Sun Ra soon left college because, he claimed, he had a visionary experience as a college student that had a major, long-term influence on him. In 1936 or 1937, in the midst of deep religious concentration, Sun Ra claimed that a bright light appeared around him, and, as he later said:
My whole body changed into something else. I could see through myself. And I went up... I wasn't in human form... I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn... they teleported me and I was down on [a] stage with them. They wanted to talk with me. They had one little antenna on each ear. A little antenna over each eye. They talked to me. They told me to stop [attending college] because there was going to be great trouble in schools... the world was going into complete chaos... I would speak [through music], and the world would listen. That's what they told me.
Sun Ra said that this experience occurred in 1936 or 1937. According to Szwed, the musician's closest associates cannot date the story any earlier than 1952. (Sun Ra also said that the incident happened when he was living in Chicago, where he did not settle until the late 1940s). Sun Ra discussed the vision, with no substantive variation, to the end of his life. His trip to Saturn allegedly occurred a full decade before flying saucers entered public consciousness with the 1947 encounter of Kenneth Arnold. It was earlier than other public accounts: about 15 years before George Adamski wrote about contact with benevolent beings; and almost 20 years before the 1961 case of Barney and Betty Hill, who recounted sinister UFO abductions. Szwed says that, "even if this story is revisionist autobiography... Sonny was pulling together several strains of his life. He was both prophesizing his future and explaining his past with a single act of personal mythology."
In Chicago Blount quickly found work, notably with blues singer Wynonie Harris, with whom he made his recording debut on two 1946 singles, Dig This Boogie/Lightning Struck the Poorhouse, and My Baby's Barrelhouse/Drinking By Myself. Dig This Boogie was also Blount's first recorded piano solo. He performed with the locally successful Lil Green band and played bump-and-grind music for months in Calumet City strip clubs.
In August 1946, Blount earned a lengthy engagement at the Club DeLisa under bandleader and composer Fletcher Henderson. Blount had long admired Henderson, but Henderson's fortunes were fading (his band was now made of up middling musicians rather than the stars of earlier years) in large part because of his instability, due to Henderson's long term injuries from a car accident. Henderson hired Blount as pianist and arranger, replacing Marl Young. Ra's arrangements initially showed a degree of bebop influence, but the band members resisted the new music, despite Henderson's encouragement.
In 1948, Blount performed briefly in a trio with saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and violinist Stuff Smith, both preeminent swing-era musicians. There are no known recordings of this trio, but a home recording of a Blount-Smith duet from 1953 appears on Sound Sun Pleasure, and one of Sun Ra's final recordings was a rare sideman appearance on violinist Billy Bang's Tribute to Stuff Smith.
In addition to enabling professional advancement, what he encountered in Chicago changed Blount's personal outlook. The city was a center of African-American political activism and fringe movements, with Black Muslims, Black Hebrews, and others proselytizing, debating, and printing leaflets or books. Blount absorbed it all and was fascinated with the city's many ancient Egyptian-styled buildings and monuments. He read books such as George G.M. James's Stolen Legacy (which argued that classical Greek philosophy had its roots in ancient Egypt). Blount concluded that the accomplishments and history of Africans had been systematically suppressed and denied by European cultures.
By 1952 Blount was leading the Space Trio with drummer Tommy "Bugs" Hunter and saxophonist Pat Patrick, two of the most accomplished musicians he had known. They performed regularly, and Sun Ra began writing more advanced songs.
On October 20, 1952, Blount legally changed his name to Le Sony'r Ra. Sun Ra claimed to have always been uncomfortable with his birth name of Blount. He considered it a slave name, from a family that was not his. David Martinelli suggested that his change was similar to "Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali... [dropping] their slave names in the process of attaining a new self-awareness and self-esteem".
Patrick left the group to move to Florida with his new wife. His friend John Gilmore (tenor sax) joined the group, and Marshall Allen (alto sax) soon followed. Patrick was in and out of the group until the end of his life, but Allen and Gilmore were the two most devoted members of the Arkestra. In fact, Gilmore is often criticized for staying with Sun Ra for over forty years when he demonstrated the talent to have been a strong leader in his own right. Saxophonist James Spaulding and trombonist Julian Priester also recorded with Sun Ra in Chicago, and both went on to careers of their own. The Chicago tenor Von Freeman also did a short stint with the band of the early 1950s.
In Chicago, Sun Ra met Alton Abraham, a precociously intelligent teenager and something of a kindred spirit. He became the Arkestra's biggest booster and one of Sun Ra's closest friends. Both men felt like outsiders and shared an interest in fringe esoterica. Abraham's strengths balanced Ra's shortcomings: though he was a disciplined bandleader, Sun Ra was somewhat introverted and lacked business sense (a trait that haunted his entire career). Abraham was outgoing, well-connected, and practical. Though still a teenager, Abraham eventually became Sun Ra's de facto business manager: he booked performances, suggested musicians for the Arkestra, and introduced several popular songs into the group's repertoire. Ra, Abraham and others formed a sort of book club to trade ideas and discuss the offbeat topics that so intrigued them. This group printed a number of pamphlets and broadsides explaining their conclusions and ideas. Some of these were collected by critic John Corbett and Anthony Elms as The Wisdom of Sun Ra: Sun Ra's Polemical Broadsheets and Streetcorner Leaflets (2006).
In the mid-1950s, Sun Ra and Abraham formed an independent record label that was generally known as El Saturn Records. (It had several name variations.) Initially focused on 45 rpm singles by Sun Ra and artists related to him, Saturn Records issued two full-length albums during the 1950s: Super-Sonic Jazz (1957) and Jazz In Silhouette (1959). Producer Tom Wilson was the first to release a Sun Ra album, through his independent label Transition Records in 1957, entitled Jazz by Sun Ra. During this era, Sun Ra recorded the first of dozens of singles as a band-for-hire backing a range of doo wop and R&B singers; several dozen of these were reissued in a two-CD set, The Singles, by Evidence Records.
In the late 1950s, Sun Ra and his band began wearing the outlandish, Egyptian-styled or science fiction-themed costumes and headdresses for which they became known. These costumes had multiple purposes: they expressed Sun Ra's fascination with ancient Egypt and the space age, they provided a distinctive uniform for the Arkestra, they provided a new identity for the band onstage, and comic relief. (Sun Ra thought avant garde musicians typically took themselves far too seriously.)