, “cosmic philosophy,” prolific output, and theatrical performances. He was inducted into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in 1979.
Born in Alabama in 1914, Blount would later become involved in the 1940s Chicago jazz scene and abandon his birth name, taking the name Sun Ra (Ra being the Egyptian God of the Sun), claiming that he was from Saturn, and developing a complex persona and mythology that would make him a pioneer of Afrofuturism; throughout his life, he consistently denied any ties to his prior identity. His compositions ranged from keyboard solos to big bands of over 30 musicians, and his widely experimental and eclectic music would eventually touch on virtually the entire history of jazz, from ragtime to swing music, from bebop to free jazz. From the mid-1950s to his death, Ra led “The Arkestra”, an ensemble with an ever-changing name and flexible line-up (although certain core members remained with the group through its various incarnations, including Marshal Allen, John Gilmore, June Tyson). Its performances often included dancers and musicians dressed in elaborate, futuristic costumes inspired by ancient Egyptian attire and the space age.
Though his mainstream success was limited, Sun Ra was a prolific recording artist and frequent live performer, and remained both influential and controversial throughout his life for his music and persona. He is now widely considered an innovator; among his distinctions are his pioneering work in free improvisation and modal jazz and his early use of electronic keyboards. Over the course of his career, he recorded dozens of singles and over one hundred full-length albums, comprising well over 1000 songs, and making him one of the most prolific recording artists of the 20th century. Following Sun Ra’s death in 1993, the Arkestra continue to perform.