Sun Ra (1914–1993)

Updated: March 01, 2011

Jazz keyboardist, bandleader, and composer.

Born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, on May 22, 1914, Sun Ra led an innovative jazz big band that toured Appalachia as well as much of the country over a period of forty years. Although this band, usually called the Arkestra, was most influential through its work in Chicago and New York, Sun Ra remained associated with Appalachia throughout his career. He relocated near northern Appalachia in the 1970s and continued to give concerts across the region into the early 1990s.

Sun Ra worked as a freelance pianist in the 1930s, touring in Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and the Carolinas. Following a brief tenure as a pianist and copyist with jazz bandleader Fletcher Henderson in the late 1940s, Sun Ra became active in the Chicago jazz scene, making his mark as a distinctive composer and arranger. After several years in New York City, he and the Arkestra relocated to Philadelphia in 1970. The band became well known internationally, recording frequently and touring Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Sun Ra maintained his group for forty years despite encountering racism and enduring financial hardships. He saw himself as a mystic; his interests went beyond music into the fields of mythology, numerology, and African American history. Often stating that he was from the planet Saturn, Sun Ra led his “space orchestra” in concerts that included elaborate costumes, light shows, slide presentations, and dance. A pioneer in free jazz and electronic music, he anticipated later developments in aleatoric music (music that incorporates elements of chance in its structure), microtonality, and minimalism. Sun Ra died May 30, 1993.

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"Sun Ra," Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2018, Encyclopedia of Appalachia. 23 Sep 2018 <>

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Sun Ra