Why Is Sun Ra Suddenly Having His Moment?

Decades after his death, the Afrofuturist pioneer's influence is popping up everywhere, from Solange gigs to the underground. What's behind the boom?

Why is late avant-jazz visionary Sun Ra suddenly having a resurgence, decades after his death? Admirers and collaborators weigh in. Credit: Dimitri Hakke/Getty Images

Onstage at New York's Radio City Music Hall earlier this month, Solange, still touring behind her momentous 2016 album, A Seat at the Table, was flanked by two pyramids; between them was a massive orb, resembling a heavenly body in the night. Behind those structures was a bleachers-like setup, where horn and string players would assemble, lending an extra sonic hand to Solange's core band, which includes a trumpeter and trombonist. The show, part of a six-concert run dubbed Orion's Rise, found the performers dressed entirely in white. All in all, an attendee could have been forgiven for feeling like they were at a concert by Sun Ra, the late jazz keyboardist, composer, philosopher and all-around cultural force whose avant-garde big band, the Arkestra, wore Egyptian-inspired outfits and played songs called "Tiny Pyramids" and "Space Is the Place."

Fittingly, none other than the Sun Ra Arkestra, which kept going after Ra's death in 1993, were one of the openers at Radio City, as well as at Solange's Kennedy Center gig in D.C. the prior night. Though Earl Sweatshirt played in between the two acts in NYC, the connection between Ra and Solange could not have been clearer. (Responding to a tweet requesting that Solange team up with the Arkestra in perpetuity, the singer wrote, "This would bring me THE most divine joy!") Ra's Afrofuturist vision was alive and well that evening, his ideas and concepts still hurtling through space at light speed.

And Solange is not the only artist currently carrying the Sun Ra torch; his influence as a musician – one who prized theatricality, wrote poetry, released his own music and reported Saturn as his birthplace – seems to be everywhere lately. A couple of weeks before the Orion's Rise tour began, the Arkestra, now with 93-year-old saxophonist Marshall Allen at the helm, was honored at a benefit concert in New York featuring the veteran indie-rock combo Yo La Tengo, who recorded several versions of Ra's "Nuclear War" in 2002. In August, thanks to DJ and historian Irwin Chusid, exclusive administrator for Sun Ra LLC since 2014, Ra's albums went up on beloved digital music store Bandcamp

In 2014, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, an avowed Ra fan, dropped a convivial track for the keyboardist called "Rosetta/67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko." In 2013, Ra somehow managed to notch a from-beyond-the-grave co-writing credit with Lady Gaga; her Artpop cut "Venus" samples Zombie Zombie's take on a Ra classic, "Rocket Number Nine," and features Ra-ish lyrics like, "'Cause you're out of this world/Galaxy, space, and time/I wonder if this could be love/Venus." And some, like producer Shafiq Husayn, who laid down the Ra-inspired "Spaceways Radio Theme" as a member of the Sa-Ra Creative Partners, hear the mark of the Arkestra cropping up across the pop and hip-hop landscape.

"Thundercat. Ty Dolla $ign. Odd Future. Hiatus Kaiyote," says Husayn when asked to name other contemporary artists who seem to draw on Ra's influence. "I had a conversation with D'Angelo; we talked about Sun Ra and Frank Zappa. Specifically those two. Bilal. Badu. Sonnymoon. Put it like this: Anybody that's into music, you would be hard pressed to find someone that's not into Sun Ra. Especially anybody that's into progressive music."

According to Marshall Allen, though, listeners haven't always been as enthusiastic as Husayn. "When you're a little bit ahead of your time, those people got to take a minute to get around to understanding where you at," says the saxophonist. "And all artists who are creative, and imaginative and stuff, they have the same kind of problem."

