Birmingham’s Sun Ra praised in The New Yorker

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Sun Ra mural on 41st Street: "If you are from Birmingham and you don't know who he is you should be ashamed." Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now
Sun Ra mural on 41st Street: “If you are from Birmingham and you don’t know who he is you should be ashamed.” Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

It’s no surprise that modern jazz’s most whimsical figure was born in the Magic City. Birmingham’s Sun Ra challenged the conventions of modern jazz, and The New Yorker praised his influence last month. Keep reading to learn more about Sun Ra and his recent national feature.

The distance from Birmingham to Saturn

Sun Ra is one of the unique musicians to come from Birmingham. Photo via Dystopos on Bhamwiki
Sun Ra is one of the most unique musicians to come from Birmingham. Photo via Bhamwiki

The New Yorker‘s account of Sun Ra’s story begins with his life-changing trip to Saturn at Alabama A & M University in 1935:

“When the aliens came for Sun Ra, they explained that he had been selected for his ‘perfect discipline.’ Not every human was fit for space travel, but he, with his expert control over his mind and body, could survive the journey. . . They beamed him to Saturn and told him that a more meaningful path than teaching awaited him. They shared knowledge with him that freed him from the limits of the human imagination.”

The New Yorker, “How Sun Ra Taught Us to Believe in the Impossible”

Sun Ra’s musical genius began before this supposed astrological encounter, however. By 1932, Poole was performing with bands like the Society Troubadours and singers like Ethel Harper. His musical career was just beginning. Poole grew up on Fifth Avenue North next to the old Birmingham Post Office. At Industrial High School, Blount was instructed by the legendary music teacher Fess Whatley.

Sun Ra is on an Avondale mural with other Birmingham greats like Fred Shuttlesworth. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now
Sun Ra is on an Avondale mural with other Birmingham greats like Spider Martin. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

Poole took a brief break from touring at Alabama A & M in 1935. He studied teaching on a scholarship. Here, he took his famous trip to Saturn.

Becoming Sun Ra

After his spaced-out epiphany, Blount left college and eventually moved to Chicago. He was in search of his “perfect discipline,” or the perfect sound. He found diverse influences in the Windy City.

“Chicago exposed Ra to new interpretations of Scripture by Black Muslims and Black Israelites, as well as to suppressed histories of Black struggle and works of science fiction. These influences soon permeated his playing. In 1952, he changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra—Sun Ra for short—after the Egyptian god of the sun. On Chicago’s South Side, he circulated mimeographed broadsheets with titles like ‘the bible was not written for negroes!!!!!!!'”

The New Yorker, “How Sun Ra Taught Us to Believe in the Impossible”

Sun Ra went on to form his band the Arkestra, which featured saxophonists Marshall Allen, John Gilmore and Pat Patrick. They rejected typical jazz standards and instead employed exploratory synthesizers and spacey horns. The band grew famous for their performance style, which simultaneously incorporated space age and ancient Egyptian imagery.

Sun Ra incorporated Egyptian imagery into his live performances. Photo via Dystopos on Bhamwiki
Sun Ra incorporated Egyptian imagery into his live performances. Photo via Bhamwiki

Ra and the Arkestra went on to record over 100 albums and appear on “Saturday Night Live.” The Arkestra thrived on experimentation: if one band member missed a note, the rest blended it into their instrumentation. This jammy ethos only added to the psychedelic atmosphere of their space-age performances.

Though many remember Ra for his theatrics, he was also a highly influential jazz composer. He was one of the first to use synthesizers and two bass guitars in a jazz band. Artists like Solange Knowles and John Coltrane cite him as a major influence.

One of Ra’s best records, Lanquidity, was recently reissued by the record label Strut. I closed my eyes and imagined a performance filled with ancient and futuristic decorations as I listened. It was a relaxing and mindbending experience.

Who is your all-time favorite Birmingham musician? Tag @bhamnow and drop a melody!

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Libby Foster
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