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.

Thing Things Thursday: More Sun Ra, Sheffield, and Rivers

Every day it feel more and more like the end of the summer season and the beginning of fall. It certainly doesn’t help that smoke from the Canadian wildfires has filled the air giving the entire city a bit of autumnal light. As a result, my attention span is being dragging in multiple directions as I try to wrap up end of the summer tasks and gear up for the fall semester. It feels like a good time to do another three things Thursday.

Thing the First

With all this talk about sending billionaires into space, it was a great time to receive the collections of Sun Ra’s poetry recently republished by Chicago gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey. The reprints are done with meticulous attention to detail and manage to reproduce the feeling of the these sometimes casual and often often simple publications.

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For example, the liner notes from Jazz in Silhouette from 1959 appear in their blurry and smudged mimeograph purple creating an intriguing contrast between their futuristic content and their reproduction which situates them in the past. In these poems Sun Ra reminds us that the future is the world of the impossible and that we have to “consider the negative plain of existence” and

The prophets of the past belong to the past
The space prophets of the greater future
Belong to the greater future.   

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It is great to see the poems reproduced in their original form. Two of my favorites appear his most famous book of poetry, The Immeasurable Equation (1972): “The Cosmic Myth,” and “Black Myth” which so clearly embody key aspects of Sun Ra’s worldview. “The Cosmic Myth” starts with the lines “A new name is always a great adventure | A cosmic name is a cosmic word …”

“Black Myth” engages with Ra’s challenging sense of myth and time declaring:

A better destiny I decree
Such tales and tales that are told
Are not my myths
But other myths of Black mythology
Radiate from beyond the
      measured borders of time.

Thing the Second

Like so many people in the world of archaeology, I’m quite distressed by the closing of the archaeology department at the University of Sheffield. Flint Dibble offers a nice summary of the situation in this Twitter thread. As he and many other commentators note, the most challenging aspect of this closure is that this department was among the most important and successful in the English speaking world.

Like many people, I can’t help but feeling that its closure marks a new phase in the transformation of higher education on a global scale. The debate is no long about metrics for success, which Sheffield would appear to achieve without a shadow of the doubt, or the value of hard won intangibles such as prestige and brand recognition, but about something else entirely. The cynic in me makes it easy enough to attribute the closure to a crass power play on the part of the political leadership of the university. The archaeology program at Sheffield may well be a kind of tall poppy  cut down in a rather pure expression of power.  

It is hard to understand how it would be possible to resist gestures such as these. Over the past decade, in the long simmering crisis in higher education, faculty especially in the humanities and arts have worked to construct strategies designed to promote their programs on campus, to boost enrollments, to demonstrate the utility of their programs for the 21st century, and to extend their reach beyond campus.

At the same time, faculty have often critiqued past generations of faculty for not doing enough to anticipate the changing political, economic, and ideological landscape of higher education. This is often done in an oblique way through criticism of ivory tower faculty who were and remain out of touch with reality and incapable of adapting their programs. As frequent are criticisms of university administrators who are depicted as a hostile to the humanities, arts, and social sciences or simply incompetent. While these critiques have remained in the background surrounding the closing of Sheffield’s program, they often raise their heads when the conversations turn to the challenges facing humanities, arts, and social science programs more broadly.  

I can’t escape the feeling that the increasingly arbitrary cuts to programs will reveal the ultimate futility of well-meaning faculty efforts to preserve their programs and perhaps cause us to pull back from many of the least charitable critiques of faculty in the past. Perversely, it push us to ask much harder questions that do not involve sustaining our programs, our jobs, our careers, or our work and instead focus on what we should do when we know that our work will not matter to our institutions and our fields.

Thing the Third     

I’ve been chewing on an abstract that I need to prepare before the end of the month for the 2021 CHAT conference whose topic is movement. As I’ve mentioned before (somewhere on this blog!), I’ve wanted to write about the Grand Forks Greenway and to reflect on the tension between the walls designed to manage the flow and flooding of the Red River of the North and the river’s movement through the landscape, our engagement (and movement alongside the river’s course), and our ability to navigate over and around the walls put in place after the disastrous flood of 1997.

