Sun Ra Plays a Music Therapy Gig at a Mental 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 mental 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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  • 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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