Sun Ra Plays a Music Therapy Gig at a Psychiatric Hospital; Inspires Patient to Talk for the First Time in Years

For some time now it has been fash­ion­able to diag­nose dead famous peo­ple with men­tal ill­ness­es we nev­er knew they had when they were alive. These post­mortem clin­i­cal inter­ven­tions can seem accu­rate or far-fetched, and most­ly harmless—unless we let them col­or our appre­ci­a­tion of an artist’s work, or neg­a­tive­ly influ­ence the way we treat eccen­tric liv­ing per­son­al­i­ties. Over­all, I tend to think the state of a cre­ative individual’s men­tal health is a top­ic best left between patient and doc­tor.

In the case of one Her­man Poole Blount, aka Sun Ra—com­pos­er, band­leader of free jazz ensem­ble the Arkestra, and “embod­i­ment of Afro­fu­tur­ism”—one finds it tempt­ing to spec­u­late about pos­si­ble diag­noses, of schiz­o­phre­nia or bipo­lar dis­or­der, for exam­ple. Plen­ty of peo­ple have done so. This makes sense, giv­en Blount’s claims to have vis­it­ed oth­er plan­ets through astral pro­jec­tion and to him­self be an alien from anoth­er dimen­sion. But ascrib­ing Sun Ra’s enlight­en­ing, enliven­ing mytho-theo-phi­los­o­phy to ill­ness or dys­func­tion tru­ly does his bril­liant mind a dis­ser­vice, and clouds our appre­ci­a­tion for his com­plete­ly orig­i­nal body of work.

In fact, Sun Ra him­self discovered—fairly ear­ly in his career when he went by the name “Sonny”—that his music could per­haps alle­vi­ate the suf­fer­ing of men­tal ill­ness and help bring patients back in touch with real­i­ty. In the late 50’s, the pianist and composer’s man­ag­er, Alton Abra­ham, booked his client at a Chica­go psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal. Sun Ra biog­ra­ph­er John Szwed tells the sto­ry:

Abra­ham had an ear­ly inter­est in alter­na­tive med­i­cine, hav­ing read about scalpel-free surgery in the Philip­pines and Brazil. The group of patients assem­bled for this ear­ly exper­i­ment in musi­cal ther­a­py includ­ed cata­ton­ics and severe schiz­o­phren­ics, but Son­ny approached the job like any oth­er, mak­ing no con­ces­sions in his music.

Sun Ra had his faith in this endeav­or reward­ed by the response of some of the patients. “While he was play­ing,” Szwed writes, “a woman who it was said had not moved or spo­ken for years got up from the floor, walked direct­ly to his piano, and cried out ‘Do you call that music?’” Blount—just com­ing into his own as an orig­i­nal artist—was “delight­ed with her response, and told the sto­ry for years after­wards as evi­dence of the heal­ing pow­ers of music.” He also com­posed the song above, “Advice for Medics,” which com­mem­o­rates the men­tal hos­pi­tal gig.

It is sure­ly an event worth remem­ber­ing for how it encap­su­lates so many of the respons­es to Sun Ra’s music, which can—yes—confuse, irri­tate, and bewil­der unsus­pect­ing lis­ten­ers. Like­ly still inspired by the expe­ri­ence, Sun Ra record­ed an album in the ear­ly six­ties titled Cos­mic Tones for Men­tal Ther­a­py, a col­lec­tion of songs, writes All­mu­sic, that “out­raged those in the jazz com­mu­ni­ty who thought Eric Dol­phy and John Coltrane had already tak­en things too far.” (Hear the track “And Oth­er­ness” above.) But those will­ing to lis­ten to what Sun Ra was lay­ing down often found them­selves roused from a debil­i­tat­ing com­pla­cen­cy about what music can be and do.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Sun Ra’s Full Lec­ture & Read­ing List From His 1971 UC Berke­ley Course, “The Black Man in the Cos­mos”

Hear Sun Ra’s 1971 UC Berke­ley Lec­ture “The Pow­er of Words”

A Sun Ra Christ­mas: Hear His 1976 Radio Broad­cast of Poet­ry and Music

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (7)
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  • Rory Magill says:

    We have a group in Ottawa, Cana­da, called Rakestar. We play some of Sun Ra’s tunes and are deeply inspired by his work. We played sev­er­al times at an Autism unit for chil­dren and teens some years ago. One boy stood impas­sive­ly in the door­way, wear­ing a foot­ball hel­met for his pro­tec­tion. We learned lat­er that he had nev­er yet entered any of the rooms at the school, stand­ing only in the door­ways. Part­way into our set, I looked over and saw this boy not only in the room, but jump­ing up and down — pogo­ing, I guess you could say. His teach­ers were cry­ing by now. The pow­er of live music is not to be under­es­ti­mat­ed. From my expe­ri­ence with kids with Autism, impro­vised and ‘out’ music some­times pro­vides a great moment of recog­ni­tion, like that’s what they’ve been hear­ing all along. Per­haps. The head teacher at the Autism unit told me lat­er, appre­cia­tive­ly, that our music sounded.…well.…autistic. I was delight­ed.

  • Chris says:

    Cos­mic Tones For Men­tal Ther­a­py is one of THE great “out there” jazz records. It’s one of my favorite records by any­one, and essen­tial­ly lis­ten­ing for any­one who thinks white rock groups like the Grate­ful Dead, the Jef­fer­son Air­plane and Pink Floyd invent­ed “psy­che­del­ic” music (remem­ber­ing that the mem­bers of the Dead and the Air­plane were still play­ing acoustic folk music, and Pink Floyd still try­ing to be a “beat” group when Ra record­ed Cos­mic Tones For Men­tal Ther­a­py and oth­er sim­i­lar­ly trip­py records).

    Glad to know that the “men­tal ther­a­py” was­n’t just an emp­ty boast, as it were.

  • bill fields says:

    My thoughts exact­ly, when­ev­er I hear Sun­Ra.

  • Johnnie Randle says:

    We have back keys and we have white keys but when played togeth­er the har­mo­ny makes every­thing col­or­ful with beau­ty! Would­n’t it be amaz­ing for mankind to real­ize that com­ing togeth­er makes beau­ti­ful music! No music when the black keys and the white keys stay seper­ate from one anoth­er.

  • BARFY says:

    i saw sun ra many times back in the day. at the time i thought it was just noise. as i got old­er, i now love sun ra and its avant garde-ness…
    also sun ra’s writ­ings are real­ly inter­est­ing. too bad the music indus­try did­nt know what to do with him…

  • Mary Flynn says:

    Only lis­ten­ing for the 1st time .
    Im blown away by these sounds .
    Thank you for pre­servibg it .
    Very pure x cer­tain­ly ‘gen­tle on the mind and soul ’ in a new way .

  • SJ says:

    The thing about crazy is that it does­n’t look crazy. Any­one close to some­one with a slam-dunk diag­no­sis will vouch. Peo­ple don’t go into a trance or become Mis­ter Hyde. Your uncle’s man­ic episodes just look like he’s REALLY into his new hob­by, or final­ly cleaned out the garage. These aspects are still among their oth­er per­son­al­i­ty traits. That’s why only a foren­sic psy­chol­o­gist is tru­ly able to diag­nose, and not a layper­son. That said, one can be men­tal­ly ill, bril­liant, and tal­ent­ed all at once. It does­n’t reduce the val­ue of their con­tri­bu­tions or their mean­ing one bit.

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