CULT CLASSIC: SUN RA AND HIS MYTH SCIENCE ARKESTRA-WHEN ANGELS SPEAK OF LOVE.
Cult Classic: Sun Ra and His Myth Science Arkestra-When Angels Speak Of Love.
One of the most prolific artist of the twentieth century was the inimitable Sun Ra, who released around 125 albums during a career that spanned six decades. One that is a render of one of jazz’s pioneer and innovators is When Angels Speak Of Lovse. It’s also one of Sun Ra’s rarest albums as it was recorded in 1963 and only a small quantity were released in mono in 1966. By then, Sun Ra had achieved much.
Before dawning the moniker Sun Ra, Herman Poole Blount was born on the ‘22nd’ of May 1914, in Birmingham, Alabama. Very little is known about Herman Poole Blount’s early life. So much so, that for many years, nobody knew what age he was. What we do know, is that growing up, Herman Poole Blount immersed himself in music.
He learnt to play the piano at an early age and soon, was a talented pianist. By the age of eleven, Herman Poole Blount was to able read and write music. However, it wasn’t just playing music that Herman Poole Blount enjoyed. When musicians swung through Birmingham, Herman Poole Blount was there to see everyone from Duke Ellington to Fats Waller play. Seeing the great and good of music play live inspired Herman Poole Blount to become a professional musician.
By his mid teens, Herman Poole Blount was a high school student, but even by then, music was his first love. His music teacher John T. “Fess” Whatley realised this, and helped Herman Poole Blount’s nascent musical career.
John T. “Fess” Whatley was a strict disciplinarian, and this rubbed off on Herman Poole Blount. Later, he would acquire a reputation as a relentless taskmaster when he formed his Arkestra. He was determined that the musicians in his Arkestra to reach his high and exacting standards and fulfil the potential that he saw in them. At rehearsals, musicians were pushed to their limits, but this paid off when they took to the stage. Led by Sun Ra, the Arkestra in full flow were peerless. However, that was way in the future. Before that, Herman Poole Blount’s career began to take shape.
In his spare time, Herman Poole Blount was playing semi-professionally in various jazz and R&B groups, and other times, he worked as a solo artist. Before long, Herman was a popular draw. This was helped by his ability to memorize popular songs and play them on demand. Strangely, away from music, the young Herman Poole Blount was very different.
He’s remembered as studious, kindly and something of a loner. Herman Poole Blount was also a deeply religious young man despite not being a member of a particular church. One organisation that Herman Poole Blount joined was the Black Masonic Lodge. This allowed him access to one of the largest collection of books in Birmingham. For a studious young man like Herman Poole Blount, this allowed him to broaden his knowledge of various subjects. Whether this included the poetry and Egyptology that would later influence his musical career.
In 1934, twenty-year-old Herman Poole Blount was asked to join a band that was led by Ethel Harper. She was no stranger to Herman Poole Blount, and just a few years earlier, had been his high school biology teacher. Just a few years later, and he was accepting Ethel Harper’s invitation to join her band.
Before he could head out on tour with Ethel Harper’s band, Herman Poole Blount joined the local Musicians’s Union. After that, he embarked on a tour of the Southeast and Midwest. This was the start of Herman Poole Blount’s life as a professional musician. However, when Ethel Harper left her band to join The Ginger Snaps, Herman Poole Blount took over the band.
With Ethel Harper gone, the band was renamed The Sonny Blount Orchestra, and it headed out on the road and toured for several months. Sadly, The Sonny Blount Orchestra wasn’t making money, and eventually, the band split up. However, other musicians and music lovers were impressed by The Sonny Blount Orchestra.
This resulted in Herman Poole Blount being always in demand as a session musician. He was highly regarded within the Birmingham musical community, so much so, that he was awarded a music scholarship to Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University in 1937. Sadly, he dropped out after a year when his life changed forever.
