Of all the jazz musicians, Sun Ra was probably the most controversial. He did not make it easy for people to take him seriously, for he surrounded his adventurous music with costumes and mythology that both looked backward toward ancient Egypt and forward into science fiction. In addition, Ra documented his music in very erratic fashion on his Saturn label, generally not listing recording dates and giving inaccurate personnel information, so one could not really tell how advanced some of his innovations were. It has taken a lot of time to sort it all out (although Robert L. Campbell's Sun Ra discography has done a miraculous job). In addition, while there were times when Sun Ra's aggregation performed brilliantly, on other occasions they were badly out of tune and showcasing absurd vocals. Near the end of his life, Ra was featuring plate twirlers and fire eaters in his colorful show as a sort of Ed Sullivan for the 1980s.
But despite all of the trappings, Sun Ra was a major innovator. Born Herman Sonny Blount in Birmingham, AL (although he claimed he was from another planet), Ra led his own band for the first time in 1934. He freelanced at a variety of jobs in the Midwest, working as a pianist/arranger with Fletcher Henderson in 1946-1947. He appeared on some obscure records as early as 1948, but really got started around 1953. Leading a big band (which he called the Arkestra) in Chicago, Ra started off playing advanced bop, but early on was open to the influences of other cultures, experimenting with primitive electric keyboards, and playing free long before the avant-garde got established.
After moving to New York in 1961, Ra performed some of his most advanced work. In 1970, he relocated his group to Philadelphia, and in later years alternated free improvisations and mystical group chants with eccentric versions of swing tunes, sounding like a spaced-out Fletcher Henderson orchestra. Many of his most important sidemen were with him on and off for decades (most notably John Gilmore on tenor, altoist Marshall Allen, and baritonist Pat Patrick). Ra, who recorded for more than a dozen labels, has been well served by Evidence's extensive repackaging of many of his Saturn dates, which have at last been outfitted with correct dates and personnel details. In the late '90s, other labels began reissuing albums from Sun Ra's vast catalog, an effort that will surely continue for years to come. ~ Scott Yanow