Obituary: Sun Ra

SUN RA was no stranger to uninformed comment regarding his philosophy and dress-sense, but in trivialising his musical contribution, your obituary (by Steve Voce, 1 June) did history a disservice, writes Val Wilmer.

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.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Guru Careers: Graduate Resourcer / Recruitment Account Executive

£18k + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a bright, enthusiastic and internet...

Reach Volunteering: Chair and trustees sought for YMCA Bolton

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Bolton YMCA is now a...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?