Sun Ra's Cosmic Keys

For much of his time on planet Earth, afrofuturist visionary and jazz maverick Sun Ra was known as an innovator. A prolific musician as well as a broad-thinking intellectual, Sun Ra’s approach to composition, arrangement, and improvisation as well as philosophy and mythology allowed him to build his own aesthetic and ideological world.

An important component of Sun Ra’s praxis was his ever-evolving relationship with the keyboard, in the form of his early roots with the acoustic piano and his continuous experimentation with electronic organs, keyboards and synthesizers. To get an understanding of Sun Ra’s decades of extended musical development, we must first take a look at his early life, his first experiments with the piano and the boundless curiosity that it sparked.

Beginnings in Birmingham

Sun Ra was born Herman Poole Blount on May 22, 1914 in Birmingham, Alabama. By all accounts, Sun Ra was surrounded by music at an early age. His older brother, Robert, would often play phonograph records around the house and his sister played piano. Once his aunt purchased him a piano for his 11th birthday, Sun Ra began to experiment with the instrument.

A prodigious talent, Sun Ra taught himself to play and sight-read music. As a young man, Sun Ra would take in the rich Black music culture around him, attending performances by local and touring bands, and performing in groups like Birmingham’s The Rhythm Four and writing arrangements for a band led by school teacher-turned professional singer, Ethel Harper. As Sun Ra’s skills grew, his curiosity and open-minded attitude towards music would lead him on a journey that would lead him to challenge the very limitations of sound itself.

Sun Ra Interview (Helsinki, 1971)

In his incredibly detailed book, Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra, author John Szwed explains how Sun Ra first practiced with electronic musical instruments at the Forbes Piano Company—a music instrument store in Birmingham, Alabama that only recently closed after 120 years in business. According to Szwed, the fact that unlike many other establishments in the South at the time, Forbes was not a racially segregated store. It was this egalitarian practice presented a unique opportunity for Sun Ra to explore and experiment with new sounds:

"Forbes had never practiced Jim Crow policies and Black musicians always entered by the front door-an indulgence whose importance is impossible to fully grasp today-and were treated with courtesy. Sonny sampled the pianos on every visit, sometimes playing for an hour at a time, gathering a small audience of clerks and customers who requested new pop tunes.

"He kept up with new developments in music technology, especially those involving electricity, and dreamed of the possibilities of composing for instruments with new musical timbres. Knowing this interest in new keyboard inventions, Forbes loaned Sonny a celeste-a keyboard whose hammers strike metal bars instead of strings and produces a delicate, ringing tone. And when the Hammond Solovox-a small add-on electric keyboard-first appeared in 1939, Sonny was among the first to buy it."

The Chicago Years

Inspired by his musical ambitions and frustrated by the racism of the south, Sun Ra moved to Chicago in 1946. After meeting and chatting up swing legend Fletcher Henderson, Sun Ra would land an opportunity writing arrangements for Henderson’s band. This gig had to be exciting for the young musician—he would later tell New York Times writer Robert Palmer that as a child, he "was always playing Fletcher Henderson records, even before I could read."

The importance of the role that Chicago played in Sun Ra's development through the '40s and '50s cannot be overstated. At the time, the city was an important center of Black social life, politics, and especially music. An estimated 500,000 Black folks would move from the south to Chicago during the great migration in the years following the second World War. The city was a hotbed of Black music with Big bands, small ensembles, the blues, and popular ensembles thriving.

A Hammond Solovox. Photo by Andrew's Junkyard.

During this time, Sun Ra took up residence in a small apartment on the south side of Chicago. In his book A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra And The Birth of Afrofuturism, Paul Youngquist describes Sun Ra’s home. The passage makes note of the fact that Sun Ra kept the Solovox keyboard from Forbes close by and would use it to experiment with his sound.

"It was cramped, not quite a kitchenette, but close quarters even for just one person, with cupboards above the stove, a bed tucked into a small second room, and, in the middle of the living room, a spinet piano with a small electronic keyboard (a Hammond Solovox) attached beneath the piano’s keys and used for creating organ sounds."

Wurlitzer ad, 1955.

After spending much of the '40s playing with smaller ensembles at ballrooms, bars, and strip clubs, Sun Ra would take the big band experience that he learned from Henderson and use it to form his Arkestra in the early 1950s. Throughout the '50s, the mass popularity of space-age imagery and ideas would dovetail with a significant innovation in music technology in a way that shaped Sun Ra’s thinking and practice of music making.

In 1954, the Wurlitzer company would produce it’s highly influential electric piano. Designers Paul Renard and Howard Holman (who were also located in Chicago at the time) would use inventor Benjamin Miessner’s amplified electric piano as the basis for this new instrument. Upon learning of this new instrument, Sun Ra purchased one shortly after it was made available. In 1956, Sun Ra became the first jazz musician to play an electric piano on a record. The composition was called "India'' and was later released in 1957 on his Super-Sonic Jazz album.

Musician and Sun Ra-aficionado Brother Cleve has written extensively about Sun Ra. Speaking to Reverb about Sun Ra’s keyboard rig throughout the years, Cleve explains that as developers introduced new keyboards capable of producing strange and novel sounds, Sun Ra continued to keep up with these new instruments, allowing them to help shape the music that he made.