Unlike a traditional conference, the “pilgrim CHAT” will be a month-long festival open to all sort of multi-, trans-, and new media kinds of explorations of the topic of movement. This complicates my abstract all the more as it forces me to think about my topic not just in the sense of academic content, but also as media. I have almost no experience doing this kind of thing, but this project seems like a great opportunity to broaden my horizons a bit and develop a greater appreciation for how our new media world might change scholarly communications. 

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. 

Reviewing Sun Ra (Part 1)

I’m taking a partial holiday today and working on a kind of odd ball side project. I have decided to start a review of recent work on and by Sun Ra. I don’t have a very clear idea how this review will go, but I know I’d like to include the most recent album by the Sun Ra Arkestra, Swirling, as well as the two most prominent re-releases Egypt 1971 and Languidity. I’d also like to note the Corbett vs. Dempsey republication of a four of Sun Ra’s poetry volumes. 

William Sites’s Sun Ra’s Chicago: Afrofuturism and the City (Chicago 2020) and some recent treatments of Sun Ra’s output in scholarly literature (e.g. in Kara Keeling’s Queer Times, Black Futures (NYU 2019), 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). 

That all said, I want to start with Swirling, I think. Here goes:

Sun Ra’s music looked forward and backward. Swirling is the most recent release from his eponymous Arkestra, under the direction of Marshall Allen, Sun Ra’s longtime alto saxophone player and is no exception. It not only featured many of the long-time members of the Arkestra —  including the late Danny Ray Thompson and Atakatune along side Michael Ray, Vincent Chancey, Knoel Scott, and other Arkestra stalwarts — but also dug deep into the Arkestra’s vast repertoire. The result was an album that embraces the expansive Arkestra catalogue and projects it into the future though its polished production quality, disciplined performances, and new arrangements.

For connoisseurs of the seemingly infinite discography of Sun Ra’s Earthly work, Swirling requires a trip through Robert Campbell and Christopher Trent 800-page effort to document Sun Ra’s recordings. This is more than simply a forensic exercise. The works performed on Swirling connects the 21st century Arkestra to traditions of performance that stretch back to Sun Ra’s days in Chicago when he blended jazz made standard by the great swing bands of the interwar period with new forms of music that drew inspiration from the emerging space age.  

The opening track “Satellites are Spinning” flashes back to 1968, and the very end of Arkestra’s tenure in New York City. The earliest recordings of the next track, “Seductive Fantasy,” dates to 1979 during a time when the Arkestra had a modicum of popular success including an appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1978. “Swirling,” the third track, is a new piece composed by Marshall Allen, but the fourth and sixth tracks dates to Sun Ra’s days in Chicago. The fifth track is apparently a piece discovered by Allen in Sun Ra’s archive. “Astro Black” was first released on one of Sun Ra’s dates for the Impulse! lable in 1973, whereas the very next track “I’ll Wait for You” harkens back to the Arkestra’s most experimental period as part of the Choreographer’s Workshop soon after their arrival in New York in 1962. “Unmask the Batman” is a pastiche of the Batman theme by the Ventures from the mid-1960s with the Arkestra original “I’m Gonna Unmask the Batman” from the early 1970s. This piece served as playful reminder of when Sun Ra and some members of the Arkestra recorded a novelty album of music from the Batman television series in 1966 at the same time that they held down a regular gig at the infamous Slug’s Saloon. “Sunology” and “Space Loneliness” date to Sun Ra’s Chicago days with the former appearing on the very first album released by Sun Ra and Alton Abraham’s Saturn Records. “Queer Notions” evokes an even earlier time in Sun Ra’s musical career as the earliest recordings of this piece were by the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra (featuring the great Coleman Hawkins) in the 1930s. When Sun Ra first came to Chicago in the 1950s, he found work arranging music for Fletcher Henderson and when Henderson decamped for California, Ra took over his band. He continued to perform pieces from this era even at such bastions of free and improvised music as Slug’s in New York (Szwed, 224). The final track, “Door of the Cosmos/Say” returns to the late-1970s. 