In concert, the Arkestra still has that forward-moving spark. In just their allotted half-hour at Radio City, the 16-piece band funked through "Space Is the Place," touched on Latin music via "We Travel the Spaceways" and swung hard on "Face the Music," which concluded with Allen steering the ensemble through nimble bursts of noise. Some of the members marched down an aisle through the audience; the band's trademark shiny outfits were in full effect. And these are not merely musicians getting together to play the music of Ra; the Arkestra today features its fair share of longtime members, some of whom go back decades with the group. Allen came on in 1958, a year after the Arkestra released its first album, Jazz by Sun Ra; the saxophonist and flautist Danny Ray Thompson has been with the band since '67.

Apparently, little has changed over the years in terms of how the Arkestra looks and sounds. Writer John Sinclair, who set up shows for Ra and the Arkestra in the Sixties and Seventies including bills with influential proto-punks the MC5, remembers them almost exactly the way they are today. "First of all, it would be about anywhere between 12 and 20 people in the Arkestra," he recalls. "And each would be costumed in a unique garb. Colorful. African-influenced. Space-influenced. They had headpieces. Some would paint their faces. As they came out, it was awe-inspiring. And they were all black. They were unlike anything black any white Americans had ever seen. ... They were unique and different and you had to deal with them as they presented themselves. And then it turns out they were all stunning instrumentalists. And that they were also a very fine musical ensemble that played its parts and worked well together. And then there was Sun Ra, who was the king of this realm, at his keyboard."

And from that pulpit, Ra ushered his bandmates from one musical planet to another. And from terrestrial city to city. Originally from Alabama, the keyboardist, born Herman Poole Blount in 1914, willed the Arkestra into being in Chicago in the Fifties, after working with some more straightforward jazz characters, most notably famed big-bander Fletcher Henderson. Most of the 1960s were spent in New York City – the band's residency at long-defunct Manhattan venue Slugs' Saloon is the stuff of legend. (Ra even graced the cover of Rolling Stone in April 1969.) Then the Arkestra settled in Philadelphia, where they still reside today; a chunk of the band has always lived together in a home they call "Saturn House." But no matter their Earthly location, the band was always expanding their scope. Through ancient-sounding folk-jazz and speedy swing on 1965's Angels and Demons at Play; touching balladry and cathartic noise on 1973's Space Is the Place; cozy jazz-meets-R&B and exhilarating funk on 1979's Sleeping Beauty; comedic pop and organ-powered soul on 1983's A Fireside Chat with Lucifer. The message for many was a lyric from "Space Is the Place": "There's no limit to the things that you can do/There's no limit to the things that you can be." 

Neo-soul vocalist Bilal, who samples Ra on his 2013 album A Love Surreal, admires the way Ra laughed in the face of tradition. "Sun Ra just said, 'Fuck all that shit. I'm playing the melody of the universe. This is the frequencies of Saturn,'" he says. "Like, what kind of shit is that? You start talking like that, that just changes the whole way you're listening to something. He eternally took me out of the box and showed me how to think on a whole 'nother level. A cosmic level, you know?"

The avant-garde vocalist Moor Mother, whose gorgeous and frantic 2014 EP ASUNRA SUNYA SIFR is made entirely from Sun Ra samples, extracted a similar lesson from Ra. "Sound is magic," she says. "It's a power; it's a tool; it can activate things. It can change yourself; it can change the people that hear it. I would say that how he worked with sound, we need to learn more about this."

Ra was also a legendary orator. In a mix she put together for the Wire, Moor Mother included a pair of spoken-word pieces from the keyboardist with lines like "Yes, I'm more free than most men/I'm more free than most spirits/But yet I am chained."

"He says things that invite you to think," she explains. "And then to go on a discovery. ... I opened up for Marshall Allen, and just talking to people that have played with [Sun Ra], they say that he has vast knowledge on so many things. So you would ask him a simple question and he would just go on and on about just what he knew about it. And that idea of sharing is just so beautiful to me."

Sinclair learned the same thing firsthand. "A conversation with Sun Ra would be hours of listening to Sun Ra impart advice about everything in the universe. Uninterrupted," he recalls. "The most fascinating thing to me was he would talk to you before a show. You wouldn't talk; he would talk. And he would expound. And preach. And whatever you wanna call it. And then it would be time to go onstage, and he'd go out and play for three hours and he'd come back and he'd pick up the conversation at exactly the same point. And continue until they put you out of the building."

