A Collection of Sun Ra’s Business Cards from the 1950s: They’re Out of This World


One of the hard­est things to mas­ter as an inde­pen­dent musi­cian is the art of pro­mo­tion. Though many artists are extro­verts and atten­tion-seek­ers, many more are by nature intro­vert­ed, or at least inner-direct­ed, and dis­in­clined to embrace the tools of the mar­ket­ing trade. In days of yore, when such things as major record labels still roamed the earth at large, much of the pro­mo­tion could be left up to those majes­tic, lum­ber­ing beasts. These days, when the major­i­ty of work­ing musi­cians have to keep their day jobs and learn to do their own pro­duc­tion, styling, book­ing, and PR, it’s essen­tial to get over any squea­mish­ness about blow­ing your own horn. If you’re look­ing for point­ers, con­sid­er the exam­ple of self-invent­ed musi­cal genius Sun Ra, a mas­ter of self-pro­mo­tion.


No one bet­ter under­stood what Sun Ra was up to than Sun Ra him­self, and he knew how to sell his very out-there free jazz move­ment to a pub­lic used to more mun­dane pre­sen­ta­tions. As Mike Walsh at Mis­sion Creep suc­cinct­ly puts it, “noth­ing about Sun Ra’s six-decade musi­cal career could be called nor­mal.” He more or less re-invent­ed what it meant to be a jazz musi­cian and band­leader. It was in the 1950s that he real­ly came into his own. After work­ing steadi­ly as a tour­ing side­man for sev­er­al oth­er musi­cians, the man born Her­man Blount changed his name first to Le Sony’r Ra, then Sun Ra, and put togeth­er his famous “Arkestra.”


His shows began to incor­po­rate the elab­o­rate cos­tum­ing he became known for, and he would often stop the music “to lec­ture on his favorite sub­jects,” writes Jez Nel­son at The Guardian, “Egyp­tol­ogy and space. He began to claim he had been abduct­ed by aliens and was in fact from Sat­urn.” The act was both dead­ly seri­ous space opera (he rehearsed his band for 12 hours at a stretch, after all) and absur­dist schtick, and it both trans­port­ed audi­ences to new worlds and made them laugh out loud.


Sun Ra’s busi­ness cards from the 50s cap­ture this tonal spec­trum between avant-garde per­for­mance art and high-con­cept free jazz com­e­dy. Adver­tis­ing new releas­es, a band-for-hire, and ongo­ing local Chica­go res­i­den­cies, they com­bine the strict pro­fes­sion­al­ism of a work­ing band­leader with the word­play and silli­ness Ra loved: he calls his coterie “Atonites,” which psy­chol­o­gy pro­fes­sor Robert L. Camp­bell reads as mean­ing both “wor­ship­pers of Aton,” Egypt­ian sun god, and “per­form­ers of aton­al music.” Audi­ences are invit­ed to “Dance the Out­er Space Way. Hear songs sung the Out­er Space Way by Clyde ‘Out of Space’ Williams” (one­time singer with the band). And the card at the top of the post makes per­haps the sim­plest, most com­pelling pitch of them all: “Why buy old sounds?” Indeed.

via Elec­tron­ic Beats

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

The Cry of Jazz: 1958’s High­ly Con­tro­ver­sial Film on Jazz & Race in Amer­i­ca (With Music by Sun Ra)

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

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