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. 

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!     

Music Monday

I have always wanted to write more regularly about music on my blog (and in real life more broadly). The problem is that whenever I start to write about music I find myself lacking the right words, technical vocabulary, and historical understanding to write confidently.

Today, for whatever reason, I decided to throw caution to the wind and write a bit about music. I don’t have a cohesive or coherent post on music to offer, but I thought I’d pull together some little observations for a kind of fragmentary start.

First, I’m pretty enchanted by Promises, Pharoah Sander’s latest album with Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra. It’s exactly the kind of ethereal, cerebral, ambient music that you might expect from Floating Points made more richer through the London Symphony’s strings. Pharoah Sander’s saxophone floats in and out, mostly above the mix, and his solos create new impressions and add textural relief to nuance soundscapes produced by Floating Points. In short, it’s good stuff and a real album rather rather than a project designed to leverage Sanders’ place in the jazz pantheon to entice us to listen.

Sanders is not the only post-Coltrane sax player to continue to release new music this year. Archie Shepp’s Let My People Go with Jason Moran is a more intimate album than Promises that emphasizes Shepp’s distinctive tone and style rather than something more grandiose. For fans of Shepp, Let My People Go evokes his two recordings with Horace Parlan, Goin’ Home (1977) and Trouble in Mind (1980). This is a good thing. Shepp returns to his long tradition of political Black music statements that stretches into the 60s and 70s, while embracing a less complicated setting of a saxophone and a piano. 

Readers of my “what I’m listening to” section of my Friday Varia and Quick Hits know that I’ve taken some deep dives in Charles Lloyd’s discography and have been really enchanted by his recent work with the Marvels. His 2021 release, Tone Poem, isn’t quite as engaging as Vanished Gardens (2018) or I Long to See You (2016) and it doesn’t have the soul shattering beauty (and context) of his last gaggle of ECM albums (crowned by his 2002 Lift Every Voice), but they’re solid albums where Lloyd plays within himself. Like Shepp and Sanders, he relies on his exquisite tone to make his points (although he was never as keen to show his pyrotechnic chops as Sanders and Shepp; although see his recently released Manhattan Stories which is Lloyd’s private recording of a 1965 live date at Slugs).   

Second, I’ve been listening to and thinking about Maria Schneider’s Data Lords (2020) a good bit lately. It not only represents a particularly fertile few years for large ensemble jazz (I’m still really enjoying the Sun Ra Arkestra’s Swirling) but also the emergence of jazz that critiques the pervasive character of our digital world. Data Lords, for example, deliberate juxtaposes the chaotic and incessant world of digital data with the personal, spiritual, and intimate world of human experiences. Putting aside the validity of this juxtaposition (which clear has both merits and shortcomings), Schneider’s music is a sometimes strident call for balance which has particular salience in the music industry where the datafied nature of music and download culture can often reduce the success of a work to bits in a stream.

This kind of critique goes beyond Schneider’s album. I’m looking forward to listening to Malnoia’s Hello Future which is likewise framed as a complex response to the dehumanizing character of technology. Magnus Granberg’s Come Down to Earth Where Sorrow Dwelleth is also high on my spring listening list. The album apparently draws you into its slow, dolorous sound and forces a kind of reflective state on the listener. 

I got wondering how these albums that explicitly or implicitly critique our face paced digital worlds sit alongside the traditions of futurism in jazz music. I keep thinking of the Afrofuturism inherent in Sun Ra’s work or in Herbie Hancock’s explicitly futuristic sounding work on Head Hunters. The implications that this music is the “shape of jazz to come” fused the sound of avant-garde music with a view of the future. 

The rise of digital technologies and synthesizer music forms a useful backdrop for the futurism of bands like The Comet is Coming (and their other UK based projects). I wonder if Afrofuturism also informs the spirit present in the recent albums by the likes of Kamasi Washington and Christian Scott which manage to look back and forward at the same time? Maybe I’ll blog a bit about this next Monday.