In 1952, Down Beat magazine published a special issue honoring Duke Ellington on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his historic Cotton Club debut; four years later, during a period when his band was struggling, he would be featured on the cover of Time. Also punctuating 1952 was the election of President Dwight Eisenhower, the release of Hank Williams’s“Your Cheatin’ Heart,” the publication of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and the explosion of the first hydrogen bomb by the United States on Eniwetok Atoll. Less than three weeks before the nuclear test, an obscure Chicago jazz musician named Herman Poole Blount changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra, registering the change at the Cooke County Circuit Court. The newly christined Ra developed a new genealogy for himself, refusing to acknowledge any connection to his biological family or his upbringing in Birmingham, Alabama. Long known by the nickname Sonny, the new name was taken from the Egyptian sun god, and the spelling was chosen to give the full name a complement of nine letters, for good luck. In his new genealogy, Ra was a citizen of Saturn, birthdate unknown and irrelevant, sent by the Creator to redeem earthlings with a musical message. He would go on to become famous in jazz circles under his stage name, Sun Ra, leading a big band called The Arkestra for some forty years, nearly as long as Duke Ellington kept his celebrated orchestra on the road. Ra’s earlier life had been typical of many musicians of what has come to be called the Swing Era. Born in 1914 into one of the most segregated cities in the United States, in a particularly harsh period of oppression of African Americans, Sonny grew up in a house across the street from the Post Office and within sight of an enormous sign that welcomed railway passengers to “The Magic City.” From an early age he showed academic and musical talent both as a pianist and arranger. Sonny read constantly, earned top grades, and soaked up the sounds of the Tabernacle Baptist Church his grandmother took him to along with the gospel quartets and nationally known big bands that regularly passed through Birmingham: Bennie Moten, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, and Fletcher Henderson, among others. Alabama apartheid created a strong and self-reliant African American community, and Sonny received a good education from the city’s Industrial High School, and musical guidance from John T. “Fess” Whatley, the reigning patriarch of the Birmingham music scene, an exacting instructor and bandleader who mentored an entire generation of instrumentalists. By the time he graduated from high school Sonny was subbing in local bands and immersing himself in the big band jazz recordings of the early 1930s, especially the Fletcher Henderson band. In 1934 he took over an Alabama territory band that briefly made it as far as Chicago; known as the Sonny Blount orchestra, it lasted for a decade. Meanwhile he attended Alabama A&M University in Huntsville, where he majored in music education for one year before funds ran out. After a series of awkward run-ins with the draft board during the Second World War, Sonny bought a train ticket to Chicago and joined the tail end of the century’s second Great Migration of African Americans out of the South. The first was driven by World War One and had spurred Thomas Dorsey and Mahalia Jackson to migrate from the Deep South to Chicago. The Second World War encouraged even more migration to northern cities. This second migration was twice as large as the earlier one, with some three million African Americans leaving the South between 1940 and 1960. In Chicago alone, the African American population grew by nearly 80 percent—from 277,000 to 492,000, between 1940 and 1950, and another 65 percent over the subsequent decade. Reactivating the union membership he established during his first visit to Chicago in 1934, he found work almost at once. He traveled to Nashville with rhythm-and-blues singer Wynonie Harris for a time and then with a society band that wore Revolutionary War uniforms complete with wigs. Almost before he knew it, he was playing piano for the bandleader he had idolized as a teenager, Fletcher Henderson, who was appearing at Club DeLisa, Chicago’s answer to the Cotton Club. For several years he appeared with a number of bands at a variety of venues, backing rhythm and blues singers and other headliners, providing musical backdrops for floor shows. Sonny had become as securely established as most professional musicians ever do, with a respectable if quirky reputation among his peers. Sonny’s musical and intellectual bearings began to shift in the early 1950s. Together with a precocious teenager named Alton Abraham, who maintained a long relationship with as booster and agent, Sonny became part of a loose-knit reading and discussion group. He began to read exhaustively in alternative histories of Western civilization, books that questioned the primacy of Greek civilization, proposing instead Egypt as the original source. One author led to another, and the titles give a sense of what Sonny was absorbing: The Egyptian Book of the Dead; The Children of the Sun (1918); The Ruins, or, Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires: