Music Monday: Dr. Lonnie Smith

I have a weird affection for people and institutions that use of the name “Doctor” in slightly inappropriately or unconventional ways. I attribute this to growing up watching the 1980s Philadelphia 76ers with their star player Dr. Julius Irving. I remember how exciting it was to discover that on the road between the site of Koutsopetria and downtown Larnaka there was a food truck called the Doctor of Hunger (Γιατρός της πείνας). And, I love that for much of his career the soul jazz organist Lonnie Smith went by the name Dr. Lonnie Smith.

He also wore a turban for some reason which he connected, apparently, to Sun Ra’s propensity to wear odd hats.

Every few years I get drawn back to his music and when I heard that he had died on September 28th, it was easy to take a dive into his recordings. His 1970s Blue Note albums have perhaps attracted the most attention, especially 1968s Think, which includes the grooviest version of “Three Blind Mice” that you’ll ever hear. It’s useful to pain his Blue Note recordings in the late 1960s and early 1970s with his work as a sideman with Lou Donaldson around the same time including the iconic Midnight Creeper from 1968 and Everything I Play is Funky from 1970 (with Blue Mitchell on trumpet and cornet), which includes a deep performance of “Over the Rainbow,” which I just love. Finally, Smith’s only recording for Creed Taylor (on their soul jazz oriented Kudu imprint), Mama Wailer (1971) is fantastic as well. The first two tracks show Latin influence on Smith’s playing and composition, while the last two tracks just roll (especially his cover of “I Feel the Earth Move”).   

One of the more interesting things about Lonnie Smith (at least to me) is that he favored small neighborhood venues throughout the 1970s rather than the usual itinerary of jazz clubs. I suspect this both reflects the changing landscape of jazz during this time, as some of the better known clubs struggled (e.g. the Five Spot, Birdland, or Slug’s Saloon) or diversified from jazz into other kinds of performances (e.g. the Village Gate), as well as the popular character of his music. Unfortunately, this means that we don’t really have as many of his live performances from this period as we would would like. Blue Note, however, did release one recording from this era in 1995, recorded at the Club Mozambique in Detroit in 1970.

This got me thinking about projects like the Detroit Sound Conservancy who seek to preserve and conserve the legacy of music in Detroit and the Music Origins Project which seeks the more modest goal of geolocating important venues. The note that Conelius Watt’s Club Mozambique was just the kind of neighborhood venue that Lonnie Smith enjoyed playing. Although the club burned down in 2015 (and the club had moved on from live music by then), the list of musicians who had played at the club in the 1970s is a veritable who’s who of soul jazz, soul, funk and R&B. The only two albums made from recordings there appear to be Lonnie Smith’s 1970 date and Grant Green’s 1971 date at the club. 

It’s interesting to listen to these two albums back to back. While they both are masterpieces of the early 1970s soul jazz idiom, I got to wondering how they reflected the venue where the musicians played and the social, economic, and political context of the Black community in Detroit in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (As an aside, I’m beyond excited for Krysta Ryzewski’s book Detroit Remains: Archaeology and Community Histories of Six Legendary Places  to appear next year!). In other words, can we do an archaeology of a particular venue at a particular moment through the careful listening to live recordings? As a number of critics have observed, Grant Green’s performance at Club Mozambique was quite different from his near contemporary performance at Cliche Lounge in Newark, New Jersey. The former feels just a bit looser and maybe more engaged than his better known performance in New Jersey? Maybe this is just something that I’m imagining?

Whatever the case, both Green’s and Smith’s album from Club Mozambique are worth a listen. Both do more than just capture the sound of a time and place in the history of 1970s jazz music. Both albums are good music and what better way to honor the memory of the late Dr. Lonnie Smith than to listen to some of his finest performances.    

Music Monday: Science Fiction, Jazz, and Urban Myth

This weekend, I listened to Nicole Glover’s latest album, Strange Lands. It’s pretty great. I wasn’t particular familiar with Glover’s work, although I knew her as part of the Eric Dolphy inspired group Out to Dinner and have found the music of that group intriguing, but not particularly compelling (but I’d have to listen to it more to say for certain).

Glover’s album is more interesting to me. She not only shows off her saxophone playing chops throughout — and a number of critics have associated her tone with late Coltrane — but more importantly and interesting she demonstrates a pretty deft hand a lyrical passages. From the sound of dusky smoke filled bars on “Twilight Zone” to agile and attentive playing with George Gables on Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” and the lyricism of her version of Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Dindi,” Glover’s performances are just fantastic.

More importantly, for my current projects, she’s an huge science fiction fan and her most recent album is full of allusions to science fiction classics. The title of album, of course, is a nod to the Robert Heinlein’s 1961 novel, A Stranger in a Strange Land. Her reference to “Strange Land,” “Twilight Zone,” and “Hive Queen,” evoke classic science fiction motifs. The result is an album that blends an occasionally nostalgic sound with glimpses of a future that now feels just a bit threadbare.

