Most artists want their work to be understood. In retrospect, it seems that the jazz bandleader Sun Ra, born Herman Blount, wanted not so much to be understood as to be needed. He seemed to have a Messiah complex, perhaps from being a smart young man in a miserable place and time: Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1920s and early ’30s. He didn’t think much of other human beings, and he eventually wrote himself into a fantasy of being teleported to Earth by Saturnians. He stuck to the letter of that story, never giving the game away.
How could you not want to know more? How could you resist buying a ticket to see a hard-shell isolationist who also believed in the full sensual experience of prewar black-variety-show entertainment? Consummate showman that he was, Ra remained one step ahead of you. “I’m not no human,” he often said to interviewers. It always seemed he might be leaving himself an out in that double negative.
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