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