BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — For much of his life, Herman Poole didn’t talk about where he grew up, at least not where he really grew up.

For Poole, the jazz musician and band leader better known as “Sun Ra,” preferred a different backstory, one where he was from Saturn, where he actually wasn’t a man, but an angel. Onstage, he cast off the tuxedos and suits of the time for flashier costumes that called up images of ancient Egypt and outer space. But for all his talk of being from another planet, Sun Ra’s real home was in Birmingham, Alabama.

Sun Ra, known to his friends and family as “Sonny,” was born in the “Magic City” on May 22, 1914, growing up just a block away from the Birmingham Terminal Station. For years, the musical prodigy performed across Birmingham and other parts of Alabama. That changed in 1945, when his aunt, Ida, died. After that, he saw no reason to stay.

Guillaume Maupin, left, and Pablo Guarise speaking at East Village Arts of Birmingham on Jan. 29. The two filmmakers are making a documentary on the Birmingham roots of the jazz musician Sun Ra. (Courtesy Drew Taylor)

“Once when he was talking about the possibility of leaving Birmingham, someone had scoffed that he would never leave until his last friend was dead. Sonny took it as a prophesy,” author John Szwed wrote in the Sun Ra biography “Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra.”

“Her death freed him to look north to Chicago, like the countless number of other black folks who had been drawn by the flam of the promise of jobs and dignity in the weekly pages of the Chicago Defender.”

Sun Ra and his band, the Arkestra, would come back to Birmingham a few times, such as a show at The Nick in 1988 or as part of City Stages in 1989. Following a stroke, Sun Ra returned home in 1992, where he died the next year. He’s now buried at Elmwood Cemetery.

Today, the city is much very different from the one of Sun Ra’s childhood. The house he grew up in on 4th Avenue North is gone. The Terminal Station that stood nearby is gone, too. However, two filmmakers feel the “Magic City” played an important role in his life, something that they are currently exploring in a documentary they are making on the late musician.

“Definitely, Sun Ra built something of his own, but he’s also the product of a community and of a place,” said Guillaume Maupin, who is making the film with his co-director, Pablo Guarise. “Sun Ra is very much a part of Birmingham.”

Mural of Sun Ra painted outside the Firehouse Community Center in Birmingham’s Avondale neighborhood. (Drew Taylor/CBS 42)

The two French filmmakers have been in Birmingham since early December, doing research on the city and Sun Ra’s place in it. On Saturday, the gave a talk at East Village Arts of Birmingham to talk about the film. Maupin said that with the city’s history with early jazz and swing music, it definitely played a part in Sun Ra’s own musical development.

“When we read those books, we were imagining Birmingham,” he said. “We were like ‘Wow, we would love to go to Birmingham. It is a Magic City.'”

Guarise said he and Maupin wanted to discover more about Birmingham and the influence it had on Sun Ra. He hopes the final result will be showing the city as a true “Magic City.”

“It’s very important for us to describe this town in a fantastic and extraordinary way,” Guarise said.

Maupin and Guarise will be in town for another month or so before leaving. The film, whose working title is “Magic City: Birmingham According to Sun Ra,” will likely come out in early 2024. 

Other films are also in the works on Sun Ra’s life and music. According to The Hollywood Reporter, director Stanley Nelson is also working on a documentary on Sun Ra called “Sun Ra and the Roots of Afrofuturism.”