and the Law of Nature (1791); The Anacalpysis, an Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil of the Saitic Isis; or an Inquiry into the Origin of Languages, Nations and Religions (1833); God Wills the Negro: An Anthropological and Geographical Restoration of the Lost History of the American Negro People, Being in Part a Theological Interpretation of Egyptian and Ethiopian Backgrounds (1939); Stolen Legacy, the Greeks Were Not the Authors of Greek Philosophy, but the People of North Africa, Commonly Called the Egyptians (1954). The Nation of Islam was germinating in Chicago during these years, and shared similar interests but drew different conclusions. There was much overlap but also keen schisms among the intellectual legacy Sonny was unpacking. “Anglo-Israelites, Pyramidologists, Edomites, Pre-Adamites, Khazars, Pentecostalists—it was a maelstrom of rival ideologies like out of William Blake’s time,” observes Ra biographer and anthropologist John Szwed. Sonny read tirelessly, annotating the texts “in copious notes of red, green, and yellow ink, circling, underlining, arrowing, echoing what he read with comments and cross-references, sometimes with arcane symbols from the world’s religions.” He learned of the legendary Greek Gnostic thinker Hermes Trismegistus (“Thrice-great”), founder of the Hermetic tradition, whose writings bridged religion and science, music and magic, and promised to reconcile the esoteric wisdom of Egypt and Greece. In time the reading group discovered the work of Madame Helena P. Blavatsky—the dominant 19th century figure of the Theosophical Society—and people she influenced like the composer Scriabin, Rudolph Steiner and eurythmy (“visible speech and song”), Pyotr Demianovitch Ouspensky’s writings (A New Model of the Universe) and Georgei Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, who synthesized numerology, Pythagorian musicology, Kabbalah, physics, esoteric Christianity and Blavatsky’s theosophy. “The key ideas he received from his readings in theosophy were those which reinforced ideas he already held,” writes Szwed: “that the Bible must be demythologized, decoded, and brought in tune with modern life; that it was possible to unify all knowledge; that the universe was organized hierarchically, with forces or spirits which moved between the levels and affected life on earth; and that there were charismatic leaders who had the means to come to know these secrets.” Twenty years later Ra was invited to teach a course at Berkeley, and his knowledge emerged as a kind of synthesis. “In a typical lecture, Sun Ra wrote biblical quotes on the board and then ‘permutated” them—rewrote and transformed their letters and syntax into new equations of meaning. His lecture subjects included Neoplatonic doctrines; the application of ancient history and religious texts to racial problems; pollution and war; and a radical reinterpretation of the Bible in light of Egyptology.” In a word, Ra was drawn to esoteric knowledge, a kind of parallel tradition to orthodox Christianity, a world of excluded knowledge and hidden teachings: mysteries revealed, intricate correspondences between individual and cosmos, body and spirit, a sense that everything is connected and ordered, provided one has the tools and sensibility to decode the world. Music was the crucial key to understanding the universe, because the universe itself was musical: the planets and stars were governed by musical principles, vibrated with the “music of the spheres.” He was fascinated by history, but believed it had been distorted or suppressed, whether by professionals or in the Bible, which he came to believe had been badly warped by its earthly compilers . He liked to draw a contrast between history (“his story”) and mystery (“my story”). At the same time, he showed a developing fascination with the utopian potential of outer space, with Afro-futurism—a technological future that explicitly included African America. Numbers and letters were important clues to what held this ordered universe together. Beginning in the early 1950s, Ra became a master of puns and word games. They became the dominant method of his utterances: poems, liner notes, interviews. “I’m very interested in names, and “Ra” is older than history itself,” he reflected. “It’s the oldest name known by man to signify an extra-terrestrial being. It’s very interesting to note that there is “ra” in the middle of “Israel”: Is-ra-el. Take away the “ra” [and] there is no more Israel. It’s very interesting. And there is “ra” in France as well.” And, it’s worth pointing out, two “ra”s (the first running backward, the second forward) in the new name he chose for his ensemble: the Arkestra. With this new name and new forms of knowledge and meaning came a new sense of life mission: to be a “secret agent of the Creator.” Writes Szwed: With music he would reach across the border of reality into myth; with music he could build a bridge to another dimension, to something better; dance halls, clubs, and theaters could be turned into sacred shrines, the sites of dramas and rituals, and though people would be drawn to hear the music, it was they who would become the instrument on which I would resonate, on which he would create the sound of silhouettes, the images and forecasts of tomorrow…all of