While enjoying this album (and Play On by the aforementioned Out to Dinner) I read Yusuf Nuruddin’s 2006 article titled “Ancient Black Astronauts and Extraterrestrial Jihads: Islamic Science Fiction as Urban Mythology” in Socialism and Democracy 20.3. I don’t usually blog about 15 year old articles, but Nuruddin’s piece brought together a bunch of loose ends that I had been struggling to tie up lately. He explores the development of various kinds of urban myths that involve science fiction, UFOs, Afrocentric themes, and various interpretations of Islam and Christianity starting in the early 20th century. For Nuruddin the persistence of certain themes in Black urban culture for over 100 years suggests more than just a set of recurring popular ideas, but the emerging structure of an urban mythology that consisted of a “scathing social critique” that sought to redress many of the longstanding inequalities that face Black, poor, urban residents. The Moorish Science Temple (1913), for example, the Nation of Islam (1930), and (I’d add) various strains of Black Masonic experiences, contributed to the development of the Five Percenters (1964) and Nuwaubian Moors (1970) in the post-war period which attracted both formal acolytes and a whole range of more casual adherents who have adopted various aspects these groups’ believes and cosmology. While it is easy enough to dismiss these groups, and particularly troubled history of the Nuwaubian Moors, whose former leader is now serving a prison term for a range of sexual and financial misconduct, Nuruddin makes it clear that these groups continue a process of re-imagining Islam by incorporating science fiction motifs including ancient aliens to create a new form of urban mythology. For Nuruddin, these ideas did not exist in a vacuum, but drew on long-standing motifs, stories, and ideas shared across the Black urban experience. Their status as myth was not meant to dismiss their importance, but to validate their formal significance as a set of religious ideas worthy of formal study. Just as ancient myths derive meaning, in part, through the social milieu in which they circulated, so did these Black urban myths which seek to offer hope and history to communities alienated from their past first by the Middle Passage and the Great Migration in the 20th century and enduring poverty, racism, and political disempowerment in the present.    

David S. Anderson’s far more recent piece in Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religion, “Crafting a Mysterious Ancient World: The Effects of Theosophy and Esotericism on Public Perceptions of Archaeology,” likewise takes the experience of mystical, esoteric, and New Age searchers seriously as a way to engage with a public whose interest in archaeology is often met with contempt and ridicule. More significantly, Anderson suggests that some of our ham-fisted efforts at re-education reflect fundamental ignorance of the values, practices, and interests of these groups. This, in turn, obscures the relationship between long held beliefs among these groups and popular culture which both reflects and, as Nuruddin argues influences, their attitudes toward antiquity.   

The value of these two articles to my work on Sun Ra (see here for a recent summary) is that they bridge the gap between popular culture, especially science fiction, esoteric beliefs, and the antiquity in the contemporary world. Against this backdrop Sun Ra becomes less of an idiosyncratic (pseudo?) intellectual and more of a fellow traveller who makes visible world views that academics rarely encounter, much less understand. The fruitful intersection of jazz (and more popular music, as the influence of the Five Percenters on hiphop is widely known), antiquity, religion, and Afrofuturism (or more broadly science fiction, as in the Nicole Glover album) represents one avenue through which Black, poor, and otherwise disenfranchised groups presented a social critique of academic, religious, and social institutions that they saw as repressive.

As archaeologists we should be aware of these connections and they should make us a bit more careful and deliberate with how we talk about ancient aliens and other popular beliefs in public.

Music Monday: Sun Ra, Pseudoarchaeoogy, and Atlantis

This weekend, I listened to Sun Ra’s great 1969 album Atlantis while I thought about the recent twitter dust up between Flint Dibble and the director of a new documentary for the Discovery channel that purports to reveal the location of the lost continent. 

Dr. Dibble does a masterful job unpacking the problems with this documentary and moreover argues that this kind of pseudo-archaeology is harmful to society. I am not particularly interested in addressing the particulars of this documentary (and probably won’t watch it) and share some of his concerns about pseudo-archaeology. At the same time, over the last few years I’ve struggled a bit to understand pseudo-archaeological arguments as inherently racist. To be clear, Dr. Dibble doesn’t make the claim that pseudo-archaeology is inherently racist, but he clearly connects pseudo archaeology surrounding the myth of Atlantis to any number of contemporary white supremacist groups and racist lines of thinking. Moreover, the connection between pseudo-archaeology, white supremacy, and racism is so regularly made by well-meaning scholars that it has taken on the character of Giorgio A. Tsoukalos’s famous meme: I’m not saying it’s racist, but it’s racist. 

Of course, I realize that most archaeologists understand that pseudo-archaeology is a big tent and includes a wide range of ideas, methods, and theories that mimic the practices of academic and professional archaeology to greater and lesser extents. Moreover, the reception of pseudo-archaeology needn’t lead directly to views of the world that are, say, anti-Black, for example, even in cases when authors advance arguments with obvious racial intent. That said, the dangers of parroting or reconfiguring ideas derived from authors with racist intentions is real especially if it encourages others to explore their work and absorb their ideas. I’d also gently contend that this is a risk that academic and professional archaeologists take every day as we seek to disentangle the origins of our discipline and sometimes legitimate disciplinary knowledge from its original social, political, and intellectual context.  

