Friday, July 4, 2014

Space is the Place: Sun-Ra: Philadelphia & Freemasonry

Once upon a time, back in the 1920s, there was a boy in Birmingham, Alabama who was an honor student at the local high school. He was an avid reader,  and something of a loner. He was possessed of a vivd imagination and he fed that by learning all he could. It is said that he reading everything in the library at the local Prince Hall Lodge, including their collection of books on esoteric concepts and Freemasonry. 

That boy was named Herman Poole Blount. He would eventually change his name to Sony'r Ra, and a variant of that name, Ra Le Sony'r appears on the city records as the owner of his home of many decades at 5626 Morton Street, in Philadelphia's historic Germantown neighborhood. That neighborhood was famous as the home of an early pietist sect of Germans, led by Johannes Kelpius, whom AMORC tries to claim were Rosicrucians. Kelpius suffered, perhaps more after his death than during his life, from being misunderstood and underestimated. Perhaps it is a neighborhood curse, because that can certainly be said of Herman Poole Blount, as well.  Although he became famous world-wide under the name of Sun-Ra, while leading his jazz group The Arkestra, he remains today, 21 years after his departure from this plane of existence, far too underappreciated, whether for his remarkable contribution to avant-guarde Jazz, or to 20th Century Esoteric thought. 
The Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians has this to say of Sun-Ra:
"The greatest of all jazz eccentrics, Sun Ra inspires both fascination and controversy. The bandleader's singular, cosmic vision led him to transcend hardship, derision, and obscurity. An unparalleled performer, he led an expansive yet coherent band of as many as thirty players over four decades, and his vast recorded legacy refutes those who deny his talent. Primarily known as the creator of the "Arkestra," his polymorphic big band, Ra could also be comfortably described as a composer, performer, poet, philosopher, and visionary.

Born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama on May 22, 1914, he legally changed his name to Sony'r Ra in October of 1952. After this date, when questioned about his early life, he insisted he was a visitor from the planet Saturn, and only gave vague indications of his past experiences.

Little Herman began playing piano early in life, and could sight-read and compose by age 11. Birmingham hosted many of the era's most famous performers, and the boy experienced the live sounds of, among others, the bands of Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, and Fats Waller. The young prodigy was said to be able to produce full transcriptions, from memory, of big band performances he had witnessed and was working as a semi-professional pianist by his mid-teens.(web 7/4/2014)

Thom Holms notes in his book, American Popular Music: JAZZ, that  "Sun Ra was a great bandleader, able to manage a wide range of sounds and players into an absorbing and unique jazz experience. He should be discussed in the same light as equally provocative and accomplished avant-garde jazz legends John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, and Ornette Coleman, but he is more often neglected than taken seriously. There are more than 100 recordings of Sun Ra’s music…most produced on his tiny Saturn label, and most not available on compact disc." (2006: 190)

Sun Ra leaned to read music without any training. He did however, acquire more formal music training. In high school, he was a member of several bands and also led his own bands. Some of these bands went on tours, and performed in areas such as Chicago, the East Coast, and the South. He attended Alabama A & M, a black college, where he majored in music education and teacher's training. In the late 1930s he spent time in Indiana and Washington D. C. At the end of the 1930s, he moved to Chicago, where he began his professional career and which was his base of operations for a long period of time. While his music was phenomenal, and he attracted some excellent musicians who were also fascinating individuals and excellent conversationalists, it is his perhaps eccentric esoteric thought that interests us today. 

In The Cosmic-myth Equations of Sun Ra: An Examination of the Unity of Music and Philosophy of an American Creative Improvising Musician (UCLA 1991), David A. Martinelli states that Sun Ra has his own term for what could be called his ethos, world-view, ideology, or philosophy. This term is "equations". Sun Ra has made it clear that he is not dealing with philosophy. He has said "People ask me about my philosophy all the time, but it's not a philosophy, it's an equation". When asked "Has this sort of philosophy been with you ever since the beginning, ever since the (Fletcher) Henderson band?", Sun Ra responded "Philosophy is conjecture. I'm dealing with equations. That's different from philosophy. Philosophy is something like religion, it's a theory. It could be true or not true. But I'm not dealing with theories, I'm dealing with equations". 

Martinelli also indicates that further sources that shed light on Sun Ra's beliefs include Christianity, and Freemasonry and Freemasonry, Ancient Egypt, and Carl Jung's "Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky." 

Sun-Ra's " idea of equations is perhaps best described in his poem "A Blueprint/Declaration":

One part of an equation

Is a blueprint/declaration of the other part


Yet differentially not. . .

It is nothing

If it is all

Still there are different alls

The end is all

But all is everything

Yet if everything is all/the end

It denies the other side of the end

For some ends

Have many points leading to their respective selves

And there are/is each/their many points

Leading out from their

Respective selves

(Sun Ra 1985).

Sun Ra viewed himself as existing apart from humanity. Sun Ra felt that he was limited byhumanity Earth, that he was not free. He said, "I see myself as P-H-R-E but not F-R-E-E. That's the name of the sun in ancient Egypt. I'm not really a person at all" and "Some people are controlled by forces on other planets. I am, so I'm not really free" 

Sun Ra's philosophical ideas or equations are difficult for some to take seriously. Those who separate the equations from the music are missing a great deal. Sun Ra's ideas on duality, the pyramids, the Sphinx, the sun, Ufos, the planet Saturn, and the number nine, symbolize the potential unity of humanity, mentally, physically, and spiritually.

While some may not wish to see a connection between Sun-Ra and Freemasonry, however tenuously you may view it, much of his initial inspirations he owed to that Prince Hall Lodge library back in Birmingham. Whatever you may think of his philosophy, and his music, he had a powerful message, and one which is some fundamental ways, reflects some of the more profound messages found in Freemasonry. If this has sparked your curiosity about the man, his philosophy, or his music, watch the video below. You will at least find it interesting.

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