Sun Ra (born Herman Poole Blount, 1914–1993) was an American jazz composer, bandleader, piano and synthesizer player, poet and philosopher known for his “cosmic philosophy,” prolific musical output, and energetic experimental big-band performances. He widely claimed (and legitimately believed) he was born on Saturn and was over 5,000 years old.
Ra released over 200 albums, many of which were home-recorded to tapes that he copied himself or cut to vinyl in small batches and sold at shows. He pioneered a lot of experimentation with technology in jazz and free jazz starting as early as the 1950s in Chicago. A funny tidbit about Sun Ra is that as he was experimenting with early synthesizer keyboards, electronics and tape delay, he was given one of the first prototypes of the Minimoog by Robert Moog to play around with before it even went on the market.
In the early 1950s Ra formed the immensely influential Arkestra, which would become his outlet for experimentation and exploration into “space jazz” for the rest of his life. He led the Arkestra like no other bandleader in history, as a musical director but also a spiritual and philosophical leader. The band still performs today, is named after him and dedicated to him. When Ra died in 1993, saxophonist John Gilmore inherited the band until his own untimely death two years later at 63 years old.¹ Directorship of the Arkestra was then taken over by the next in command, saxophonist and composer Marshall Allen, who still leads the group today. Allen has made a lifelong effort to continue the legacy of Sun Ra in his inherited role, bringing the group around the world and teaching audiences about the gifts that Sun Ra has brought the people of Earth.
Here are 10 things Sun Ra can teach us about band leading:
1- Find a language that only your band speaks, and master it.
Sun Ra invented a new way of interacting between conductor and players, a new language of conduction that is still in practice in some free jazz communities. His conduction methods were more influenced by interpretive dance and tai-chi than traditional conducting; he did not have to wave his hands necessarily, to get you to perform a musical task. In fact, in a James Brown kind of way, often he might wave his hands to have the entire horn section hit at the same time, but there wouldn’t be a written note. So what you’d get is the interpretive amalgamation of 15 notes that would all be somehow perfect in that moment.
2- Learn the rule book from others, then throw out the rule book.
Yup, play in people’s bands, see what they do right and wrong, then customize your approach. Simple enough.
3- Work with tight frameworks for your players, and they’ll find limitless expressionistic possibilities within them.
Ra was completely obsessed with precision and discipline, in the thinking that the ancient Egyptians perfectly balanced a creatively fulfilled life-cycle, a spiritual quest, through precision and discipline. Over the years, he filled his Arkestra ensembles with players that he knew could handle being molded and sculpted but would also pop out the other end a truer version of themselves. Channeling creative freedom through “Arkestration” is something every bandleader mediates, but a more focused approach could completely change the band’s dynamic.
4- Sometimes it’s best to show AND tell at the same time.
Ra somehow was able to simultaneously conduct his band and play at the same time. In fact, he often played two synthesizers at once, and conducted the band as well as dancers and singers through changes. Not everyone can do this, most can’t, and no one can like he did, but think about alternative ways to keep the players’ focus on the leader at times, or to grab back their attention after periods of free playing.
5- Leaders find the right sound for every note.
Yes it’s the musician’s job to know their instrument, we should all be able to identify the perfect timbres for each note we play. But it’s the leader who says, “well, maybe we should have this trumpet melody played on the snare drum, let’s hear how that sounds” or “is this progression right for the synth, or the piano, or the harpsichord? And when the other instruments come in, should their tones mimic the properties of the harpsichord?”, etc. When Sun Ra enlisted instrument inventor Bill Sebastian into the Arkestra to play his OVC (Outerspace Visual Communicator), which produced images rather than sounds, it was a way to experiment with playing images as if they were notes, so it was treated like a keyboard.
6- Create the space for capturing spontaneous experimentation.
Ra had most of his bandmates living in his house in Philadelphia, and that house is still where most of the Arkestra lives today. Okay, that’s definitely not a tip for bandleaders per se, but the idea is that creativity can strike at any minute. You might be sitting around playing a lick on the guitar in the living room and someone walks in with their horn and starts playing around it, there’s a tune right there. How as a bandleader can you create that type of spontaneous environment for creation in your rehearsals, or soundchecks, or in the tour van?
7- You are responsible for finding the frontiers.
You didn’t become a leader to sit around and do things like everyone else. It’s your job to lead your group into the unknown, to find new places that you didn’t even know you were looking for. It’s a journey and sometimes there is no map. For Sun Ra, the band was his spiritual spaceship, his “ark.” What vessel is your band and where will it take you?
The Outer Space Employment Agency will take you to the places you want to go, just don’t expect any salaries in their dimension.
8- The voice of the band should reflect the voices of many.
The Arkestra mixed gospel, jazz, bop, boogie woogie, free improvisation, funk, black spirituals, afro-beat, salsa, blues, spoken word and performance art. Create the identity of your band around your influences. The ability to take the voices of many and filter it through one’s musical project in a fluid, powerful way is one quality that a bandleader may strive to achieve.
9- Create ownership amongst bandmates over your vision.
The Arkestra’s members didn’t just play someone else’s music. The path from composition to performance was a fluid journey of creation, implementation and cyclic evolution. Ra might be influenced by his bandmates to create a work that lent itself to their talents, their explorations in sound and technique, and also their weak spots. Yet, as soon as a piece is written, it is embellished by the very performers that contributed to its genesis. They were able to see themselves in his writing, so they could feel at home in his music.
10- It should be hard work, and the bandleader shouldn’t always make it easy.
Musicians need to practice. Their skills need to be stretched, sometimes uncomfortably, but what then is the pay off? The harder you work the bigger the pay off in the music, and in the ascension the music brings to your life. Sun Ra’s Arkestra finds an eternal pool of joy every time they perform, but they’ve put in the work and also the hardship, to get there.
“They say history repeats itself, but history is only his story. You haven’t heard my story yet. What’s your story?” -Sun Ra
Ready to become the next Sun Ra? Learn everything you need to know to manage your next music project in our free course Building a Better Band.
¹ This article has been updated to correct John Gilmore’s age at the time of his death. He was 63, not 43 as previously stated.