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
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor