Baron Wolman/Courtesy of the artist

Today we celebrate what would have been the 100th birthday of forward-thinking jazz icon Sun Ra. It’s likely you’ve heard his name, but if you don’t know much actually about him or his music, the folks at NPR Music put together a great profile today. Sun Ra was an experimental jazz composer who believed he came from the planet Saturn.  He was so convinced he did not come from Earth, he actually owned a Saturn passport that didn’t contain a birth dates.  Ra was eccentric in all ways, dressing in a style NPR’s Joel Rose described as  “elaborate costumes that were part ancient Egypt, part science fiction.”

He began his jazz career in Chicago where he worked for Fletcher Henderson.  It was in Chicago that he started leading a band known as the Arkestra. Some band members had a hard time understanding Ra’s complicated style of music.  Tenor saxophonist, John Gilmore, recalled that he finally got it one night when they were playing one of their songs “Saturn.”

“‘My gosh, it’s unbelievable that anybody could write meaner intervals than Monk or Mingus. But he does.'”

After Chicago, Ra moved the Arkestra to New York.  He began to take his act to extreme levels through improvisation and new techniques such as using synthesizers.  Some people did not know how to interpret this new-age form of jazz.

In 1969 the band moved from New York to Philadelphia, where they were immediately embraced by the local jazz community and the music scene at large. On Christmas Day in 1976, Sun Ra appeared live on WXPN to read poetry with music playing underneath on the program Blue Genesis. A quote from John Szwed’s book Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra:

The choice of poems and their sequencing offers what Sun Ra thought was most important in his writing. Here are key words like “cosmos,” “truth,” “bad,” “myth,” and “the impossible,”; attention to phonetic equivalence; the universality of the music and its metaphysical status; allusions to black fraternal orders and secret societies; biblical passages and their interpretation; and even a few autobiographical glimpses. The poems were read softly, with little expressions, the music punctuating the words, with the heavy echo and delay in the studio sometimes reducing the words to pure sound without meaning.

Ra died in 1993 after suffering a number of strokes. But since their arrival to the city of Brotherly Love, the Arkestra has continued to make music together, locally as well as all over the world.  They appeared on stage at the XPoNential Music Festival during Yo La Tengo’s set in 2010, and are currently on tour and will play the Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona on May 29th. Today, the Sun Ra Arkestra will play a show in Zurich, Switzerland in honor of Sun Ra’s centennial.

Read or listen to the full story about Sun Ra here, via NPR. Below, download Sun Ra’s 1976 appearance on WXPN.