In 1937, Herman Poole Blount experienced what was a life-changing experience. It’s a story he told many times throughout his life. He describes a bright light appearing around him and his body changing. “I could see through myself. And I went up … I wasn’t in human form … I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn. They teleported me. I was down on a stage with them. They wanted to talk with me. They had one little antenna on each ear. A little antenna over each eye. They talked to me. They told me to stop attending college because there was going to be great trouble in schools … the world was going into complete chaos … I would speak through music, and the world would listen. That’s what they told me.” For a deeply religious young man, this was disturbing and exciting. It certainly inspired the young Herman Poole Blount.
After his: “trip to Saturn,” Herman Poole Blount decided to devote himself to music. So much so, that he hardly found time to sleep. Day in, day out, Herman Poole Blount spent his time practising and composing new songs in his first floor home which he had transformed into a musical workshop. That was where also where he rehearsed with the musicians in his band. Away from music, Herman Poole Blount took to discussing religious matters. Mostly, though, music dominated his life.
It was no surprise to when Herman Poole Blount announced that he had decided to form a new band. However, his new band was essentially a new lineup of The Sonny Blount Orchestra. It showcased the new Herman Poole Blount, who was a dedicated bandleader, and like his mentor John T. “Fess” Whatley, a strict disciplinarian. Herman Poole Blount was determined his band would be the best in Birmingham. This proved to be the case as seamlessly, The Sonny Blount Orchestra were able to change direction, as they played an eclectic selection of music. Before long, The Sonny Blount Orchestra were one of most in-demand bands in Birmingham, and things were looking good for Herman. Then in 1942, The Sonny Blount Orchestra were no more when Herman was drafted.
On receiving his draft papers, Herman Poole Blount declared himself a conscientious objector. He cited not just religious objections to war and killing, but that he had to financially support his great-aunt Ida. Then there was the chronic hernia that blighted Herman Poole Blount’s life. Despite his objections the draft board rejected his appeal, and things got worse for Herman Poole Blount.
Herman Poole Blount’s family was embarrassed by his refusal to fight, and some turned their back on him. Eventually, though, Herman Poole Blount was offered the opportunity to do Civilian Public Service. However, he failed to appear at the camp in Pennsylvania on the December ‘8th’ 1942.
This resulted in Herman Poole Blount being arrested, and when he was brought before the court, Herman Poole Blount debated points of law and the meaning of excerpts from the Bible. When this didn’t convince the judge Herman Poole Blount said he would use a military weapon to kill the first high-ranking military officer possible. This resulted in Herman Poole Blount being jailed. For Herman, this led to one of the most disturbing periods in his life.
Herman Poole Blount’s experience in military prison were so terrifying and disturbing that he felt he no option but to write to the US Marshals Service in January 1943. By then, Herman felt he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He was suffering from stress and feeling suicidal. There was also the constant fear that he would be attacked by others within the military prison. Fortunately, the US Marshals Service looked favourably on his letter.
By February 1943, Herman Poole Blount was allowed out during the day to work in the forests around Pennsylvania. At nights, he was able to play the piano. A month later, Herman Poole Blount was reclassified and released from military prison. This brought to an end what had been a harrowing period of his life.
Having left prison, Herman formed a new band. They played around the Birmingham area for the next two years. Then in 1945, when his Aunt Ida died, Herman Poole Blount left Birmingham, and headed to the Windy City of Chicago.
Now based in Chicago, Herman quickly found work within the city’s vibrant music scene. This included working with Wynonie Harris and playing on his two 1946 singles, Dig This Boogie and My Baby’s Barrelhouse. After that, Herman Poole Blount worked with Lil Green in some of Chicago’s strip clubs. Then in August 1946, Herman Poole Blount started working with Fletcher Henderson but by then, the bandleader’s fortunes were fading.
By then, Fletcher Henderson’s band was full of mediocre musicians, and to make matters worse, the bandleader was often missed gigs. This couldn’t be helped as Fletcher Henderson, was still recovering after a car accident. What Fletcher Henderson needed was someone to transform his band’s failing fortunes and this was where Herman came in. His role was arranger and pianist, but realising the band needed to change direction, he decided to infuse Fletcher Henderson’s trademark sound with bebop. However, the band were resistant to change and in 1948, Herman left Fletcher Henderson’s employ.
