Music Monday: Sun Ra in Chicago

This weekend, I read William Sites’s Sun Ra’s Chicago: Afrofuturism and the City (Chicago 2020) as part of my simmering Sun Ra project. I’m still a long way from being able to offer a reasonable, much less sophisticated, critique of a book like this, but it certainly gave me ideas. More than that, while many recent studies of Sun Ra have tended to emphasize his music, poetry, and often abstract view of the world (and universe), Sites anchored his reading of Sun Ra in the urban landscape of mid-century Chicago (and to some extent Birmingham) and traced its impact on his music and intellectual contributions. 

This approach to Sun Ra’s life and development provided me with a few useful insights as I continue to excavate around the links between Sun Ra’s distinctive Afrofuturism and Afrocentrism and Near Eastern archaeology. Here are three things that I learned:

1. Chicago Conversations. One aspect of life in Chicago (and, to a less extent, Birmingham) that Sites makes very clear is that the Black community in these urban areas fueled Ra’s eccentric analyses of the relationship between American Blacks, white society, and their history. Sites located Sun Ra and Alton Abraham’s Thmei Research broadsheets which represent some of the earliest known efforts of Sun Ra to sketch out his cosmology and world view, next to proselytizing of Elijah Muhammed’s Nation of Islam which also established its offices in Chicago. While the Nation of Islam developed into a major cultural force in the 1950s and 1960s attracting jazz musicians, athletes, intellectuals, activists, and a wide range of Black Americans to its tenets, Ra’s Thmei broadsheets revealed that his thinking shared certain themes—including Afrocentrist views of Black history, mysticism, personal asceticism, and allusions to celestial intervention.

Rather than assert that Thmei borrowed these ideas directly from the Nation of Islam (or any number of other Black organization that had a significant presence in Chicago), Sites argues that the public space of Washington Park provided a common ground for the circulation of ideas that contributed to new imaginings of Black identity. This was particularly significant in Chicago where the Bronzeville neighborhood with its nightlife, business, and residences modeled a city within a city where an independent Black community could exist alongside and perhaps even equal to white areas. While this view of Black urban life proved short lived, the confidence to articulate both new readings of the Black past and present in Chicago drew upon a similarly utopian imagining of Black spaces and time.  

2. Time and Sun Ra. Sites also demonstrates that Sun Ra’s music and his cosmology rely on distinctive views the the past, present and future. For example, Ra frequently combined pieces produced in different styles including cutting edge contemporary jazz and more traditional styles of jazz music drawing on swing, bob, and even folks and popular traditions. Like many artists he continued to draw upon both the turn of the century “American Song Book,” as well as more contemporary post-war songs and styles. This eclectic mix not only had its origins in the range of venues where Sun Ra and his bands play in Chicago with their distinctive clientele and expectations, but also also his efforts to construct Black identity at the intersection of Afrocentric views of an African past and the potential of a new Black future.

Ra’s thinking, however, isn’t simply a repackaging of a linear model of progress for a Black audience by situating their origins in Africa. Sun Ra combines past and present in his music and his fanciful relocation of Africa not as a continent which served as the font of Black culture, but as an idealized place that existed in the past but also future, celestial visions of Black identity. The recombination of past, present, and future (themes that appear in Ra’s poetry, his Thmei broadsheets, and his music) emerge even in his tendency to combine recordings from different sessions, sometimes separated by months or even years, on a single album and the tendency for his work to draw on different themes and styles. In short, Ra’s cosmology and music represented a challenge to the rhetoric of mid-century, post-war progress and reflected the limits of Black optimism as the Black economy, hopes for political autonomy, and music scene in Chicago encountered efforts at urban renewal and suburbanization that reinforced white authority in the urban sphere while curtaining Black opportunities.  

3. Mid-Century Spaces. The final aspect of Sites’s book that fired my imagination was the role of mid-century spaces in shaping a view of the space age. Sites makes clear that space race and the suburbs were not unrelated phenomenon.  Sun Ra’s (and other Black musicians from Dizzy Gillespie to Duke Ellington) aspirations for the space age paralleled their hopes that Blacks enjoy the promise (and prosperity) of the post-war suburbs.

While Ra’s music remained anchored in the urban imaginary of Chicago (at least until 1961 when he decamped for New York), space provided him with an alternative to the suburban dreams. In fact, Sites shows how Ra’s various songs featuring space itineraries reproduced similar itineraries anchored in songs about Chicago. By mapping the experience of living in Chicago with an imagined journey through the solar system, Ra divorces the space age from the aspirations for suburban life and reminds his listeners that urban spaces too continue to offer utopian potential. It may be that the challenge facing the urban Black community in their ability to access the full potential of utopian suburban life encouraged this remapping of space onto the faltering urban promise of the late 1950s. 

There is much more to Sites’s book than these three points, of course, but these ideas contribute directly to some of the things that I’m playing around with these days. More on Sun Ra and music in general on Mondays this summer!     

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