The point of this long and perhaps tedious tedious archaeology of the Swirling track listing is not to finally make full use of my copy of Campbell and Trent’s The Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra (2nd Edition), but instead to demonstrate how Swirling provides a distinctive introduction to Sun Ra’s rich catalogue, the Arkestra’s diverse repertoire, and most importantly, the approach to music taken by Sun Ra during his nearly half-century of performing and recording. The Arkestra’s ability to juxtapose songs made famous by the interwar big bands with music set on the bleeding edge of contemporary jazz in the 1960s and 1970s spoke to Sun Ra’s tendency to blend the past and the future in his view of the contemporary society as well as his disarming practice of combining recordings made over the course of a decade in the same album.

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: Sons of Kemet, Sounds of Liberation, and New Forms of History

This weekend gave me some time with Graham Lock’s classic Blutopia: Visions fo the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton (1999) and with some new and some old music.

First, I hung out with Shabaka Hutchings project Sons of Kemet’s new album Black to the Future. Sons of Kemet has obvious ties to early 20th century Afrocentric discourses — Kemet is an Anglicized form of the Egyptian word for the Nile valley — the music itself sits comfortably in the expansive post-bop world. Theon Cross’s tuba and Tom Skinner’s beats anchors a funk inflected rhythm section and Shabaka Hutchings’s tenor and an impressive slate of vocalists tell stories in the same spirit of 2018 release Your Queen is a Reptile. In other words, they blend hiphop, Reggae, straight ahead post-bop jazz, and rock in a poppy way that will likely attract cross-over audiences, and it speaks to a good bit of what’s going on with the vibrant London jazz scene these days.

For Hutchings, Sons of Kemet represents the “sound of the present” in his trilogy of projects with Shabaka and the Ancestors representing his most conventional jazz (that looks back toward improvisational sounds of the 1970s) and his work with The Comet as Coming looking forward. Evidently Hutchings play with the Sun Ra Arkestra at some point in his past, so the blend of apocalyptic, Afrocentric, and futuristic imagery in his music and concepts show that efforts to carve out distinctive pasts and imagine new futures remains alive and well in jazz.

The other album that I keep rediscovering in my collection is the Sounds of Liberation whose 1972 album New Horizons is absolutely fantastic. They were based in Germantown in Philadelphia (and likely neighbors to Sun Ra’s headquarters at Marshall Allen’s house in the same neighborhood). It blends free, spiritual, and soul jazz in a pretty potent blend that feels (to me) like summertime. Byard Lancaster’s Alto is, to my mind, the star of the show and it soars, dances, and occasionally squeals and even squawks in the best tradition of post-Coltrane saxophone. The album has drive and confidence and the rhythms are complex and dense. Vibe player Khan Jamal is particularly compelling (and his overlap with Sunny Murray makes me even more excited to dig into his stuff more seriously). 

According to the Wikipedias, the cover art was by Leroy Butler who also produced cover art for Sun Ra

Finally, I’ve been thinking more and more about the destruction of Confederate (and other monuments) during the George Floyd protests. I argued that the defacing of these monuments represented an efforts by the Black and African American community to reclaim public urban space by removing monuments to a painful past. I still suspect that this is the case.

Reading Lock’s Blutopia and a bunch of other works on Sun Ra and certain strains of utopian and Afrocentrist practice, however, I started to wonder whether the defacing of monuments in urban space has more to do with making manifest the painful disjunction between the Black present and the past. The Middle Passage which transported enslaved Black people from their homes in Africa to the North America, South America and the Caribbean also created a sense of historical displacement. If white Americans often go to great lengths to cultivate some relationship to (sometimes fictive) past with heroic ancestors, national identities, and ritualized activities designed to celebrate this or that ethnic holiday, Black Americans were stripped of similar ethnic pasts by slavery, Christianization, and colonization of Africa.