All these caveats and equivocating leads me to Sun Ra’s Atlantis. If you haven’t listened to it, you should. Originally recorded in 1967 and released in 1969, this album is in many ways the culmination of the Arkestra’s seven-year residence in New York City. John Szwed, in his definitive biography of Sun Ra, argues that the mid-1960s were a crucial time for the musician as he sought to reconcile the tension between his Southern past was his hopes for a future. While he had always been reluctant to discuss his childhood and early professional life in Birmingham, Alabama, by the late-1960s Sun Ra had started to deny the existence of Herman Blount and to attempt to erase his connection with Birmingham, particularly after the 1963 Baptist Church bombing in the city. He also had become more involved in the Black Arts Movement in New York and its radical efforts to transform the meaning and purpose of Black art in the aftermath of Malcolm X’s assassination in 1965.  

Ra’s Atlantis was recorded at Michael Babatunde Olatunji’s Center of African Culture in New York. Olatunji’s influential use of drumming which sought to evoke African rhythms  had exerted a significant influence of Sun Ra’s use of percussion and, according to Szwed, the two musicians often exchanged band members. Olatunji was well known among New York jazz musicians and had performed with John Coltrane and influenced contemporary recordings of Archie Shepp (especially his The Magic of Ju-Ju). Atlantis also witnessed one of Sun Ra’s most ambitious efforts to integrate electronic instruments, such as his famous “Solar Sound Organ” and the Clavinet into his recordings. The merging of the futuristic sounds of electronic instruments and the polyrhythmic African drums reflected Ra’s commitments to both Afrocentric views of the past and Afrofuturist views of the world and paralleled his own disinclination to publicly discuss his own early life and career. In other words, Ra’s music and personal representation embraced new forms of continuity that sought to erase the painful experiences of Black people during their enslavement and ongoing struggle in the American South. More than that, he used his music and his persona as Sun Ra to imagine the deep roots of the Black experience in Africa and the potential for the liberation of Black people in the future.  

It might come as some surprise, then, to learn that Sun Ra’s invocation of Atlantis likely derived, at least in part, from his reading of a wide range of pseudo-archaeological, pseudo-historical, theosophical, and mystical works on Atlantis.  

This is not subtle. For example, track titles on this album evoked various visions of Atlantis: “Mu,” for example, refers to the lost continent proposed by Augustus Le Plongeon, whose 19th century work in the Yucatan involved trying to connect the Mayan to Egypt and Atlantis. His works influenced the theosophical thinking of Helena Blavatsky and Minnesota politician and lawyer Ignatius L. Donnelly, whose late-19th century writings on Atlantis represents an important landmark in 20th century pseudo-archaeological writing about the “lost continent”  (It is worth noting that throughout his political career Donnelly was a Radical Republican and later a Agrarian populist). The second track is titled “Lemuria” which evoked work of zoologist Philip Sclater (1829-1913) who argued that Lemuria once stood between Africa and India before sinking into the sea. His ideas both anticipated theories of continental drift and found favor as the home of humanity in the works of Helena Blavatsky. “Yucatan” and “Bimini” likely refer to various ideas of Atlantis in the work of the influential medium Edgar Cayce (1876-1945) whose books, including On Atlantis, appear in Ra’s library and who advocated for racist theories of polygenism for humanity (which cast a shadow over Ra’s thinking on race as well).

It may be that the greatest influence on Sun Ra’s vision of Atlantis came from the Alsatian mystic and pseudo-archaeologist R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz (1887–1961).To be clear Schwaller de Lubicz is exactly the kind of pseudo-archaeologist that Dr. Dibble seeks to root out of the popular discourse. Schwaller de Lubicz argued that the weathering on the Sphinx and its enclosure was the result of water and this suggested some of the monuments in Egypt should pre-date the Biblical flood and connected them with the destroyed continent of Atlantis. This allowed some readers (and many pseudo-archaeologists) to connect an Egypt and the construction of its great monuments to a much more ancient culture that was destroyed by the flood. This, like so much pseudo-archaeology, sought to disassociate the Ancient Egyptian known to archaeologists (and by extension contemporary Egyptians) from many of its greatest monuments. In the hands of some, this served to sever the Egyptian cultural achievement from a Black, African past and contribute to racist arguments for the primitive and subordinate character of Black culture in the contemporary world. 

At the same time, it is worth pointing out that Sun Ra’s reading of Schwaller de Lubicz could hardly be seen as conventionally racist. In other words, the reception of these arguments among different groups produced different reading. For Sun Ra (and a certain strain of Black readers), the mystical (or even alien) origins of Egyptian society did not sever contemporary Black culture from an African past, but anchored it in a technologically, intellectually, and spiritually superior civilization that white society had sought to suppress. When set against the narrative of the Middle Passage and the Atlantic slave trade which severely compromised Black ties to an African past, the story of Atlantis and alien interventions in Egypt create an alternative legacy that overwrites the painful legacy of their time as an enslaved and marginalized group.   

