Arrival Day: Celebrating Sun Ra 110 Years Later

One hundred and ten years ago today, the jazz visionary Sun Ra arrived on this planet in the city of Birmingham, Alabama. Though Sun Ra would always claim extraterrestrial origins (he rejected the notion of a “birthday,” claiming May 22 only as his arrival day), he was in many ways shaped by the city of its youth and its thriving musical culture. By the time he left the South in 1946, he had established himself as one of Birmingham’s most popular and original bandleaders. In this excerpt from Magic City: How the Birmingham Jazz Tradition Shaped the Sound of America, Burgin Mathews describes one of Sun Ra’s (then, Herman “Sonny” Blount’s) early musical innovations.

“I never thought I would be a musician,” recalled pianist and trumpeter Walter Miller. “It just happened that I used to hear the sounds far away; maybe a couple of blocks away.” Miller, about thirteen years old, traced those sounds to the home of a classmate, saxophonist Huntington “Big Joe” Alexander. Big Joe already belonged to Sonny Blount’s band, and Miller soon followed, launching a lifelong friendship with the bandleader. He went on to play with Lionel Hampton and spent years working for Ray Charles, but he always came back to Sonny and his band; a disciple for life and a direct link to Sun Ra’s early years in Birmingham, he was the only musician whose collaboration with Sun Ra spanned half a century.

            “Sun Ra’s always been out there,” Miller said. “He’s been speakin’ about outer space ever since I met him, from a kid out of grade school.” And it was not only space: “Sun Ra was the guy that always talked about electricity. Constantly, he told the musicians that there would come a time when all the musicians would be involved with electricity. They would have electric instruments. And this was in the forties”—years before such predictions came true.

            Sonny himself would be a pioneer in electrified music, which he introduced into Birmingham’s most elite social spheres. “Tonight at eleven o’clock,” the Birmingham World reported on January 3, 1941:

members of Birmingham’s “gilt-edge” social set will be converging at the Elks Rest where the Esquire Club, popular young men’s organization, will be host at their annual dance. Music for the occasion will be furnished by the popular Society Troubadours’ Orchestra [with] vocal sallies by lovely Dolly Brown. Sonny Blount, pianistwith the aggregation will introduce his new instrumental solo rage which has captured the fancy of dance-goers hearing the novelty in private dance sessions. Fancy instrumental renditions will highlight the musical side of the Esquire dance.

On the same newspaper page, the “Society Slants” column dropped the same mysterious bait: “The orchestra has planned to introduce a new instrumental treat and you had better be on hand for … this ‘gyration special.’”

            Sonny had first unveiled the new contraption at a Christmas night dance with [his vocal quartet,] the Rhythm Four; no one in Birmingham had seen or heard anything like it. As bandmate Frank Adams recalled, Sonny was always drawn to new technologies: transistor radios (with which he picked up the most modern sounds from New York), wire recorders (which he set up on the Masonic Temple stage when an act like Ellington’s came to town), and now this strange instrumental device which he made a centerpiece of all his musical endeavors. Introduced by the Hammond Organ Company in 1939, the Solovox was a small amplified keyboard that could be attached to any piano to create moody electronic vibes. Sonny adopted it immediately and the end of 1940 was already producing with it electric sounds that would not enter the mainstream—of jazz, gospel, or any other genre—for another couple of decades. Fittingly, the eerie, unearthly hum of the thing anticipated also the sci-fi soundtracks of countless late-night, flying-saucer movies, another trend well into the future.  

            The Solovox became a core of Sonny’s act. “Tonight, 9 till 1, Sunset Casino will be jumping,” the Atlanta Daily World predicted in the summer of 1941, “as Sonny Blount and his famous swing band from Birmingham, Alabama, ‘sells jive’ for Atlanta gay nightlifers and jitterbugs de luxe.

“The famous Hammond organ will be worked overtime as Sonny, widely heralded for his lofty rank as an artist on the ‘solo-vax,’ [sic] will be a singular treat for the guests.”

A few months later, Sonny played the opening of Club Congo, a new venue on the Bessemer Highway, and for the next year his “Solo Vox Band” led the floor show each Saturday and Sunday night. Club Congo offered entertainments more adventurous than dances with the Masons or Elks: here, Sonny’s band was central feature in a twice-weekly “Variety Show of Live Wire Entertainment,” events whose casts also included “Ace Comedian” Jazzbo Williams, an “Exotic Shake Dancer” named Madame Sonja, and Chick, the “Prince of the Rug Cutters.” The shows mimicked the glamorous, sometimes wild revues of venues like Chicago’s Club DeLisa; they also offered Sonny a broader, freer canvas on which to develop his act. At the Congo, musicians provided more than backdrop to elite dances: they presented a full-blown spectacle, full of costumes and humor, synthesized Solovox vibes, and wide-open swing. In the pages of the Weekly Review, J. B. Sims—former Bama State Collegian and, now, Birmingham’s most irrepressible social columnist—repeatedly extoled Sonny and his Solo-Vox as the hottest act in town.

            For Sonny, nights at the Congo foreshadowed musical adventures to come. But all the while, and for all his band’s acclaim, Sonny’s sense of otherness and isolation only continued to grow. He may have won fans and attracted a core of musician-followers, but there was no one to whom he felt truly close. “Sonny was just one of those guys,” said [drummer] Wilson Driver, “who had a way about him—kept his own counsel.” Part of his difference was physical: he suffered from a testicular hernia which brought him tremendous periods of pain, left him uninterested in sex, and underscored for him a private sense of deformity. Increasingly, he found it difficult, even impossible, to relate to humanity—and as humanity edged toward another World War, sweeping him up in its storm, he suffered a trauma that would only alienate him further.