By Chloe Smith
In my last blog post, I shared the story of Birmingham music educator John “Fess” Whatley and accounts of discrimination his Black students faced as young jazz musicians in the “the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States,” according to Martin Luther King, Jr. Many of Whatley’s students became quite successful, and the scrapbooks in the Birmingham Public Library archives share their achievements. However, one of Whatley’s most successful students is conspicuously absent from that archive box: the jazz artist known as Sun Ra. Before diving into Sun Ra’s biography, I want to share one of his songs, to give you a sense of his music.
Sun Ra’s story is complicated and woven with difficult topics, but I don’t want to lose sight of what drew me to him in the first place: the absolute pleasure of listening to his musical talent. I won’t spend time in this post diving into Sun Ra’s sonic world, but give it a listen before you keep reading.
Sun Ra’s Early Life
Sun Ra, previously known as Herman Poole Blount, was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on May 22, 1914. Pinning down the details of Sun Ra’s life in Birmingham is complicated, as evidenced by his absence in the Whatley collections at the Birmingham Public Library. But the muddled story of Sun Ra’s connection to Birmingham is possibly self-inflicted. Throughout his life, he misled interviewers about his connections with Birmingham, lying about where he was from. In childhood, Blount re-named himself Sonny, rejecting the name his family gave to him. He rejected Birmingham as his hometown, believing instead that he was from the planet Saturn, transplanted into Alabama into a family that was not his. Many of the details of Sun Ra’s early life in this blog come from John Szwed’s 1997 Sun Ra biography Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra.
On his eleventh “arrival day,” as he called his birthday, Sonny’s mother, Ida Blount, gave him a piano. He showed natural talent, playing by ear, and also quickly learned how to read music. He began composing and writing poems. Music was a venue for his artistic expression through the intense alienation he felt growing up in such a violent and segregated city. As a teenager in the late 1920s and early 30s, Blount encountered music at Black venues in Birmingham like Tuxedo Junction that hosted shows by traveling artists like Ethel Waters, Duke Ellington, and Bessie Smith. In 1929, Blount began attending Industrial High School, where John “Fess” Whatley taught. Sonny was a shy but talented piano player, and Whatley soon had him playing for the school band. Soon, Sonny became the only student player in other bands of Whatley’s in Birmingham. After he graduated from high school in 1932, Sonny attended the Alabama State Agricultural and Mechanical Institute for Negroes in Huntsville, Alabama. There he received classical piano lessons with Professor Lula Hopkins Randall and played piano in a band. After a year in Huntsville, Blount dropped out of school and returned to Birmingham. He formed a band that did not perform, but only rehearsed, playing for the “sake of beauty and enlightenment,” according to the Szwed biography. During World War II, Blount was a conscientious objector to the draft and served time in jail before returning to his music.
Life Outside Birmingham
In 1946, Sun Ra moved from Birmingham to Chicago where he worked as an arranger and pianist. In 1952, he began going by the name “Le Sony’r Ra.” In Chicago, he formed his first group with saxophonist John Gilmore, bassist Richard Evans, and drummer Robert Barry. This was the beginning of the Arkestra, a group that evolved over the years, rotating players and performing under slight variations of its name. The big-band format of Sun Ra’s ensemble was traditional in the 50s. Even then, Sun Ra’s music was about the cosmos. Their first LP, Jazz by Sun Ra, was released in 1957, the same year the USSR launched Sputnik. Enthralled with themes of space and Egyptology since he was a child, it is not surprising that even in his early career, Sun Ra’s performance persona included elements of outer space, magic, and ancient Egypt. His group, “Sun Ra and the Arkestra” had their first New York City performance in January 1962 under the name “The Outer Spacemen.”
Sun Ra obfuscated his origins after he moved away from Birmingham. Early biographers did not know that he grew up in the city, and he often told interviewers that he did not know where he grew up. John Szwed wrote:
For almost fifty years he evaded questions, forgot details, left false trails, and talked in allegories and parables. Just as artists and composers destroy their early works to protect the present moment, Sun Ra destroyed his past, and recast himself in a series of roles in a drama he spent his life creating. And in the end he almost succeeded.
Sun Ra’s insistence on his cosmic birthplace left no room for the southern city of Birmingham in his mythological origins. Sun Ra’s artistic relationship with Birmingham was a detached idealization and memorialization of his hometown with no inclination towards tangible activism. In 1978 and ’79, decades into his professional career, Sun Ra performed several songs about the city: “Birmingham Breakdown” (1978), “Magic City Blue” (1979), and “West End of Magic City” (1979). Attention to his musical relationship with Birmingham and his 1965 album The Magic City will be given in a later blog post, but here it is important to notice that music was really Sun Ra’s only connection to his hometown for the majority of his life.
