Obituary: Sun Ra
Thursday 01 July 1993
Long stays in New York in the 1970s enabled me to witness his influence. Dozens of young men passed through his Arkestra, few failing to acknowledge his inspiration. His pioneering electronic keyboard work inspired a generation of jazz and rock artists, notably Miles Davis.
The Arkestra's African drums and non-Western instruments prefigured the universality of percussion-packed ensembles. His flamboyant dress, echoing the 'Moorish' style of Shriners, came from traditions of personal adornment retained by African peoples in the New World. His recurrent Egyptian motif was copied by the leading 1970s Soul band, Earth, Wind and Fire.
Ra, a child prodigy, majored in music education in Alabama and was already a skilled arranger when he arrived in Chicago. The Arkestra's ensembles, 'ragged' to some, were instrumental extensions of the black church's vocal harmonies. By maintaining a nucleus of musicians for almost four decades, he kept alive the ideals of the great black Swing music pioneers whom he idealised. He issued a total of 115 records, most on his own label, Saturn, setting important standards for productivity and self-reliance.
Combining social endeavour with studying the occult was not unusual among black thinkers of Ra's generation. If people are told they 'have no history', the search for an origin becomes paramount. When he began a perusal of antiquarian literature in the 1940s, the belief in North Africa as the source of certain intellectual traditions was already a century old.
He wrote and distributed proselytising literature designed at consciousness-raising in his immediate community, but also provided guidance and care for countless young men. Among those he counselled and helped conquer addictions were many musicians, including the saxophonists Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane.
Ra was gay himself, but the precise nature of his relationship to his associates has never been known outside that circle. What was clear to me, from our first meeting in 1966, was how he was regarded as a figure embodying the qualities of both mother and father. Helping others to develop self-respect was his mission and he inspired enormous loyalty as a result.
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