Danny Ray Thompson, who spent the better part of five decades as the baritone saxophonist and linchpin of Sun Ra’s Arkestra, one of the most idiosyncratic and influential ensembles in jazz, died March 12 in Philadelphia. He was 72.
Saxophonist Marshall Allen, the current leader of the Arkestra, confirmed the death, at a hospice center. He did not specify the cause but said that Thompson had been ill for some time.
Thompson was barely 20 when Allen introduced him to Sun Ra in New York in 1967. His first assignment was to watch the band’s house on the Lower East Side every Monday night, while the Arkestra played its weekly gig at Slugs’ Saloon nearby. Eventually he was promoted to band driver, before finally joining the ensemble as a saxophonist and flutist.
He went on to serve for many years as the Arkestra’s manager, responsible for everything from distributing its self-released albums to organizing tours.
“Within a few years Thompson was to become one of the most trusted people in Sun Ra’s entourage, and, some even said, the heir apparent to the leader,” music historian John Szwed wrote in “Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra” (1997).
Thompson’s devotion to the group’s music — and its theatrically attired, cosmo-futurist performance ethic — sprang eternal. At one concert, Szwed related, Thompson was locked in a three-saxophone melee of free improvisation when two of the keys became dislodged from his baritone saxophone and shot off into the audience. He used his fingers to plug the open holes and kept playing, aggressively. All of a sudden his hand got stuck in the horn, and even after the other saxophonists had grown tired and dropped out, he kept going, not knowing what else to do.
“You need to be creative like that,” Allen remembered Sun Ra telling him approvingly afterward. “He was so creative he tore the keys off; he was like that little Dutch boy and the dike!”
Thompson was born Oct. 1, 1947, in New York City, to Elgie and Oscar Leonard Thompson. When he was a child his family moved to Los Angeles, where he picked up the nickname Pico, for the boulevard near where he lived. His father, a research scientist, was the first Black person to receive a degree from the University of Texas. His mother, an interior designer, encouraged Danny’s interest in both music and acting.
After high school, Danny Thompson returned to New York and enrolled in night classes at Juilliard.
He played in his first concert in 1966, with Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji. Through Allen, another member of Olatunji’s band, he was soon introduced to Sun Ra.
After working his way into the Sun Ra organization, Thompson made his first major appearance with the Arkestra at Carnegie Hall on April 12-13, 1968, just one week after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
At first his role was simply to play bass lines on the baritone saxophone, as the group had recently lost its bassist and already had a capable baritone player in Pat Patrick. But he eventually became the sonic foundation of the group, whose music could range from swing-era revivalism to blistering free jazz.
Sun Ra and much of the band soon moved to Philadelphia, taking over a house owned by Allen’s father in the Germantown neighborhood.
At one point, Thompson expanded beyond simply managing the band’s affairs; he and his mother opened a grocery store, Pharoah’s Den, which he sought to make not just a moneymaking venture but also a haven for Afrocentric art.
Thompson left the Arkestra in the 1990s and worked for the Census Bureau and the Transportation Security Administration before moving to Texas for a time. But in the 2000s he returned to Philadelphia and rejoined the band, which had continued after Sun Ra died in 1993.
In recent years it has experienced a resurgence in popularity, particularly around the 2013 centennial of Sun Ra’s birth. The band now performs dozens of shows each year and still tours internationally.