Sun Ra: Beamed From Tomorrow

HOLLAND COTTER – The New York Times

Copyright The New York Times
PHILADELPHIA — The jazz musician Sun Ra, ambassador from the Airy Kingdom World Tomorrow, creator of Enterplanetary Solar Exploding Music, and founder of the Astro Intergalactic Infinity Arkestra, is a hero of mine.
To my ears he was not only a genius composer, keyboardist and bandleader, but also constantly surprising. One minute he’s playing elevator schmaltz; then he’s making you float on air; then he’s making you deaf. I love that he was a sharp dresser, sort of kingly, sort of queenly, in faux leopard-skin capes and miner’s hats with lights.
I also admire him for transcending existential categories. He insisted he hadn’t been born, but always existed, coming to Earth from outer space, specifically the planet Saturn. Like many immigrants, he was self-invented, but radically so. He rejected being black or white or American or even human. He opted for extraterrestrial and wore his otherness like a crown.
You’ll find evidence for all of this in “Pathways to Unknown Worlds: Sun Ra, El Saturn & Chicago’s Afro-Futurist Underground, 1954-68,” a small, piquant exhibition of art, writing and ephemera related to his life at the Institute of Contemporary Art here.
Although he kept the precise facts of his early life under wraps, documents show that he was beamed down to Birmingham, Ala., in 1914 as Herman Poole Blount, affectionately known as Sonny. In 1952 he changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra, Ra being the ancient Egyptian solar god. And as a performer he became Sun Ra.
He had at least as many talents as monikers. In addition to being a musician, he was a poet, philosopher, painter, graphic designer, street lecturer, activist and entrepreneur, as well as a numerologist and mystic. He worked out the fate of the universe through interpretive readings of the Bible, the Koran and Flash Gordon comic books, concluding that “the only way this world can be saved from being completely destroyed is through music.”
With that in mind, he composed and played without cease for 60 years, first in Birmingham, then in Chicago and New York, and finally in Philadelphia, where he lived until just before his death in 1993.
He also recorded, packaged and tried to sell his music, which, because it was unconventional, wasn’t easy to do. It is the practical side of his career that this exhibition of album jacket designs, posters, news releases and socio-spiritual manifestos, most of them from his formative years in Chicago, focuses on.
Organized self-promotion was not one of his skills. He was too reserved and too much an outsider. Shy and studious as a youth, he got by on his prodigious keyboard talent. But a visionary experience he claimed to have had gives an idea of his sense of apartness.
“My whole body changed into something else,” he reported many years after. “I could see through myself, I wasn’t in human form.” He said he was taken on an intergalactic trip by creatures with “one little antenna on each ear,” who told him to leave school because “the world was going into complete chaos.”
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