CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Danny Ray Thompson 1947–2020

The multi-instrumentalist was a crucial member of Sun Ra’s Arkestra for decades, both on stage and behind the scenes

Danny Ray Thompson
Danny Ray Thompson with the Sun Ra Arkestra at Wagner Park, New York, August 2014 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Danny Ray Thompson, a saxophonist and key creative force in the Sun Ra Arkestra over a span of more than 50 years, died March 12 at a hospice center in Philadelphia. He was 72.

His death was announced in a posting on the Sun Ra Arkestra’s website. It read, in part, “Danny Ray Thompson is now traveling the spaceways, joining the many beloved Arkestra members who have previously left the planet and who now soar with the spirit of Sun Ra.”

Marshall Allen, who has directed the Sun Ra Arkestra since 1993, told The New York Times that Thompson had long been battling an illness, the nature of which Allen did not disclose. JazzTimes has since learned that the illness was lung cancer.

A multi-instrumentalist, Thompson joined Ra’s band in 1967, when it was based in Thompson’s hometown of New York City. He transitioned with the Arkestra to Philadelphia in the mid-1970s, remaining in its ranks through the bandleader and composer’s death in 1993 and rejoining the band in the 2000s. In that time he performed on over 70 of the Arkestra’s recordings, under the direction of both Ra and Marshall Allen.

He played alto and baritone saxophone, flute, bassoon, percussion, vocals, and, on at least one session, an instrument that Sun Ra dubbed “Neptunian libflecto” (a prepared bassoon).

In addition to his work in the band, Thompson was a key member of Sun Ra’s inner circle, working at various points as the Arkestra’s housesitter, driver, and manager. He was very much a true believer, in a 2014 interview referring to Sun Ra as “angelic … a master of everything.”

Danny Ray Thompson was born October 1, 1947 in New York City. His father was a research scientist, his mother an interior designer. The family moved to Los Angeles in Thompson’s youth; however, he returned to New York after graduating from high school and enrolled at the Juilliard School.

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He performed in 1966 in the band led by Nigerian musician Babatunde Olatunji; Allen was also in that band. Allen soon introduced Thompson to Sun Ra, who hired the young saxophonist to watch the Arkestra’s Lower East Side residence on Monday nights when the band was performing its weekly residency at the nearby Slugs’. He soon became the band’s driver, and finally its second baritone saxophonist (with Pat Patrick).

Precise dates are notoriously difficult to pinpoint in the Sun Ra discography; Thompson appeared on some sessions that might have taken place in either 1967 or 1968. However, his first datable session with the Arkestra was on August 4, 1967, as part of the LP Atlantis (which came out on Sun Ra’s Saturn Records label in 1969). He debuted in concert with the band on April 12, 1968 at Carnegie Hall.

Initially playing bass parts on his baritone, Thompson became one of the Arkestra’s most important creative forces, expanding his palette to include many other instruments in addition to working as the band’s manager and the overseer of Saturn Records’ distribution. He was, wrote Ra biographer John Szwed, “one of the most trusted people in Sun Ra’s entourage, and, some even said, the heir apparent to the leader.”

Thompson remained with the Arkestra through Sun Ra’s death in 1993; it was Allen who proved to be Ra’s heir, taking over directorship of the band following a brief period when it was led by tenor saxophonist John Gilmore (who died in 1995). Although Thompson left the Arkestra shortly after Ra’s passing, he returned in 2001. “Through thick and thin, the good times and the bad times, we’re still here,” he said of himself and Allen in a 2017 interview.

His final recordings were the Sun Ra tribute Heliosonic Toneways Vol. 1 in 2017 and Ceremonial Healing, a six-way collaboration with Allen, keyboardist Jamie Saft, trombonist Roswell Rudd, bassist Trevor Dunn, and drummer Balázs Pándi, which was released for Record Store Day 2019.

Thompson is survived by his half-sister, Dawne Thompson; his son, Darrell Thompson; and two stepchildren, Loren and Gay Ojugbana.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.