I’ll blog more on the recent controversies on Atlantis and pseudo-archaeology tomorrow, but as a kind of warm up, I wanted to put something together that makes an effort to unpack one little sliver of the complex ways that pseudo-archaeology and the myth of Atlantis has played in American culture.  

And, as his band sings at the end of the album, I hope that “Sun Ra and his band from outer space have entertained you here.”

Music Monday: Bill Evans

I’ve been thinking about Bill Evans and his various trios a lot lately. In part, this is because a new live recording appeared this summer from Elemental Records called Behind the Dikes: The 1969 Netherlands Recordings, which as the title suggests documents shows played in Hilversum and Amsterdam in 1969. This album joins a quintet of recordings released by Resonance Records over the past few years (Live At Art D’Lugoff’s Top Of The Gate, Some Other Time (The Lost Sessions from the Black Forest)Another Time (Live At Hilversum 1968)Evans in England, and Live at Ronnie Scott’s). All these albums feature Eddie Gómez on bass and either Jack DeJohnette or, more frequently, Marty Morell on drums.

As someone relatively new to jazz and improvised music, Bill Evans’s career was largely overshadowed in my mind by this work with his classic trio of Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian in the early 1960s including his classic album Waltz for Debby (which derived from a series of sets recorded live at the Village Vanguard in 1961) or his work with Miles Davis (on Kind of Blue) or George Russell (especially on New York, N.Y. or Jazz in the Space Age). But as I explored his discography a bit more (and not at all systematically), I found myself drawn again and again to his recordings from the late 1960s. 

As I noted in my Music Monday post last week, I’m not very well-schooled in the theories behind jazz and improvised music and other than a brief time playing woodwinds in my teens and twenties, I don’t have no experience as a musician. For a long time, in fact, I had no idea what I was listening to when I listened to any music and I’m sure my more accomplished friends would say that this is still the case. That all said, one thing that listening to Evans’s late 1960s trio taught me was to appreciate the conversations between the musicians, particularly between Evans and Gómez’s “muscular” and (to my ears) confident bass. What makes this all the more clear is that the late 1960s recordings of the trio feature a fairly limited repertoire of both jazz standards and his own originals. As a result, it’s possible to hear the same songs played in different ways reflecting the their different contexts and the different moods of the trio on any given night. For example, I really appreciate the vigorous performances recorded in Evans in England which contrast with a more subdued and introspective (and even brooding?) set recorded in a studio in Villingen, Germany, Some Other Time. Maybe it’s the absence of an audience or the more subtle playing of a young Jack DeJohnette that gives this latter album its character, but despite having fairly substantial overlap with the setlist from Evans in England, it presents a significantly different vibe. Another enjoyable contrast is between the set recorded at Art D’Lugoff’s Top Of The Gate and those from Ronnie Scott’s that same year (and a year later on Evans in England!). It feels like his trio gains both confidence and, as a result, a willingness to explore more vigorously over the course of these two years. By listening to these albums together, even my relatively unschooled ear discovers a kind of intimacy and familiarity with the conversations taking place within the band.


Music Mondays: Seasonal Parker, Roy Campbell, and Yellow

It’s the calm before the storm. The semester starts tomorrow, our campus has a mask mandate, my syllabi are ready, and cool fall weather has settled in town as if on cue. Needless to say, I’m pretty excited. The long purgatory of summer is finally over and it’s time to get back at it.

I’m also excited because I have a little gaggle of good music to share. Some of this is really new and some of this is pretty old, but all of it inspired me over the last week as I prepared for the new semester.

First, I can’t recommend enough one of William Parker’s latest albums Painters Winter. It is evidently a complement to his 2001 album Painter’s Spring which likewise features drummer Hamid Drake and all arounder Daniel Carter. William Parker is a bassist and a distinctive one at that. So both albums are not only locked down in terms of bass lines, but also showcase Parker’s distinctive style of both plucked and bowed base as well as his ability to create tonal contrasts with by playing some kind of pocket trombone thing. Daniel Carter who is capable of flight of remarkable intensity as well as passages of tonal exploration which complement Parker’s bass, is a new voice to me. Both albums are typically classified as avant-garde or free jazz, but they’re not the often crass or impulsive displays of technical bravado that folks often associate with this genre. Instead, the offer thoughtful and at times quiet music that draws the listener into the interplay between musicians. What these albums do (at least for me) is force me to think about relationships between the musicians, between the sounds, and between the instruments. Maybe it’s the recent vogue for so-called “relational ontologies” and the like that has me thinking more and more about how relationships create meaning and looking deeper into the relationships between events, individuals, objects, and sound. Maybe it’s that Parker creates a sufficiently solid foundation that almost all his albums have the kind of groove that I need to motivate and inspire me (check out “Happiness” on Painters Winter and if it doesn’t generate feeling in you, I’m not sure what will). Maybe it’s Drake and Carter can follow and play around and with Parker in a conversational way. 

