Sun King

The hokum of hippies or a boon to jazz progress? You decide.

The continued existence of the Sun Ra Arkestra a full decade after its leader's passing testifies to the power of Sun Ra's music and mythology. Born Herman "Sonny" Blount in Chicago in 1914, the pianist who changed his name to Sun Ra and claimed the planet Saturn as his native land grew up on Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson during the golden age of big-band swing. In the 1940s he arranged standard tunes for a declining Henderson, yet by the '50s, Sun Ra had begun directing his own Arkestra, which became the prototype for large-ensemble collective improv from the '60s onward.

A charismatic performer and visionary bandleader, Sun Ra upended jazz conventions in countless ways, from pioneering the use of synthesizers in big-band arrangements to adding Space Age, Afrocentric theatrical elements (including sparkly costumes, modern dance, and poetry readings) to his live concerts. While these innovations led to underground infamy and a worldwide cult following, they failed to earn the artist much commercial or critical success in his lifetime. In the Bay Area's cool-to-be-strange music community, however, Sun Ra has long been something of a mystical father figure.

Marshall Allen, current 
leader of the 
Marshall Allen, current leader of the Arkestra.

"He instructed all who explore the lines between jazz and creative improvised music," says local percussionist and composer Garth Powell, whose KLiP Trio called its trippy new vinyl-only release Herman Sonny Blount (Omniversal Ambassador). "The title track was written as a prayer to Sun Ra after he passed away," Powell explains. "The subtitle has to do with Sun Ra's assertion that he was from other worlds. ... He had heard different musics, had seen different dances, and was 'in touch and in tune' with the creator of the omniverse." While this may sound like the hokum of hippies, an ineffable something clearly inspires longtime Arkestra members like saxophonist Marshall Allen and trombonist Tyrone Hill to drive the music forward, which is the ultimate boon for jazz present and future.

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