Sometimes it's not about how good something is in the moment, or what the point of purpose is. Sometimes the impressive thing is the fact that it happened at all. That's my take on the legacy of Sun Ra. He is of a type of singular musician that ultimately furthers the dialogue about creativity and music.
Sun Ra lead countless professional combos and toured the world, created his own method of musical notation, recorded and released over a hundred albums of original compositions, was an early and innovative user of electronic instruments and recording technologies, and was well known - if not always appreciated - amongst his contemporaries. His musical influence is legitimate and his influence on the music business is surprisingly far-reaching for someone who insisted he was from Saturn.
Sun Ra only received a token notice from the mainstream during his lifetime. He was never on the star path; he didn’t assume a heroic role, or play the antithesis of one, and basically nothing about his presentation was particularly relatable. His commercial potential was essentially zero, but it didn’t slow him down. He stayed pragmatic, from self-publishing albums, to living communally at times with his band, to using homemade instruments (because the music was from Saturn, but also perhaps because real instruments could be too expensive to repair).
None of this would matter if the mountain of music he left behind sounded self-absorbed, a little too comfortable, conformist, lame. Quite the opposite: the music is challenging. Sun Ra is a rare original in the annals of commercial music. He insisted he was from outer space and his music sounded like it. It can seem like a novelty, but he was 100% committed. The value of his contribution continues to grow with time.
Sun Ra was and still is a curious outlier in the world of Jazz. I’ve intimated that he made “space” music, but by training he was in the jazz idiom, albeit knowingly on the margins. I find his aesthetic to be inscrutable but nonetheless fascinating to consider. What gives a man such self-possession to make music that sounds like no other? To my mind, the gravity starts to take hold upon considering who Sun Ra really was and what he accomplished in his life, thoughts beyond this blog post.
If you are new to Sun Ra, you might not know where to begin to appreciate his music. I don’t know of a right answer, but personally, I was hooked by several recordings he made between the late 1950s and late 1960s, such as Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy (1967), Jazz in Silhouette (1959) and the Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra (1965). I haven’t listened to everything – and it’s not known exactly how much stuff was and/ or is still available – but I found these records to be a good place to start. For more background, I recommend the definitive biography Space is the Place by John Szwed.