He was a jazz titan who achieved little mainstream success, a big band leader, a free spirit, a poet, the author of thousands of songs, and, as he sometimes claimed, a resident of the planet Saturn who dropped by our humble planet for a little musical interlude. NPR today takes a look back at the late Sun Ra on the occasion of his presumed 100th birthday—or perhaps, his arrival on Earth, specifically Birmingham, Ala., where he was born Herman "Sonny" Blount. Eventually, he ended up in Chicago in the '50s, where he "was doing fairly straight things—blues, dance tunes, whatever," says his biographer, but "there was this hint of something else."
Not long after, he changed his name to Sun Ra and founded the a big band called the Arkestra. His own tenor sax player says he didn't understand what Ra was about until "I really heard the intervals this one night and I said, 'My gosh, it's unbelievable that anybody could write meaner intervals than or Monk or Mingus. But he does.'" Ra's creativity, perhaps born of his insomnia that drove him to make music most hours of the day, seemed to spiral from there. "He went to extremes," says his biographer. "He'd have musclemen painted gold, jugglers, women carrying glowing balls like turn-of-the-century dancers." Ra died in 1993; his Arkestra plays on and will mark his centennial today with a concert in Zurich. Need a crash course on Ra? NPR has a primer here.