Parker and Carter’s rapport got me exploring Carter’s discography a bit more fully and this led to me Other Dimensions in Music where Parker and Carter collaborate with trumpet player Roy Campbell, drummer Rashid Bakr. This album is four tracks of remarkable grooves and inspired music. If the trio format of the pair of Painters albums could sound a bit spare where space is as much part of the conversation as the notes being played, the addition of a trumpet in Other Dimensions in Music offers the potential for a denser soundscape which the musicians build slowly and deliberately. Roy Campbell’s trumpet may well be the star of this album. He coaxes a range of tones, textures, and melodic lines from it and it dances along with Carter’s reeds in a personable conversation. Parker’s wisdom punctuated by Rashid Bakr’s restrained but never hidden drum work anchors the sets. The opening track “Tradition’s Traditional Omissions Suite/Sailing Toward the Dark Happy Voice” is among the best things that I’ve listened to lately (apparently, there are those who think this group’s next album Now! is even better. I haven’t heard it yet).

Enjoying Campbell on this album drew me to some of this other work. I found what some regard as his best album It’s krunch Time to be a revelation. It features Khan Jamal on vibes (Wilber Morris on bass and Guillermo E. Brown on drums). Unlike the long, simmering grooves and soundscapes that constitute Other Dimensions in Music, It’s krunch Time plays like a pop album with songs rarely extending beyond 6 minutes. The result is a less organic feeling. In some ways, it feels like conversations begin, but then get cut off before they begin to wander and explore. There is, however, something to be said for its diversity of sonic textures. I like vibes and Khan Jamal and his ability to move between laid back etherial tonality and punctuated intensity makes him a natural complement to Campbell’s trumpet. Morris who I don’t know alternates between bowed and plucked bass and Brown tries to keep things moving along without stepping on anyone’s toes. Check out the cover of Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” and the “The Star Spangl’ed Banner” for two of the more accessible tracks. This album is a great afternoon listen and evokes a semester’s worth of classroom conversations in its 40 odd minute run time.

Finally, as readers of this blog know, I was drawn to William Parker through his association with Sun Ra. Of course, Sun Ra’s legacy goes beyond those who played with him and is particularly visible in certain branches of the jazz scene in the UK. Last week I started Emma-Jean Thackray’s Yellow. Synths, groovy electric bass, voices, horns, reeds, free experimentation alternate with tight scores. If the Shabaka Hutchings’ project, The Comet is Coming is about the days before the end, Thackray’s Yellow prepares the way. It feels like the continuation of Sun Ra’s late-1970s explorations (especially Lanquidity and On Jupiter) for the 21st century. It’s not only listenable, but also complex enough to reward repeated visits. Less of a conversation that the works I’ve discussed in already in this blog and more of a proper concert. Let the music wash over you and challenge you to get out of your comfy chair and experience the world differently.  

Music Monday: Sun Ra in Birmingham

I’ve just returned home from a 5000+ mile road trip through the heart of COVID country. We hit 17 states: ND, SD, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, WVa, Va, NC, SC, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee. 

Since we swung through Alabama, this meant a stop in Birmingham to see the final resting place of Sun Ra’s earthly remains. As William Sites has expertly noted, Birmingham exerted a formative influence over Sun Ra’s career and identity. Born in the city as Herman Sonny Blount, he graduated from Birmingham’s Black industrial high school which by the 1930s was the largest Black high school in the US. There he not only honed his abilities as a musician but also developed his life-long appreciation of discipline which he passed along to his band, the Arkestra, through his famous day-long rehearsal sessions.

In some sense, Birmingham was the capital of Alabama’s “Black Belt” despite its location in the state’s Piedmont region and its industrializing economic in the late-19th and early-20th century provided an alternative to agricultural work organized around sharecropping. In this way, movement to the city anticipated the “Great Migration,” and Birmingham’s urban blacks often found it easier to find work in northern cities. Thus, Sun Ra’s move to Chicago in the 1940s followed a well-trod path for Black residents of Birmingham. 

From his early life in Alabama, he carried with him not only his interest in discipline, but also his deep interest in Afrocentric views of Black history fostered through his likely contact with Black masons in the city’s Moorish Science Temple and his brief time at Alabama A&M near Huntsville where he likely encountered the work of George G.M. James and that institutions founding president, William Hooper Councill. In Alabama, he also claimed to have experienced his alien abduction which crystalized his special mission to elevate human existence through his music. That said, he talked very little of his own life, influences, and upbringing in his interviews, and in the case of his alien abduction, his story seems to have changed a bit with each telling.

For an intellectual famously ambivalent about his childhood, then, it is a bit surprising to discover that he returned to Birmingham at the end of his life and was buried there. Ever the performer, perhaps, Ra sought to bring a sense of symmetry to his earthly existence. His travels throughout the world and the galaxy led his band and his listeners along the great parabola that forms a rocket’s path which in the end, brings traveler back toward where they started (even if it’s not the same, exactly place). 

We visited Sonny’s earthly resting place on a Sunday morning about an hour after Sun rise. 

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As a brief aside, his grave is surrounded by the graves of Birmingham’s Greek community in the city’s Elmwood cemetery.