it disguised as jazz.” “Ancient Aiethopia,” a recording made by the Arkestra in 1958, suggests how Ra translated these ideas into music for a ten-man ensemble. String bass and tom-toms maintain a steady swaying vamp throughout the nine-minute piece, which restricts itself to minimal chord changes. After a percussive piano introduction played over drums and rolling cymbals sounds the theme: a foreboding four-measure phrase repeated six times by somber-sounding brasses, somehow evoking a caravan. A few measures of drum segues into a flute duet played over a rocking tom-tom pattern, interspersed with percussion scratches played on a ribbed guiro. Occasionally a gong sounds. As the drums fade to a whisper, the flutes are replaced by a very deep, clean-toned trumpet that explores the opening theme above occasional gongings. The piano reappears for a brief but densely played two-handed solo, which is followed by a percussion interlude of bells and guiro scratches over the continuing bass and tom-tom vamp. After some tentative saxophone squawks in the background commences an interlude of spooky-sounding and wordless antiphonal chanting by two male voices. The piano signals the return of the 24-measure brass theme, which comes to a slow ritard over repeated sounding of the gong. “Ancient Aiethopia” appeared on an early Arkestra album, Jazz in Silhouette, which billed itself as “Magic Music of the Spheres.” The cover is a surrealistic painting of female figures hovering above one of Saturn’s cratered moons depicted from several hundred miles away. “In tomorrow’s world, men will not need artificial instruments such as jets and space ships,” the liner notes declare. “In the world of tomorrow, the new man will ‘think’ the place he wants to go, then his mind will take him there.” There is no indication that Sonny had knowledge of the Ephrata commune formed near Philadelphia in the early eighteenth century by a German mystic named Conrad Beissel, but if he had he would have been delighted, and not at all surprised. One can imagine what Ra would have done with the name itself. “Ephrata” would yield up “Eph-Ra-ta,” for starters. Then musical puns—“Ephrat(a)” would suggest “E-flat,” a key signature dear to Freemasons, whose three flats represent the Triad, a number revered as far back as Pythagoras. Or possibly “Ephrata” to “F-flat,” a way of naming “E,” third tone in the C major scale, which corresponds to the third planet, Earth. Beyond this wordplay, there are a series of unlikely but uncanny congruences between these two musical mystics, separated by two centuries. Conrad Beissel and Le Sony’r Ra shared an intellectual heritage, a similar orientation toward what they considered a fundamentally musical universe. They were propelled to their life work by analogous social forces and shared similar goals for the communities they established. Beissel and Ra make for an unlikely historical linkage, but in doing so they illustrate a link between American sacred music (defined broadly as always) and one of the most ancient streams of thinking about music and the cosmos, of connecting the body and the spirit through the medium of sound. Both shared an experience of exodus. Sun Ra had been both pushed out of Alabama and pulled toward Chicago, making an exodus to the known realities of southern Jim Crow to the unknowns of a northern city promoted by black newspapers like the Chicago Defender as a kind of African American Promised Land. Likewise, Beissel had joined a substantial migration to Pennsylvania, a colony that under Quaker leadership was encouraging the immigration of religious sects persecuted in Europe. Born about 1690, Beissel grew up in distressed circumstances in the Neckar Valley of Germany, a region deeply scarred by the Thirty Years War and conquests of France under Louis XIV. His father drank himself to death shortly before he was born, and his mother died when he was eight or nine. Beissel was taken on as a baker’s apprentice, where he developed some skill on the violin. His credentials as a baker took him to a number of important German cultural centers in the 1710s. In Strassbourg, Beissel imbibed the teachings of the great German mystic Jakob Böhme (1575-1624) possibly through the missionary efforts of the Philadelphians, a secret mystical society that had originated in England under the leadership of the visionary Jane Leade. At Mannheim, after a sexual contretemps with his master’s wife, Beissel was forced to flee to Heidelberg, thereafter forsaking sexual congress with “mortal women.” Beissel became active among radical Pietist groups that were flourishing on the periphery of the great university. Appointed treasurer of the baker’s guild, he had a falling out over guild practices and, after a series of trials, was banished from the Palatinate. With his Wanderbuch—the record of his baker’s experience—confiscated, Beissel wandered adrift through the countryside, eventually landing in Schwarzenau and taking up with yet more underground sects, including the Baptist Brethren, the Inspirationists, and the Awakened. One group of Baptist “Dunkers” had embarked for Pennsylvania in 1719. The following year Beissel and a group of like-minded spiritual dissidents embarked for the colony whose capital was actually named for the brotherhood of love.