"During his time in Chicago in the late 50's, he would use a Wurlitzer Electric Piano, which was the only electric piano available at that time. As The Arkestra's reputation and performing schedule grew in the late 60's, Ra began to standardize the instruments he played. In 1967, he added two new instruments to his arsenal—the Hohner D6 Clavinet and the Gibson Kalamazoo G101 combo organ."

The 1960s and Moog's Inventions

The 1960s was a decade that saw a rapid evolution in music technology. In the fall of 1964, inventor Robert Moog unveiled his first Moog modular synthesizer. Despite the fact that upon release, it was first thought of as a machine merely for making sound effects, by the end of its first decade in existence, the Moog would completely change music.

Robert Moog at a 1970 London demo.

As an early adopter of the portable Minimoog, Sun Ra would push the instrument’s capabilities to its limits. In his fascinating piece "Sun Ra & The Minimoog," composer and historian Thom Holmes explains how a visit to the Moog factory led Sun Ra to incorporate the portable Robert Moog invention into his keyboard rig.

"One of the first musicians to adopt the Minimoog happened to be jazz great Sun Ra . The story behind this is an interesting one that began with a visit to Bob Moog’s plant in the fall of 1969. In 1969, a year before the introduction of the Minimoog, Sun Ra became familiar with Bob Moog's modular studio synthesizer. He was given a demonstration in New York by Gershon Kingsley. Sun Ra first met Robert Moog after Downbeat journalist and Sun Ra acquaintance Tam Fiofori arranged for a visit to Moog's factory in Trumansburg in the Fall of 1969. This was most likely October. Bob and his crew were testing prototypes of the Minimoog at that time, inviting Sun Ra to explore its sounds.

"A recording of this test session was made and, although not originally intended for commercial release, partly released many years later in 1992 as the "Moog Experiment" (My Brother the Wind, Vol. 2, CD tracks 7-11, Evidence Records.) But more significantly, it was during this visit that Moog loaned Sun Ra a prototype Minimoog (Model B), several months before the commercial instrument (Model D) was introduced in March 1970. Ra immediately added the instrument to his repertoire of keyboards, later acquired a second, and featured the Minimoog prominently on many of his recordings of the early 1970s. Sun Ra sometimes played two Minimoogs at the same time to achieve a duophonic synthesizer sound."

Recordings like "Space Probe" found Sun Ra using the moog to conjure some truly bizarre and other-worldly soundscapes. The 1970s would prove to be the decade in which Sun Ra and his Arkestra reached new and daring creative heights. From the chaotic synth effects of "Astro Black" to Ra’s ghostly electric piano solo on the tune "Nubia," the '70s found Sun Ra employing his piano virtuosity and the cutting-edge technology around him as a means of expressing a vision for jazz that had not been heard before or since.

Whether it was the Crumar Mainman, RMI Rock-Si-Chord, a Farfisa organ or the Yamaha YC-30, Sun Ra took every opportunity to incorporate new instruments and play with a seemingly infinite range of sonic colors and tones. Even in the now-cult classic 1974 film, Space Is The Place, Ra is shown playing what appears to be a Minimoog Model D inside of his music-powered spaceship.

Sun Ra's Later Life and Continuing Influence

As the '70s gave way to the '80s, analog synths began to fall out of favor with many musicians branching out to embrace the then-emerging digital music revolution. Sun Ra would also, continuing to experiment with new instruments and sounds. Brother Cleve gives an insight into Sun Ra’s sound in his final years.

"By the '80s, the Arkestra became a touring machine, performing at many large scale concerts and festivals, where he generally had access to a grand piano, as I stated earlier. He also abetted that in the mid-'80s, with digital synths like the Yamaha DX7 and SY77." Cleve explains, "Ra liked to overdrive the sound of his keyboards; he tended to prefer high-gain Peavey amplifiers and often a Sunn bass amp—a tube amp with a massive sound."

Throughout the years, Ra would push the limitations of sound while his playing, composition, and arrangement style remained connected to his roots with the acoustic piano. Alongside his electronic explorations, Sun Ra’s catalog is full of moments where his truly beautiful and complex playing acoustic playing shines.

Whether it is on Arkestra albums like Omniverse or 1978’s solo live album, St. Louis Blues, Ra never continued to experiment in both the electric and acoustic realms. Even after a series of strokes would limit his physical capabilities and alter his playing style, Sun Ra kept experimenting. In an interview with Les McCann for Wax Poetics, writer John Kruth recalls seeing Ra perform after a stroke describing him as being "up on stage poking at some keyboard with one finger, making the wildest sounds you’d ever heard. It seemed like whatever was in his brain was coming through loud and clear."

Sun Ra Arkestra: NPR Music Tink Desk Concert

Twenty-seven years after his death, Sun Ra’s musical influence has seemed into nearly every form of music, with countless artists taking pieces of his musical oeuvre and incorporating it into their own work. Even the Arkestra that Ra founded nearly six decades ago is still active under the direction of saxophonist Marshall Allen.

At present, Sun Ra is recognized as one of the most influential musicians of the last century. The ways in which he engaged with new technologies while remaining rooted in a deep tradition of the blues and jazz that he was first introduced to as a boy back in Birmingham is nothing short of remarkable. It was this potent musical tradition along with his own endless curiosity that allowed Sun Ra to draw power from the past, while embarking on a path of experimentation that would lay a foundation for the very future of music itself.

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