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Music Monday: Whither Sun Ra?

I’m racing the calendar to get my various little projects done before the end of the summer writing season. I’m feeling just a bit hectic and a bit tired, but with a little luck, things will come together in time for a little vacation before the start of the semester.

This morning, I’m working on the conclusion to my little review of recent work on Sun Ra. I’ve ended up adding sentences and paragraphs throughout the review to flesh it out a bit and give it more cohesion. Now, I need to bring it in for a landing.

You can read versions of part 1, part 2part 3, and part 4 here.

Whither Sun Ra?

Sun Ra’s fascination with the impossible might seem irresponsible in light of urgency of the BLM movement, the rise of a strain of toxic and racist populism, and the persistent threat of violence. More than that, his appeals to Afrocentric ideas might seem naive and unsophisticated and his Afrofuturism too abstract and mystical to contribute in a meaningful way to contemporary society. After all, even modern Afrofuturist heroes like the Black Panther derived his powers from extractive industries organized by the state of Wakanda and performed his acts of daring in a world populated nation states and neatly etched notions of good and evil. In contrast, Sun Ra’s view of the future as the domain of the impossible distances it from our current fixation on the real potential of science and narratives set amid lightly reimagined contemporary institutions. In some ways, Ra’s fascination with a lightly defined impossible suits may suit our modern situation as we grapple with global crises of COVID and climate change. These challenges with distributing the COVID vaccine (and convincing individuals to receive it) reveals the limits of the possible when defined by scientific solutionism. Likewise, for all of our scientific understanding of climate change, economic inequality, the politics of nation states, and the rise of crass populism has hampered meaning global action. Sun Ra offered no easy solutions to the world’s problems. By situating the present at the intersection of myth and the impossible, he offered a view of the future decoupled from burdens of the past. The mythic power of Blackness produces a future that flagrantly defies the pragmatic gradualism of so much of the contemporary struggle for rights. In some ways, Ra’s blurring of the Black past and the impossible future anticipates Paul Gilroy’s famous reformulation of W.E.B. Dubois’s concept of the Black double consciousness. In The Black Atlantic: Modernity and the Double Consciousness (1993), Gilroy argues that Dubois concept of double consciousness continues to define the experience of Black people as they work to negotiate the tensions between being European and Black. Ra reconciled this tension by rejecting the temporal division between pre-slavery, pre-colonial, and pre-European Africa and the future.

The influence of Sun Ra’s music continues to flow in contemporary jazz and improvised music. The cosmic themes present in saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s music and performances certainly draw inspiration from Sun Ra’s Arkestra, and their mutual respect came out during a shared festival performance with the Arkestra’s Marshall Allen and Pharoah Sanders in 2016. It may be, however, that the resurgent London jazz scene is where Sun Ra’s influence is the most visible today. Literal manifestation of Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic, the diaspora Black jazz community in the UK continues to explore Black music and identity with ensembles like the Heliocentrics making direct reference to Ra’s iconic 1965 album, The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume One. More obviously, however, is Shabaka Hutchings’ various projects which drawn upon both Afrocentric and Afrofuturist themes. His ensemble Sons of Kemet has produced two albums of music that blends scathing political critique with tightly arranged music influenced by Caribbean sounds, Afrobeat rhythms, and traditional jazz. The title of their 2018 album, Your Queen is a Reptile, evoked the reptilian conspiracy theories drawn from science fiction stories of alien invaders and bizarrely popular among Q-Anon followers. Hutchings’ ensemble, The Comet is Coming, is blends his saxophone with programed drums and keyboards. Its millenarian name, science fiction inspired song titles, and exuberant use of electronic instruments evokes the Afrofuturist sound of Sun Ra. Their 2019 album, Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery, hints at the potential mystical underpinnings of their endeavor.

While there is no doubt that Washington, Hutchings, and others continue to lace their music with themes influenced by Sun Ra’s work. This complements recent interest in Sun Ra’s music and broader thought in contemporary society. For a world increasingly constrained by the limits of technological solutionism, Sun Ra presents a figure even more foreign than he did to his time. He offered few solutions to problems that he traced with cosmic dimensions. As we confront a series of existential challenges in the 21st century that seem to exceed our imagination, it may be that we need Sun Ra now more than ever.

Reviewing Sun Ra (Part 4)

This weekend, I read and enjoyed two recent books on Black utopian thought that included chapters on Sun Ra: Alex Zamalin’s Black Utopia: The History of an Idea from Black Nationalism to Afrofuturism (Columbia 2019) and Jayna Brown’s Black Utopias: Speculative Life and Music of Other Worlds (Duke 2021). The two books follow a very similar organization and survey major Black thinkers of the 18th, 19th and 20th century who engaged with utopian themes: Sojourner Truth, Martin Delany, W.E.B. Dubois, Richard Wright, as well as Octavia Butler, Samuel Delany, and Sun Ra. 

You can read part 1, part 2, and part 3 here, and below, the next part of my somewhat flailing effort to write a review of some recent contributions to our appreciation of Sun Ra.

