(born May 22, 1914, Birmingham, Ala., U.S.—died May 30, 1993, Birmingham) black American jazz composer and keyboard player who led a free jazz big band known for its innovative instrumentation and the theatricality of its performances.
Sun Ra, who claimed to have been born on the planet Saturn, grew up in Birmingham, studied piano under noted teacher Fess Wheatley, and attended Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College (now University). By the mid-1940s he was living in Chicago and scoring music for nightclub floor shows. In 1946–47 he was apprenticed to swing bandleader-arranger Fletcher Henderson. From the 1950s he led his own bands, the variously constituted Arkestras, which played his own music: an expanded hard bop that included tympani, electric piano, and flute—instruments then rare in jazz. He also was a pioneer of modal jazz settings; among his early works, “Ancient Aiethopia” most successfully unites the diverse strands of his composing.
Sun Ra’s music became increasingly exotic with the addition of African and Latin-American instruments. After the Arkestra moved to New York about 1960, he became wholly involved with free jazz; he dispensed with composition entirely, creating works by conducting his improvisers. Among his free jazz recordings, The Magic City (1965/66) is the most significant.
The Arkestra, which included dancers, dressed in fantastical costumes inspired by ancient Egyptian attire and the space age, and Sun Ra conducted while wearing flowing robes and futuristic helmets. He was highly regarded for his atonal solos on synthesizer, an instrument that he virtually pioneered in jazz. During the 1970s and ’80s Sun Ra’s Arkestra made increasing use of earlier compositions of his own and of composers such as Henderson, Duke Ellington, and Thelonious Monk. He and his music are featured in the films The Cry of Jazz (1959), Space Is the Place (1971), and A Joyful Noise (1980).