Ra's output as a talker was matched only by his catalogue of albums; Chusid figures he released about 150 LPs during his lifetime. But unauthorized live albums have come out too, and Chusid "had to get that stuff off the market." Chusid chalks these illegitimate releases up to a feverish devotion he recognizes from another artist's fan base.

"I compared Sun Ra to the Grateful Dead in the sense that wherever he went, there were people in the audience with recording devices, capturing the performance and swapping tapes and putting out unauthorized pressings," says Chusid. "And these days, putting them online. And then they followed Sun Ra around the way Deadheads would follow the Dead around. Very similar. Of course, long concerts, long jams, never the same performance twice. Always unpredictable. In that sense, Sun Ra and the Grateful Dead, there's some comparisons to be made there."

Chusid's current work with the Sun Ra catalog is not without precedent; a label called Evidence reissued a number of Ra albums in the Nineties, when a prior resurgence of interest in his work was underway. About a year before Ra's death (and there is specific terminology to be employed here, says Chusid: "We don't say passed or died, but we say 'departed.' Went back to Saturn."), the Arkestra played on a bill with Sonic Youth in Central Park. In 1996, Phish leader Trey Anastasio dropped Surrender to the Air, an avant-garde jazz album featuring Allen and Arkestra trumpeter Michael Ray. In '97, jazz scholar John F. Szwed published Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, the definitive Ra biography. And Arkestra fan favorites like 1969's Atlantis and 1978's Lanquidity were reintroduced throughout the decade.

"Their sources for the recordings, some were very good and some were not so good," remarks Chusid. "But Evidence absolutely deserves everybody's respect for what they did. They preserved Sun Ra's legacy. Without Evidence, I don't think you and I are having a phone conversation."

For all of his influence outside of the jazz sphere, Ra is still adored within the genre as well. In August, the Heliosonic Tone-tette – a group organized by saxophonist Scott Robinson and featuring both Allen and Thompson – released Heliosonic Toneways, Vol. 1, a tribute to the Arkestra's 1965 album The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Vol. 1. The new album, a moody chamber-jazz mission that's as weird as it is alluring, was recorded 50 years to the day after the original LP's studio date. Robinson is attracted to how open everything is in Ra's sphere.

"Many of my very favorite artists are those who create a world," he says. "Instead of trying to fit into everybody else's world, they create their own, because they have the vision and the wherewithal to do it. And I don't mean financial wherewithal; I mean in terms of creative capital. They have the mind for it. That's what Sun Ra did; he created his world and then welcomed everyone into it."

Guitarist Wayne Kramer of MC5, whose song "Starship" borrows Sun Ra lyrics, draws a similar kind of inspiration from Ra's example.

"You know what popular music does? It distracts us," says Kramer. "So you'll go to work every day, and you'll hear your song that you heard yesterday on the radio, and you've been hearing it for 40 years on classic rock, and then you go home and you watch football. And you drink Budweiser. And you go to bed at night and you get up in the morning and go serve your corporate master again. ... And great art is not designed to distract you; it's designed to make you feel something. And to make you think, and to provoke you. And to give you a vision of the world from another perspective. And hopefully to tell the truth about the world that we're all experiencing. That's what great art does and that's what Sun Ra's music is capable of doing."

As for the Arkestra itself, the Solange gigs were only the latest stop. To close out the year, Allen & Co. will play an additional 15 shows in eight countries, including a stop at Brooklyn's BRIC JazzFest on Thursday. (Allen's version of the band puts out albums, too, like Music for the 21st Century, which dropped in 2004 and predominantly features tunes composed or co-composed by the saxophonist.) The Arkestra only ever seems to land long enough for the members to disembark, play some music, and run back on and strap themselves in. Then it's off to the next planet. 

"His music was so advanced, you got to know how to play it and come give it to the people," says Allen of his late collaborator. "And it's the space age, though; it's endless."