Following his departure from Fletcher Henderson’s band, Herman formed a trio with saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and violinist Stuff Smith. Alas, the trio was somewhat short-lived and didn’t release any recordings.
By then, Chicago was changing, and was home to a number of African-American political activists. Soon, a number of fringe movements sprung up who were seeking political and religious change. When Herman became involved he was already immersing himself in history, especially, Egyptology. He was also fascinated with Chicago’s many ancient Egyptian-styled buildings and monuments. This resulted in Herman Poole Blount discovering George GM James’ book The Stolen Legacy which turned out to be a life-changing experience.
In The Stolen Legacy, George GM James argues that classical Greek philosophy actually has its roots in Ancient Egypt. This resulted in Herman concluding that the history and accomplishments of Africans had been deliberately denied and suppressed by various European cultures. It was as if Herman’s eyes had been opened and was just the start of a number of changes in his life.
As 1952 dawned, Herman had formed a new band, The Space Trio. It featured saxophonist Pat Patrick and Tommy Hunter. At the time, they were two of the most talented musicians Herman knew. This allowed him to write even more complicated and complex compositions. However, in October 1952 the author of these tracks was no longer Herman Poole Blount was Sun Ra had just been born.
Just like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, adopting the name Sun Ra was perceived by some as Herman choosing to dispense with his slave name. This was a kind of spiritual rebirth for Sun Ra, and was certainly was a musical rebirth.
After Pat Patrick got married, and moved to Florida, this left The Space Trio with a vacancy for a saxophonist. Tenor saxophonist, John Gilmore was hired and filled the void. He would become an important part of Sun Ra’s band in the future.
So would the next new recruit alto saxophonist Marshall Allen. They were then joined by saxophonist James Spaulding, trombonist Julian Priester and briefly, tenor saxophonist Von Freeman. Another newcomer was Alton Abraham, who would become Sun Ra’s manager. He made up for Sun Ra’s shortcomings when it came to business matters.
While he was a hugely talented bandleader, who demanded the highest standards, Sun Ra, like many other musicians, was no businessman. With Alton Abraham onboard, Sun Ra could concentrate on music while his new manager took care of business. This included setting up El Saturn Records, an independent record label, which would release many of Sun Ra’s records. However, El Saturn Records didn’t released Sun Ra and His Arkestra’s debut album, Jazz By Sun Ra.
Instead, Jazz By Sun Ra was released in 1956, on the short-lived Transition Records. However, Sun Ra and His Arkestra’s sophomore album Super Sonic Jazz was released in March 1956, on El Saturn Records. Sound Of Joy was released on Delmark in November 1956. However, it was El Saturn Records that would release the majority of Sun Ra and His Arkestra’s albums.
In 1961, Sun Ra deeded to leave Chicago and move to New York where he would begin a new chapter in his career. Much had happened to Sun Ra since he first arrived in Chicago 1945 as the World War II drew to a close. Back then, he was still called Herman Poole Blount and was trying to forge a career as a musician. By the time he left Chicago he was a pioneer of free jazz
Phase Two-New York.
Sun Ra and His Arkestra journeyed to New York in the autumn of 1961, where they lived communally. This allowed Sun Ra to call rehearsals at short notice, and during the rehearsals, he was a relentless taskmaster who was seeking perfection. However, this paid off and Sun Ra and His Arkestra recorded a string of groundbreaking albums. This included Secrets of the Sun in 1962 which was the most accessible recording from their solar period. However, Sun Ra and his music continued to evolve in the Big Apple
The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra Volume 1 was released by Sun Ra and his Solar Arkestra in 1965. Sun Ra had dispensed was the idea of harmony and melody, and also decided there should be no continuous beat. Instead, the music revolved around improvisation and incorporated programmatic effects. This was the case The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra Volume 2 which was released later in 1965.
