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While a big-band arranger and pianist in the Forties, Herman "Sonny" Blount developed a fascination for Egyptian mythology and science-fiction-laced mysticism. The influences became obsessions, leading him to change his name and begin insisting he had been born on Saturn.
Taking the name Sun Ra, after the Egyptian sun god Ra, Blount formed a big band-commune called the "Arkestra." Its members not only willingly played Ra's bizarre new space jazz but often came to view Ra as God--literally. This was no trendy New Age conversion--Ra's spiritual metamorphosis took place in the Fifties. To this day, Ra and his band continue to steer themselves ever further into the outer limits.
Just another nut case? Some people think his music is psychotic. But to his fans, Sun Ra is one of the jazz world's innovators.
There's no doubt Ra's influence is wide-ranging. Ra has written more than 300 compositions, many of which have been covered by artists as diverse as NRBQ and the MC5. Ra also restored elements of showmanship to jazz that the beboppers had destroyed. And he will always be remembered as one of the earliest champions of electronic instruments.
Most people know of him because of his wild wardrobe and cosmic persona. Many of Ra's personality quirks were passed on to the world of funk and soul music through Ra's spiritual kin, George Clinton. Ra is important in the history of jazz, but his far-out music remains an acquired taste.
On the fanatical side is Charles Emerson, who owns Bird's Compact Disc Exchange in Tempe, and who is one of Sun Ra's most avid fans. Emerson, who's seen Sun Ra more than 60 times, brought the Arkestra to Arizona State University's Neeb Hall for a concert in 1978 while he was director of ASU's Cultural Affairs Board.
"I once spent my last $300 flying to New York to see him because I hadn't had a fix in a year," says Emerson. "And once he sang me 'Happy Birthday' during a concert in a small bar in Oakland. He can do anything. Ra can play four hours of straightahead Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson and the next night flip into playing his interstellar music.
"Sun Ra makes real space music as opposed to what Deadheads think Jerry Garcia is doing when he's noodling on the guitar."
"Following" doesn't begin to describe the kind of loyalty Ra has inspired in his fans. Like the Deadheads, Sun Ra fans have been known to follow their hero from concert to concert. And there is nothing that true Ra fanatics value more than a bootleg tape of a concert they didn't see.
Although he's hardly into bootlegs, record producer Jerry Gordon is one of those Ra fanatics. The head of Philadelphia-based Evidence Records, Gordon has recently begun a project he hopes will shed more light on the formative years of this jazz oddity. Gordon's tiny independent label has recently blessed us with five reissues that begin to chronicle Sun Ra's evolution from big-band devotee to jazz pioneer.
Gordon may not travel from town to town to see Ra, but his interest in the trendsetting pianist runs a lot deeper than the usual support of a record exec.
"I became a lifelong Sun Ra fan in 1970 or 1971," says Gordon in a telephone call from his office. "He was playing at Gino's Empty Foxhole, which was in the basement of an empty church in Philadelphia."
But Gordon falters when fleshing out details of the moment he came to see the light. "I don't know how to tell you--really, it's hard to describe a Sun Ra concert. He's such a presence."
What Gordon can't verbalize has left many others speechless as well. Sun Ra regularly takes to the stage dressed in flowing robes, purple hair or sequined shower caps reminiscent of Esther Williams. Caped band members march down the aisles, wearing Halloween masks, coat-hanger antennae or turquoise conquistador helmets. Dancers chant esoteric lyrics beneath lighting effects. Ra's battery-run headgear flashes as he coaxes tones from his electric piano never intended by its maker. Ra and the band freely switch from musical portraits of the galaxies to twisted versions of Victrola classics or Disney movie themes. The more intense interpretations used to lead Ra to spin in circles as he slammed the keys with his elbows. Unfortunately, the pianist's spinning days are over. Two recent strokes have limited Ra's concert performances to sitting in a wheelchair comping out chords.
As always, Sun Ra keeps time with one foot in a World War II dance band and the other firmly planted on his spaceship. It's what makes him so interesting to Gordon and a host of Ra fanatics.
"Who else could keep together a band of this size for so long?" asks Gordon incredulously. "Other big bands haven't been able to stay modern enough to hold together over the years."
It's a good thing Gordon is so smitten with Ra. If his reissue series goes as planned--21 new albums over the next several years--Gordon will be committed to Sun Ra and his music for years to come. The next four Sun Ra reissues are scheduled to hit the stores in October.