My Inspiration | Fergus Quill & Sun Ra

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JX Bassist, Fergus Quill, wanted to use his 'My Inspiration' pick for this years' Black History Month to give thanks to the irrepressible force of nature, Sun Ra!

Born Herman Poole Blount, May 22, 1914, Sun Ra was a composer, bandleader, pianist, keyboard player and poet known for his experimental music, “cosmic” philosophy, prolific output, and theatrical performances. For much of his career, Ra led “The Arkestra”, an ensemble with an ever-changing name and inter-changeable line-up.

Born and raised in Alabama, Blount became involved in the Chicago jazz scene during the late 1940s. He soon abandoned his birth name, taking the name Le Sony’r Ra, (shortened to Sun Ra), after Ra, the Egyptian God of the Sun. Claiming to be an alien from Saturn on a mission to preach peace, he developed a mythical persona and an idiosyncratic credo that made him a pioneer of Afrofuturism, of which he is an early pioneer. Throughout his life he denied ties to his prior identity, stating that “Any name that I use other than Ra is a pseudonym.”

“He was so important in the development of music in the 20th century, and we quite frankly don’t give him enough credit.

Fergus Quill
My Inspiration | Fergus Quill  & Sun Ra
Fergus (arrow) with his Jazz Exchange band-mates.

The term Afrofuturism first appeared in the article “Black to the Future,” by Mark Dery in 1994, but the theories and practice of it began decades earlier when Herman “Sonny” Blount had a vision/close encounter in which he foresaw that the only way black people would ever escape or overcome the brutality and bigotry with which they lived was to forge their own home in outer space. This vision was even reenacted in the 1974 film “Space is the Place“. 

Sun Ra – Space is the Place (1974)

The influence of Sun Ra can be seen throughout many aspects of black music. He grounded his practice of Afrofuturism in a musical tradition of performing blackness that remains relevant today. Afrofuturism throws the past, present and future into the Cuisinart of Black imagination in order to map out new possibilities of being and argues for imagining new space and time configurations in which Blackness and humanity are synonymous in ways not realised in our current reality.

Sun Ra lived out his beliefs of Afrofuturism in his daily life by embodying the movement not only in his music, but also in his clothes and actions. This embodiment of the narrative allowed him to demonstrate black nationalism as a counternarrative to the present culture.

My Inspiration | Fergus Quill  & Sun Ra
The Sun Ra Arkestra at the Red Garter, NYC (1970). Photo by Lee Santa.

It was in mid-50s Chicago, that Ra began experimenting with “extraterrestriality” in his stage show, sometimes playing regular cocktail lounges dressed in space suits and ancient Egyptian regalia. By placing his band and performances in space and extraterrestrial environments, Sun Ra built a world that was his own view of how the African diaspora connected.

His widely eclectic and avant-garde music echoed the entire history of jazz, from ragtime and early New Orleans hot jazz, to swing music, bebop, free jazz and fusion. His compositions ranged from keyboard solos to works for big bands of over 30 musicians, along with electronic excursions, songs, chants, percussion pieces, and anthems. From the mid-1950s until his death, Ra led the musical collective The Arkestra, which featured artists such as Marshall Allen, John Gilmore and June Tyson throughout its various iterations. Its performances often included dancers and musicians dressed in elaborate, futuristic costumes inspired by ancient Egyptian attire and the Space Age.

Sun Ra performs “Take the A Train” at Montreux Jazz Festival, 1976.

Though his mainstream success was limited, Sun Ra was a prolific recording artist and frequent live performer who remained influential throughout his life for both his music and his unique approach to life. An incomparable innovator; his work in free improvisation and modal jazz and his early use of electronic keyboards and synthesizers was completely unique. Over the course of his career, he recorded dozens of singles and over one hundred full-length albums, comprising well over 1,000 songs, making him one of the most productive recording artists of the 20th century.

He was one of the first people to own his own independent record label, he was one of the first people to purchase the Moog synthesizer, he was a conscientious objector in WWII – in which he was imprisoned and possibly tortured for – the list goes on and on… He was really, really important.”

Fergus Quill

After suffering a stroke in 1990, Ra continued composing, performing, and leading the Arkestra. He even opened a few concerts for the experimental, noise-rock group Sonic Youth who site Ra as a huge influence. In 1992, Sun Ra returned to his birth city of Birmingham to live with his older sister, Mary Jenkins, who cared for him until his soul departed for his true home of outer space, in May, 1993.

On Halloween 2014, the Sun Ra Arkestra — complete with costumes inspired by Egyptian symbolism and science fiction — performed a rousing, out-of-this-world Tiny Desk Concert. The band was led by 91-year-old alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, who’s been with the Arkestra since the early 1950s. All these years later, no one makes soul-stirring, spaced-out jazz quite like the Arkestra.

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