He was born Herman Poole Blount, but the many who appreciate his music and the otherworldly philosophy behind it know him only as Sun Ra. Or rather, they don’t just appreciate it but find themselves transported to other places by it, even places located far beyond this Earth. Often space, as the title of the 1975 Afrofuturist science-fiction film that stars Sun Ra states, is the place, and if you seek to take such an interstellar journey through jazz music yourself, doing so has become easier than ever: just steer your ship over to Bandcamp, where you can stream the music of Sun Ra and his ever-shifting “Arkestra” for free.
Since you’ll have no fewer than 74 albums to choose from, you might consider charting your voyage with Bandcamp Daily’s guide to Sun Ra and his Arkestra’s prolific and varied output.
It begins with his “Chicago Space Jazz” years in the 1950s, many of the recordings from which “sound a lot like jazz with traditional forms, rich ensemble writing, and plenty of swing,” but which already show such characteristic choices and tools as “peculiar intervals and juxtapositions, the newly-developed electric piano, lots of percussion, extra baritone sax, group shouts, and so forth,” as well as the influence of “exotica and mood music,” the Bible, “occult philosophy,” and cosmology.
The guide continues on to Sun Ra’s time in New York in the 1960s, where “the ‘space jazz’ or quirky hard-bop of the Arkestra’s Chicago days starts to morph, reflecting the new ‘free jazz’ ideas being developed literally all around them by Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and others.” This period culminates in The Magic City, “a nearly 28-minute tone poem, collectively improvised under Ra’s cues and direction, without preconceived themes; at times it is brooding and spare, at others it is full-on screeching saxophones.” Thereafter came a time of solo and small-group work, and then of mind-bending live performances that the Arkestra, under the direction of longtime saxophonist Marshall Allen, continues to put on to this day.
Sun Ra himself ascended to another plane almost a quarter-century ago, but if you believe the elaborate mythology that remains inseparable from his musical work, he still exists, in some form and in some galaxy, no doubt imagining new kinds of jazz that the mere human mind may never sufficiently evolve to comprehend. Streaming these dozens of albums that Sun Ra left us on this Earth, you may not immediately think to compare them with the music of David Bowie, but as far as 20th-century outer space-oriented self-reinventors go, those two are in a class of their own. As Blount became Sun Ra in the 1940s, so David Jones transformed from Ziggy Stardust into the Thin White Duke into Aladdin Sane in the 1970s. Both remained musical experimenters all their lives, as their discographies will always attest, but when Sun Ra reinvented himself, he stayed reinvented.
Stream Sun Ra’s albums at Bandcamp, and know that you can also purchase digital downloads of these albums (in MP3 and FLAC formats) for a reasonable price.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.