Legendary jazz pianist Sun Ra was born 100 years ago today in Birmingham, Alabama. Or maybe not. As Ra said of himself in 1998, “I’m a psychic being, and you know, we don’t concern ourselves with being born; we concern ourselves with being eternal.”
The man was a conundrum, exhibiting equal parts genius and madness. He was a brilliant innovator in jazz and electronic music, adopting new technologies such as electric bass guitars and MOOG synthesizers before anyone else and staging elaborate live performances unlike any who came before him. He also claimed to have visited Saturn to meet with aliens.
Throughout his life, Ra steadfastly maintained that aliens had teleported him to the surface of Saturn for a face-to-face conversation about his role in humanity’s destiny. Specifically, he was instructed to drop out of college and concentrate on creating music. He created a great deal of music in his lifetime with his “Arkestra,” an evolving collection of musicians that provided the massive walls of sound for which Ra became famous. Music historians estimate he recorded more than 200 albums, but Ra didn’t keep track and would often release albums with no titles or cover art.
He was also famous for his philosophy, which he preferred to call an “equation.” His world view was often confusing and contradictory, absorbing and rejecting bits and pieces of the myriad religions and philosophies. At its heart, however, was his belief that music, language, and sounds were the key to humanity’s awakening. In the liner notes for his 1967 album, “Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy,” Ra opined, “Proper evaluations of words and letters in their phonetic and associated sense can bring the people of Earth to the clear light of pure cosmic wisdom.”
Did Sun Ra honestly believe he was a visitor from Saturn? We will never know what went on inside his mind, which is only fitting, considering he once told an interviewer, “I think of myself as a complete mystery. To myself.”