upper waypoint

A Beginner's Guide to Sun Ra

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

Sun Ra and his Arkestra perform with a steel sculpture on September 23, 1978, at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Leni Sinclair/Getty Images)

The Sun Ra Arkestra comes to San Francisco this week, and if you’re like most people, you probably find his discography overwhelming. Even diehard fans of Sun Ra, the pianist and bandleader who departed this Earthly plane 30 years ago, regularly discover new material spread across hundreds of releases.

The vast world of Sun Ra’s spaceways is unlike anything in the history of recorded American music. Spanning over four decades, it keeps one foot in the big-band stylings of major figures like Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington, and one in the infinite universe of free jazz and electronic synthesizers.

The band’s shows in San Francisco, in fact, are split along these lines: two nights of the “exploratory side of Sun Ra,” and two nights of a more traditional big-band sound. And while 99-year-old bandleader Marshall Allen won’t be on the stand (he recently stopped touring outside the Philadelphia area), the spirit of refined exploration should be wholly present.

For a newcomer, where to start? Below are five landmark Sun Ra compositions to start you on your journey.


An early tune that wouldn’t be out of place at the Savoy Ballroom in the late 1940s, Sun Ra referred to this as “a different kind of blues.” Note the Eastern influence and the wordplay of the title (“Sun-knowledge-y”), common markers in Sun Ra’s work.


‘Fate in a Pleasant Mood’

Another one of Sun Ra’s more big-band numbers, with traditional horn voicings that bend just a little oblong. Imagine that it’s 1:49 a.m., the supper club’s about to close, and the couples on the dance floor are just as sleepy as the band. (A 1985 version is more upbeat — and out there.)

‘Interplanetary Music’

Recorded in 1960, this shows the shape of Sun Ra’s music to come. Unusual instruments, rhythm and atmosphere over melody, and a repeating chant. In later live performances, this pivotal track would get a full workout.

‘Strange Strings’

Issued in 1967, Strange Strings is the result of Sun Ra giving his band instruments they did not know how to play, rolling tape, and seeing what would happen. Echo effects and a giant pane of sheet metal round out the wild, improvised piece.

‘Space Is the Place’

Sun Ra’s signature song, used in the 1974 film of the same name (filmed in Oakland), also contains his defining ethos: “There is no limit to the things that you can do.” At Sun Ra’s funeral, mourners sang this song on the way out of the church, the melodic lines overlapping with one another to create a vision of infinity.

The Sun Ra Arkestra performs July 20–23 at SFJAZZ in San Francisco. Details here.

lower waypoint
next waypoint