Home culture Sun Ra Plays a Music Therapy Gig at a Psychiatric Hospital & Inspires a Patient to Talk for the First Time in Years

Sun Ra Plays a Music Therapy Gig at a Psychiatric Hospital & Inspires a Patient to Talk for the First Time in Years

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Sun Ra Plays a Music Therapy Gig at a Psychiatric Hospital & Inspires a Patient to Talk for the First Time in Years

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For some time now it has been fash­ion­able to diag­nose dead famous peo­ple with men­tal ill­ness­es we nev­er knew they had when they were alive. These post­mortem clin­i­cal inter­ven­tions can seem accu­rate or far-fetched, and most­ly harmless—unless we let them col­or our appre­ci­a­tion of an artist’s work, or neg­a­tive­ly influ­ence the way we treat eccen­tric liv­ing per­son­al­i­ties. Over­all, I tend to think the state of a cre­ative individual’s men­tal health is a top­ic best left between patient and doc­tor.

In the case of one Her­man Poole Blount, aka Sun Ra—com­pos­er, band­leader of free jazz ensem­ble the Arkestra, and “embod­i­ment of Afro­fu­tur­ism”—one finds it tempt­ing to spec­u­late about pos­si­ble diag­noses, of schiz­o­phre­nia or bipo­lar dis­or­der, for exam­ple. Plen­ty of peo­ple have done so. This makes sense, giv­en Blount’s claims to have vis­it­ed oth­er plan­ets through astral pro­jec­tion and to him­self be an alien from anoth­er dimen­sion. But ascrib­ing Sun Ra’s enlight­en­ing, enliven­ing mytho-theo-phi­los­o­phy to ill­ness or dys­func­tion tru­ly does his bril­liant mind a dis­ser­vice, and clouds our appre­ci­a­tion for his com­plete­ly orig­i­nal body of work.

In fact, Sun Ra him­self discovered—fairly ear­ly in his career when he went by the name “Sonny”—that his music could per­haps alle­vi­ate the suf­fer­ing of men­tal ill­ness and help bring patients back in touch with real­i­ty. In the late 50’s, the pianist and composer’s man­ag­er, Alton Abra­ham, booked his client at a Chica­go psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal. Sun Ra biog­ra­ph­er John Szwed tells the sto­ry:

Abra­ham had an ear­ly inter­est in alter­na­tive med­i­cine, hav­ing read about scalpel-free surgery in the Philip­pines and Brazil. The group of patients assem­bled for this ear­ly exper­i­ment in musi­cal ther­a­py includ­ed cata­ton­ics and severe schiz­o­phren­ics, but Son­ny approached the job like any oth­er, mak­ing no con­ces­sions in his music.

Sun Ra had his faith in this endeav­or reward­ed by the response of some of the patients. “While he was play­ing,” Szwed writes, “a woman who it was said had not moved or spo­ken for years got up from the floor, walked direct­ly to his piano, and cried out ‘Do you call that music?’” Blount—just com­ing into his own as an orig­i­nal artist—was “delight­ed with her response, and told the sto­ry for years after­ward as evi­dence of the heal­ing pow­ers of music.” He also com­posed the song above, “Advice for Medics,” which com­mem­o­rates the psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal gig.

It is sure­ly an event worth remem­ber­ing for how it encap­su­lates so many of the respons­es to Sun Ra’s music, which can—yes—confuse, irri­tate, and bewil­der unsus­pect­ing lis­ten­ers. Like­ly still inspired by the expe­ri­ence, Sun Ra record­ed an album in the ear­ly six­ties titled Cos­mic Tones for Men­tal Ther­a­py, a col­lec­tion of songs, writes All­mu­sic, that “out­raged those in the jazz com­mu­ni­ty who thought Eric Dol­phy and John Coltrane had already tak­en things too far.” (Hear the track “And Oth­er­ness” above.) But those will­ing to lis­ten to what Sun Ra was lay­ing down often found them­selves roused from a debil­i­tat­ing com­pla­cen­cy about what music can be and do.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Col­lec­tion of Sun Ra’s Busi­ness Cards from the 1950s: They’re Out of This World

Sun Ra’s Full Lec­ture & Read­ing List From His 1971 UC Berke­ley Course, “The Black Man in the Cos­mos”

When Sun Ra Went to Egypt in 1971: See Film & Hear Record­ings from the Leg­endary Afrofuturist’s First Vis­it to Cairo

Sun Ra Applies to NASA’s Art Pro­gram: When the Inven­tor of Space Jazz Applied to Make Space Art

Watch a 5‑Part Ani­mat­ed Primer on Afro­fu­tur­ism, the Black Sci-Fi Phe­nom­e­non Inspired by Sun Ra

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness



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