Kodwo Eshun and Sun Ra’s Post-human Mythscience
Sun Ra’s rejection of his origins went much deeper than his hometown and family. In his book More Brilliant than the Sun, Kodwo Eshun argues that Sun Ra embraced a post-human myth-science that rejects concepts of humanity altogether. Because white American civilization stripped Africans of their humanity on the Middle Passage, to Sun Ra, western concepts of humanity were worthless. Eshun quotes Sun Ra to highlight his views about humanity denied to Black Americans: “You don’t exist, in this society. If you did, your people wouldn’t be seeking equal rights.” But Sun Ra was not looking to restore humanity to Black Americans. Instead, Sun Ra advocated for a post-human state, spurred by technology, that was a state of transcendence of the limited scope of Enlightenment, western humanism. This idea is clearly visible in his 1974 film Space is the Place, in which he seeks to create a new colony for Black people on a far away planet. This was not only an alternate future for Black people, but a hearkening back to ancient Egypt, where Africans were empire builders and unaffected by white systems of slavery and colonization. Sun Ra biographer Paul Youngquist wrote, “Egypt offered a ready-made alternative to an ostensibly enlightened culture of the West responsible for chattel slavery, racism, Jim Crow, and segregation.” Sun Ra’s aesthetic and philosophical connections to Egypt and his visit to Cairo in 1971 show that his cosmic philosophies really have a Pan-Africanist angle to them. The Black future is one that looks like an ancient African past, and his mission in Space is the Place is to bring Black people there through his spaceship. Sun Ra’s artistic expression of an alternate future for Black people by means of technology and space places him in the tradition of Afrofuturism. The term itself did not appear in scholarship until the early 1990s, but Sun Ra was not alone in his artistic and musical creation of alternate destinies, untinged by white violence, even as far back as his 1957 Jazz by Sun Ra album.
So what about Birmingham?
Sun Ra exhibited an extreme Black separatism in response to violence and suffering inflicted by white American society. His post-human myth-science and cosmic ideas of the future captured a total rejection of white systems of thought and importantly, systems of violence and exploitation. While Eshun’s description of Sun Ra’s philosophy is quite cosmic, I believe Eshun’s work is useful in illuminating Sun Ra’s relationship with his hometown. On a smaller scale, this post-human mentality caused Sun Ra to reject Birmingham. For him, even a perfect Birmingham, free of racial violence and segregation, could not be inhabitable. Inconsistent application of Enlightenment era ideas of individuality and freedom imperfected western conceptions of the human. So too did Birmingham’s legacy of violence and intense legal segregation imperfect the city for Sun Ra.
Sun Ra’s relationship with Birmingham and his subsequent rejection of it mirror the Black separatist discourses of activists like Martin Delany, Booker T. Washington, and Malcolm X. Perhaps the clearest message Sun Ra left to this effect is his poem, published originally in 1968, titled “The Visitation.”
This poem refuses Birmingham as Sun Ra’s birthplace. Rather, it is the location he resided in during the beginning of his visitation to earth from Saturn. But even in this cosmic metaphor, Sun Ra’s experiences in Birmingham, where “white rules and laws segregated [him],” inspired his later philosophy about integration. “My image of paradise is chromatic-black… Those who segregate did not segregate in vain.” For Sun Ra, an ideal world would be one where Black people lived alone, away from white society and structures of power. He believed that Black identity and tradition can be found in Africa and that recognition of that legacy, fused with aspirations for the future, space travel, and technology, had the power to liberate Black people from oppression.
In my thesis research, I placed this description of Sun Ra as a Black separatist in the tradition of thinkers like Martin Delany, Booker T. Washington, and Malcolm X. Considering the context from my last blog post of the hard experiences Whatley’s students had growing up in Birmingham, it is not surprising that Sun Ra took an alternate route: one where he didn’t have to market his band as “a real jazz orchestra — but not that ‘ear splitting,’ ‘nerve racking’ kind,” like Whatley’s advertisement for his own student orchestra. Sun Ra imagined a different kind of future, one free of the oppression he experienced in his hometown, and that may be one reason it is so difficult to find traces of the jazz artist in Birmingham, Alabama today.
I’ll leave you with another one of my favorite songs of his.