Graham Locke’s Blutopia (1999) which considers the utopian visions in the work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton, noted that Ra’s journey to space and his cosmic claims had parallels in African American experiences of heavily journeys associated with Christian revelation. Ra’s spaceship finds a scriptural parallel in Elijah’s chariot on which the prophet escaped escape from the earthly realm. Locke also recognizes allusions to spirituals and in the chants and dances of the Arkestra during their performances parallels to rituals in the Black church which evoked the Exodus or the incantations that brought down the walls of Jericho. Sun Ra, of course, was uninterested in explicit references to the Bible which he considered, at best, a book laced with secret knowledge accessible through cryptic readings and wordplay and, at worst, an obsolete icon in an age where spaceships replace flaming chariots (Locke, 41). His broadsheets from his Chicago days reflected a sustained effort to find new meaning in scripture on the basis of substitution and numerology, and he dismissed Christianity and organized religion as meaningless. At the same time, the often mystical references to scripture, parallels between his cosmic journey and Christian spiritual experiences, and the Afrocentric impulses that celebrated the accomplishments of the Egyptians create a public personal that simultaneously looks toward both the space age and a Black past. For Locke, the contradictory and ambiguous character of Ra’s utopian vision reflects part of the genius of his “Astro Black Mythology” situated at the intersection of specifics of history and the past and the universals of myth and the future.

Jayna Brown’s recent book on Black Utopia’s noted that Sun Ra once quipped “Me and time never got along so good—we just sort of ignore each other” (Brown 2021, 158). She goes on to argue that, for Ra, time represented a linear understanding of human experience and progress. For Ra’s utopian view, the concept of utopia as literally placelessness complements its timelessness. This created space for Ra’s commitment to the impossible and the potential for “radical alterity” (Brown 2021, 159). Nowhere is this embodied more clearly than in Ra’s identity which regularly defied definition. He was neither human, nor alien, he was not living in the past, present, or the future and his poetry, in particular, continuously sought to . This radical conceptualization of his own existence finds parallels in the science fiction of Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany which feature creatures that defy our notions of personal identity and who exist outside of conventional time. For Alex Zamalin Ra’s willingness to operate at the level of impossible paradoxically pushed his audiences to ponder the limits and potential of new possibilities that could transcend the restricted notions of Black experience, planetary existence, and humanity itself. 

Kara Keeling’s starts her 2019 book Queer Times, Black Futures (NYU 2019), with a study of Sun Ra’s cult 1974 film, Space is the Place. Her chapter begins with a quote from an Arkestra performance in the middle of the film: “It’s after the end of the world. Don’t you know that yet?” In the film, an extraterrestrial visitor played by Sun Ra arrives in late-1960s Oakland intent of leading Black people to a new planet in a spaceship powered by music. A mysterious antagonist called the Overseer, however, works to thwart Sun Ra’s efforts both in the present and in the past where he appeared in a Chicago club in the 1950s only to be vanquished by the power of Ra’s music. Scenes of Ra and the Overseer playing a kind of cosmic card game in a timeless and spaceless setting punctuate the film and have clear consequences for Ra’s efforts to rescue Black people on Earth. Throughout the conflict, the power of Ra’s music neutralizes the efforts of the Overseer as well as other forces, including NASA scientists, who seek to disrupt his plans. Ultimately, he manages to save Black people in Oakland by teleporting them onto his spaceship and departing the planet. Keeling notes that Ra’s vision a Black future is laced with impossibility from the music-powered space ship to the dream of colonizing another planet. Keeling’s discussion of Space is the Place opens the door onto critiques of the world anchored in progressive trajectories tied to capital and narratives political development which so often serve to deny Black people equality. By queering the tidy linearity of time, Ra creates space for new impossibilities and new pathways that are limited neither to the present nor the future. 

Sun Ra’s contributions to Black utopian visions find their embodiment in the Arkestra’s performances which were often simultaneously unstructured and highly disciplined, futuristic, yet anchored in the tradition of improvised and jazz music, and both humorous and sincere. The Arkestra’s recordings continues to combine music from across Sun Ra’s career demonstrating in practice how the rules of time need not apply. 

Marion Brown

Earlier this summer, I read Anthony Reed’s Soundworks: Race, Sound, and Poetry in Production (Duke 2021), and this remarkable little book devotes some attention to the work of Marion Brown. I’ve long found Marion Brown the most fascinating and perplexing of the great post-Coltrane saxophonists. I first encountered Brown on Coltrane’s generation-defining Ascension (1965) and Shepp’s Fire Music (1965).

He never gained the social power of Archie Shepp, lacked the exotic spirituality of Pharoah Sanders, and didn’t play with the raw fire of Albert Ayler. This isn’t to say that he wasn’t capable of fiery playing or lacked spirituality. In the 1960s critics often regarded his sound as very similar to Shepp’s, but to be honest, I never found this to be the case other than on the confusing mélange of solos on Ascension. I suppose his Three for Shepp (1966) shares a kind of conceptual similarity with Shepp’s Four for Trane. Brown’s Porto Novo, however, starts to chart out a different direction. (To be fair, I’ve never heard his Juba-Lee or his earlier eponymous recording).

