1993 + 30 = Saturn (or, a Sun Ra Sampler)

Sean Murphy
6 min readMay 30, 2023

Thirty years ago, today, Herman Poole Blount, aka Sonny Blount, aka Le Sony’r Ra, aka SUN RA, left these spheres to (take your pick): return to Saturn, whence he came, or to travel the spaceways, or blaze new sonic trails in other galaxies or –the correct choice– all of the above.

The facts: He was born on May 22, 1914. He died on May 30, 1993. He managed to be an earthling, or embody one, as well as anyone who has ever worn skin as mask or shield or, in his case, compromise. He lived to build the legacy we’re still grappling with today, and it’s hour after hour (after hour) of musical treasure that all of us, in our lifetimes, could never trace to the beginning or see to the end. He was a genius. He was hardly afforded the serious regard and approbation, not to mention respect, to which he was fully entitled, making him more of less like so many other icons, particularly our African American trailblazers who, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, had to overcome a great deal just to arrive, alive, at the starting gate.

If you’re intrigued and would like to read more, start here and then, if you’re ready (hint: you aren’t; no one else has ever been, either, and the only way forward is to dive in and be swallowed whole by this Super-Sonic Jazz), check out his discography which, and there’s no other word for it, is astonishing. Miraculous, too.

I have published three poems about Sun Ra (the first, from my first collection The Blackened Blues, and the other two, from my follow-up, Rhapsodies in Blue) and you can check those out, below. But the best way to talk about Sun Ra is to shut up and listen, so I’ll offer up some songs and suggest some gateway albums to ease open the floodgates.

That’s just a taste; three waves gently kissing the shore, and there’s an entire ocean of strange, soothing, life-altering sounds that ceaselessly roll on (for instance, I easily could have chosen this one, this one, or this one). For newbies, pretty much anything from the mid 1950’s to mid 1960’s will prove a safe and satisfying point of entry. If you want some additional guidance, I’d say cue up Angels and Demons at Play, or Visits Planet Earth/Interstellar Low Ways, or The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra. And, unlike your humble narrator, who was navigating a mostly analog world, circa 1998, where you could only find reissues of Sun Ra’s work online (without samples), it was a leap of faith. I wouldn’t trade that surprise and delight for anything (and, if nothing else, it proved that you pretty much couldn’t go wrong; there were certainly some albums I liked, immediately and more than others, but there was nothing I spent money I scarcely had that I ever regretted acquiring. Considering the scope of his recorded output, think about that statement and what it signifies), you can always go to YouTube and peruse.

Sun Ra’s* Spaceship

I’m not of this world, Ra insisted, and it was obvious

to everyone: He ain’t one of us. You see, he swore, I am

from out there: I conjure up other worlds that could break your brain.

And to be Blount? This claim was only scarcely less credible

than faithful suckers talking to an old man in outer space.

Listen: magic’s a trick when these cities are always the same,

suits suffocating fools and men calling you son, not Sonny —

an alien in their eyes — with black holes for hearts and their ears

stuffed with corn, that slop discreet folks covet for colorless meals,

when earthlings turn on machines to distract them from inner space.

(*Sun Ra (born Herman Poole Blount) was an American jazz composer, bandleader, piano and synthesizer player, poet and philosopher known for his experimental music, “cosmic philosophy”, prolific output, and theatrical performances. Born and raised in Alabama, Blount would eventually become involved in the 1940s Chicago jazz scene. He soon abandoned his birth name, taking the name Sun Ra (after Ra, the Egyptian God of the Sun) and developing a complex persona and mythology that would make him a pioneer of Afrofuturism: he claimed he was an alien from Saturn on a mission to preach peace, and throughout his life he consistently denied any ties to his prior identity.)

DuBose Heyward’s Blues*

Even in the 1980’s it wasn’t all bad

because in English 101 I first read

Porgy and Bess and it prepared me

for some things, especially when —

a few years later — Miles smiled

and I finally began to comprehend

a truth or two that anthologies

and college professors can never

articulate, words failing to explain shit

like context and cause and effect, and how

could “Summertime” break my brain

then build it back up each time, reaching me

in its wordless way? Then in walked Bud,

& Ella & Billie & Nina, so by the time I got to

post-grad I knew more about Gershwin —

(& appropriation) and how once again black artists

were obliged to reclaim their culture, elevating us

to places we wouldn’t need to go if the American Dream

offered what was advertised (words, again, talking

a big game but coming up empty in extra innings) and

why I see Emmet Till when Sun Ra takes his solo

on “I Loves You, Porgy,” proving truth’s more painful

than fiction b/c it feels real, even to not-so-innocent

bystanders, and maybe that’s why a recording from 1960

can kill me in all the right ways — suggesting something

about humankind’s deficiencies or redemption — and how

wood, brass, and wind express what words never could.

So, you see, this is what it means when I admit I don’t know

the blues but I understand them, or possibly I’ve got that

backwards, b/c my ears discern what my mind can’t define.

(*American writer Edwin DuBose Heyward’s most famous novel, Porgy (1925), was the basis of George Gershwin’s controversial opera Porgy and Bess (1935), featuring the compositions “Summertime,” and “I Loves You, Porgy,” both of which became jazz standards in subsequent decades, indelibly covered by icons like Miles Davis, Nina Simone, and Billie Holiday.)

Sun Ra’s Moonshot

“I wasn’t using any gasoline. I’m using sound.”

–Sun Ra

The meter already running, Sun Ra slams

out of the gate in his understated style — all

urgency and deep cool combined (by design):

Duke Ellington on acid, a transmission from Saturn

Big-Band style: an electric church alive with brass;

our maestro organ-izing, teetering as he was

on the edge of His Story, encyclopedic

with Giant Steps and new sounds conceived,

one inward eye seeing what would be, aware

on some level he was the traveler carrying a torch

to illuminate this new abnormal, notes falling

like sheets of fire — cold by the time they landed

on planet earth, He the Player to be named Later.

And suddenly Time itself stops, breaking down

like atoms emptying back into nothing,

John Gilmore marrying free jazz to funk —

switching from Coltrane to “Cold Sweat,”

jump-starting lives unlived and sounds not yet

conceived — and your ears, benefitting from

half a century’s hindsight, might detect

proto trip-hop, the big come-down

from set lists crammed with cosmic slop:

an entire history of sound broken down, grinding

to a halt, like new life in the process of becoming

reincarnated, a reminder that this is how we turn

ourselves into art, then imitate the act, differently

every time and yet, somehow, ceaselessly the same.

(*The track “Pleasant Twilight” appears on Sun Ra’s album My Brother the Wind, Vol. 2, released in 1971.)

Happy travels; see you on the other side.

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Sean Murphy

Executive Director, 1455, @1455LitArts. Avoiding quiet desperation by any means necessary http://seanmurphy.net