SAN FRANCISCO -- Though their leader may have left this earthly plane almost a quarter of a century ago, the Sun Ra Arkestra continues to spread its namesake's unique gospel of experimental big-band jazz, theatrical stage performance and his pioneering vision of "Afrofuturism."
Born Herman "Sonny" Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1914, he took to music at a young age, studying classical piano before moving to Chicago while still in his teens. Blount would tour playing piano as a sideman by the time he reached his 20s, eventually working with blues singer Wynonie Harris and as Fletcher Henderson's pianist and arranger before reinventing himself in the late 1940s.
Taking on the name Sun Ra and claiming he had traveled from Saturn to spread a message of peace through music, the pianist would found his Space Trio and start writing songs that moved beyond Ra's roots in swing, stride piano and bebop towards a new sound.
During the '50s, Ra was joined by two of his most important disciples -- tenor saxophonist John Gilmore and alto saxophonist Marshall Allen -- and rechristened his growing ensemble the Arkestra as they explored a style of collective improvisation that make the pianist a pioneer of both free jazz and the early adoption of electronic keyboards. He also began releasing his music via his own label Saturn Records and, by the end of the decade, the band had adopted it's trademark Egyptian-meets-science-fiction stage costumes that only added to the sprawling group's mystique.
In the years that followed, Sun Ra and his Arkestra built themselves a global following with it's ecstatic, exploratory sound and otherworldly live performances. The group moved to New York City and live there communally, finding an audience among beat poets and early fans of psychedelia during the '60s with an extended residency at Slug's Saloon. The group would later relocate to Philadelphia, where the Arkestra kept its home base for much of its existence.
Touring and recording prolifically through the '70s, Sun Ra and company refined their mix of traditional swing (Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson standards had long been part of the group's repertoire) with out there improv, theatrics, dance and African percussion. The musician also branched out into film, co-writing the script for the apocalyptic Afrofuturist science fiction film Space is the Place that was shot in San Francisco and Oakland in 1972 and released two years later. Destined to become a cult classic, the surreal movie features protagonist Ra facing off against the evil Overseer in a card game to decide the future of the black race.
By the '80s and into the early '90s, the group remained a popular touring attraction and jazz festival performer, delivering its unique spectacle to a new generation of fans. Even after Ra's passing in 1993, the Arkestra remained a vital ensemble under the leadership of saxophonist and frequent featured soloist John Gilmore, though he would die two years later.
Since then, alto saxophonist Marshall Allen (a member of the Arkestra for nearly 60 years) has served as the ensemble's musical director and guiding light to continue to preserve Sun Ra's remarkable musical legacy. In 2018, the group returned to San Francisco for the first time in five years to play four incredible nights at the SFJAZZ Center's Miner Auditorium as part of the center's Summer Sessions series. The ensemble released Swirling, the group's first new studio recording in two decades, on Strut Records in 2020 in addition to reissuing many titles from Sun Ra's voluminous back catalog in physical and digital formats.
This year, the Arkestra will perform another four-night run at SFJAZZ starting Thursday. While Allen -- who marked his 99th birthday earlier this year -- is no longer performing with the band except for shows close to his Philadelphia home base, the concerts by the legendary band are still being anticipated as a highlight of the SFJAZZ Summer Sessions. The first two nights will spotlight the Arkestra's more experimental work, while the performances on Saturday and Sunday focus on Ra's more traditional big-band swing music, including his interpretations of standards from the Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington songbooks.
Sun Ra Arkestra
Thursday-Sunday, July 20-23, 7:30 p.m. (7 p.m. Sun.) $25-$65
Miner Auditorium at the SFJAZZ Center
for more features.