As Sun Ra and His Arkestra came to the end of their time in New York, their music was often described as “avant-garde jazz” or “free jazz.” However, Sun Ra started to reject the free jazz label that was attached to his music. He pointed out that his music had been influenced by different types of ethnic music and he often used percussion, synths and in one case strings. Regardless of the the name given to Sun Ra’s music, it was album innovative. This was the case with Sun Ra and His Myth Science Arkestra’s 1966 album When Angels Speak Of Love.
A year after releasing Secrets Of The Sun, Sun Ra And His Myth Science Arkestra released When Angels Speak Of Love in 1966. It was also reissued by Grey Scale and showed a very different side of Sun Ra.
When Angels Speak Of Love was released on Sun Ra’s El Saturn label, and was only available by mail order or at concerts. Those that bought When Angels Speak Of Love discovered what some critics at the time called “a bizarre record” However, these critics failed to discover what was a truly groundbreaking album where Sun Ra And His Myth Science Arkestra continued to move free jazz in a new direction.
To do this, they used increasingly shrill notes, layered rhythms and effects including echo reverb. During Next Stop Mars, which is the centrepiece and highlight of the album, a space chant sets the scene for Marshall Allen and John Gilmore braying, growling and shrill horns as they push them to the limits. Meanwhile, Sun Ra’s keyboards underpin the arrangement, during Next Stop Mars, which was part of genre-melting album of groundbreaking album.
It finds Sun Ra And His Myth Science Arkestra fusing avant-garde and free jazz with their unique brand of space age jazz on When Angels Speak Of Love. For fans of Sun Ra’s music this was album where not for the first time, he was way ahead of the curve musically.
Sadly, Sun Ra died on May the ’30th’ 1993, aged just seventy-nine. That day, music lost an innovative musician who had played his part in rewriting the history of jazz. Sun Ra is remembered as one of the pioneers of free jazz, and helped shape the genre on over 125 albums.
For nearly forty years, Sun Ra pushed musical boundaries to their limits, and sometimes, way beyond. He was a pioneer and innovator, and also a perfectionist and relentless taskmaster. With some of most talented, inventive and adventurous musicians of their generation, Sun Ra set about honing his Arkestra’s sound. He was demanding and exacting standards. Second best was no use to Sun Ra. What he was after was an Arkestra who were innovators and musical adventurers.
Sun Ra was never content to stand still musically, and was always looking to reinvent familiar tracks. The original version of a song was merely the starting point. What it became, was anyone’s guess? Sun Ra was forever determined to innovate, and when he reinvented a track, he took the music in the most unexpected direction. He combined Egyptian history and space-age cosmic philosophy with free jazz, avant-garde, improv. Another component of Sun Ra’s music was his unique and inimitable brand of futuristic, space-age jazz which was part of an innovative fusion that totally transformed the career of the man born Herman Poole Blount.
Very little is know about the early years of Herman Poole Blount. However, over a long and illustrious career that spanned six decades, Sun Ra fulfilled his potential and became a giant and legend of jazz. This took time, patience and dedication and by his death in 1993, Sun Ra had come a long way since his early days as musician in Birmingham, Alabama.
The early days of Sun Ra’s career as a musician in Birmingham, Alabama, helped shape him, and make him the man and musician that he later became. So did his mentor John T. “Fess” Whatley, his religion and the time Herman Poole Blount spent studying at the Black Masonic Lodge, in Birmingham. That was where his love of poetry and interest in Egyptology blossomed. This helped shape the future Sun Ra’s philosophy and music. However, it was his ‘trip’ to Saturn that changed his life forevermore and influenced the music he made as Sun Ra.
By his death in 1993, Sun Ra had released over 125 albums with a variety of different bands. This includes Sun Ra and His Myth Science Arkestra who released When Angels Speak Of Love in 1966. It’s a reminder of the Sun Ra, the man simply known as Mr. Mystery, who was musical pioneer who spent six decades creating groundbreaking, innovative and inventive music which nowadays, is more popular than ever.
Cult Classic: Sun Ra and His Myth Science Arkestra-When Angels Speak Of Love.