My favorite Brown album is his Sweet Earth Flying (1974) which is the final part of his trilogy of albums grounded in his childhood in Georgia. Paul Bley’s electric organ (as well as Muhal Richard Abrams), Brown’s gently probing sax, and Steve McCall’s sensitive and responsive drums. The narration of Bill Hasson which combines phrases in a made up, vaguely African-sounding, language with snippets of English bring an oddly familiar exoticism to the atmospheric sounds. The title of the album, “Sweet Earth Flying” is from a Jean Toomer poem in his novel Cane (1923), which was set in Georgia. This novel likewise provides a context for the second album in his Georgia trilogy Geechee Recollections (1973) which features a track called “Karintha” which includes narrations from Cane.

The best known and in some ways most challenging album of the trilogy is The Afternoon of the Georgia Faun (1971). The album remains one of the “great white whales” of my music listening in that I’ve struggled for years to connect with it and found it always just beyond my grasp. Recently I’ve tried to listen to it again and while I still find it challenging and abstract, I’m slowly coming to terms with it. While I’m not someone who grasps the subtleties of compositions or even musicianship, I do feel like I am getting better at understanding the atmosphere and style contemporary improvised music and jazz. The more I try to work my way through The Afternoon of the Georgia Faun, the more I appreciate it as a masterpiece of Marion Brown’s catalogue.

A thoughtful review of this phase of Brown’s career appears in this recent piece by Jon Ross in the Bitter Southerner.

Despite the regularly critiques of Marion Brown’s catalogue as inconsistent and unfocused, there’s something about these three albums that provide a kind of focus that transcends any effort to understand the totality of his work. If you’re looking for something to listen to this summer, do check out Marion Brown’s trilogy (it’s perfect companion to Toomer’s Cane which is now in the public domain!)

Music Monday: Looking Backward and Forward

This weekend I listened to a bunch of Archie Shepp. He remains one of my favorite saxophone players and his political commitments and understanding of the past and the present in Black music provides a useful lens through which to consider how jazz and improvised music both explored new sonic and social terrain and constructed new relationships with the past.

Shepp is interesting because he was part of the potent wave of post-Coltrane saxophone players (together with Pharoah Sanders, Marion Brown, John Tchicai, Albert Ayler, and further removed Anthony Braxton, Bennie Maupin and others) who pushed improvised music from free jazz into the realm of the avant-garde. In doing so, he recognized that this move was not just about exploring new ways to create music and sound, but also new social statements that channeled the anxiety, anger, and hope of the 1960s. His albums Fire Music and Sounds of Ju-Ju (which also articulated a connection between American jazz music African rhythms and sensibilities) embody Shepp’s early sound. 

By the early 1970s, however, his interested expanded to include large ensemble compositions that evoked the traditions of Ellington, blues, and gospel and blend them with contemporary soul, the poetics of the Black Arts Movement, and avant-guard jazz. These likewise continued Shepp’s political commitment with albums such as Attica Blues and The Cry of My People offering musical reminders that the struggle for Civil Rights was ongoing while at the same time anchoring protest in the traditions of Black music. 

With this background, it is hardly remarkable to note that Shepp has felt comfortable digging deeper in the Black musical traditions over the last 50 years. His recent album with Jason Moran, for example, Let My People Go, is merely the latest in a long string of albums that deliberately explore the potential of blues, gospel, and traditional ballads within the contemporary tradition of protest music. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that all of Shepp’s ballads and blues are intended as explicit protest, but his music demonstrates the way that jazz music creates a sense of temporal dislocation and offers a distinct way to understand the Black experience (and the mental dislocation that is at the core of what W.E.B. DuBois concept of double-consciousness of the Black experience and Paul Gilroy’s translation of this concept to the larger Atlantic world created through the African slave trade).

The soulfulness of Shepp’s two albums with Horace Parlan, Goin’ Home (1977) and its more bluesy follow up Trouble in Mind (1980) initiate a trajectory that continues throughout the 1980s and 1990s where Shepp’s once aggressive tone mellowed into a reediness characteristic of Ben Webster. The music on Body and Soul (with Richard Davis in 1991), Blues (1991), Black Ballads (1992), Blue Ballads (1995) and True Blue (1998) represent a major contribution to his catalogue and reflect Shepp’s willingness to reinforce the continued vitality of Black music while still exploring new sonic possibilities in jazz.

Over the past decade or so, a number of scholars have emphasized how Sun Ra’s adventurous and diverse catalogue explicitly looked backwards and forward by blending jazz and pop standards with futuristic sounds, arrangements, and concepts. My post today looks to expand these analysis to Archie Shepp’s equally provocative (and perhaps more explicitly activist) 20th century catalogue. The negotiation of the past and the present in jazz music embodied in part in the interplay between the traditional and the avant-garde probes the challenge of tracing out a socially meaningful past for Black people that recognizes how historical inequality can nevertheless provide a foundation for new kinds of futures.