BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Sun Ra, a trailblazing jazz musician and avant-garde composer for 60 years, has died after a series of strokes. He was 79.
Ra died May 30 at Baptist Medical Center-Princeton, where he had been hospitalized because of the strokes and chronic circulatory problems since Jan. 22, hospital spokesman Greg Bryant said.
He gained recognition in the jazz world for encompassing everything from bop and gospel to blues and electronic sounds.
“He was the last of the big band leaders and arrangers in the tradition of Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and Count Basie,” said Robert Cogan, chair of graduate theoretical studies at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.”At the same time, he was one of the great experimental music creators in this country in the jazz tradition.”
Ra said his experimental sound was often criticized as being “out too far.”
“But they can’t convince all of the people of that, and I bridge the generation gap,” he told the Associated Press in 1985.
Rolling Stone magazine this year called him “the missing link between Duke Ellington and Public Enemy.”
Ten of his recordings made between 1938 and 1960 were recently rereleased.
Starting in 1956, Ra traveled with the Arkestra, a multimedia ensemble that included a large stable of musicians and dancers in extravagant costumes.
The group last played in September in New York City.
Arkestra director John Gilmore said Ra never got the widespread recognition or the financial support he deserved.
“Because he had so much talent and had his groups for so long, I’m left to think he was overlooked because he was black,” Gilmore said.
Ra told the AP that he didn’t regret his lack of commercial success. The biggest stars, he said, “haven’t lived the music I have. It wasn’t about the money. It was about the music.”
The former Herman “Sonny” Blount was already a well-known jazz musician when he changed his name to Sun Ra in the 1950s.
He based his new persona on such diverse elements as the Bible, Egyptian mythology, black spiritualism and science fiction. Ra is the name of the Egyptian sun god.
He was born in Birmingham in May 1914, according to some references. But he liked to say he was born on Saturn and was “about 5,000 years old.”
Ra played in Henderson’s band during the mid-1940s and was an active experimentalist in Chicago music circles. He moved to New York in the 1960s and to Philadelphia in 1969.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Ra recorded “Saturn,””Magic City,””Savoy” and “It’s After the End of the World.” In all, he released more than 200 albums.