By defacing statues erected to reinforce distinctly white historic and ethnic pasts, African Americans created a new form of anti-historical monuments that recognized the discontinuity present in Black history. This discontinuity is not simply a specific historical situation produced by being physically rent from their home and their culture actively suppressed, but also a resulting ambivalence toward the claims of history which have all too often celebrated identities and a past denied by white violence to Black people.

The forms of history written by Afrocentrist authors or manifest in the claiming of new names by Blacks likewise represent efforts to define new relationships to their past and present that function according to rules and methods useful to the Black community. These often contrast with approaches favored by white European historians and designed to reinforce temporary and historical continuity with the past (and the authority and cultural privileges associated with this continuity). In this context, the defacing of monuments during the George Floyd protests parallels the adoption of new names by figures as diverse as, Prince, Sun Ra and Mohammed Ali. The new names reveal new pasts that recognize both historical discontinuity and make claims of new forms of temporal relationships with the past. 

Music Monday: Chicago After Sun Ra

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading a good bit about Sun Ra. Much recent scholarship has emphasized his time in Chicago from the early 1950s to 1961 when he decamped to New York. This is partly because the University of Chicago houses the “Alton Abraham Collection of Sun Ra” which is a significant collection of material relating to Sun Ra’s time in Chicago. Recent work on the Chicago jazz scene during Sun Ra’s tenure have argued that by the early-1960s opportunities for Sun Ra and his Arkestra had become quite limited and this eventually drove him from Chicago. The concentration of clubs and venues in Bronzeville that made Chicago an important center for jazz (and other forms of Black music) in the post-war decades collapsed under the weight of urban renewal, suburbanization, and growing racial anxieties in the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, reading William Sites or Paul Youngquist, one might imagine that the jazz scene collapsed in Chicago after Sun Ra’s departure.

Of course, this is not the case (and I don’t think either author would really argue this), and over the past week, I’ve been listening to some Chicago based outfits in the decade after Sun Ra departed from the city. I don’t want to suggest that these groups are somehow carried on Sun Ra’s legacy or anything of the sort, but they do speak to continued vitality of the Chicago jazz scene in the 1960s.

The first album that I’ve been listening to is the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Tutankhamun released in 1974, but recorded 5 years earlier. It’s really a masterpiece of free jazz that embodies the last 1960s AEC’s approach to music. As every reviewer has noted, it emphasizes tonality and sometimes skittish rhythms over conventional melody and harmony. Malachi Favors nonsense vocals in the first track establish the album as a sound experiment that gradually stretches and pushes at the potential of music to explore both new pasts and presents. 

The album cover itself combines the famous Head of Nefertem (aka Tutankhamun as Sun God) with an amazing futuristic font (which I think is Stop by Aldo Novarese). It’s hard to not to imagine this cover evoking Sun Ra or at least sharing in the same spirit of the past and future that shaped so much of his brand of Afrofuturism.

Here’s the first track via YouTubes.

Tutankhamun album

The second album that I’ve really enjoyed is more conventional and in some ways, more directly connected to Sun Ra’s time in Chicago. Philip Cohran’s first album with the Artistic Heritage Ensemble (1968 which is sometimes called On the Beach). Cohran played with the Arkestra from the late 1950s to their departure from Chicago and shared Sun Ra’s interest in large ensembles. He was a founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in 1965. The music likewise traces some of the paths set out by Sun Ra in Chicago and combines aspects of hard bop with free jazz and rhythm and blues to create a distinctive form of Chicago soul jazz. 

The album is fantastic with complex, steady rhythms punctuated by soaring (if not particularly adventurous) solo explorations. The album feels like something that should be played loudly with the windows open so it can dance across the summer breeze.

The album cover is fairly conventional, although the boldly printed symbol of the Artistic Heritage Ensemble connects it to an Afrocentric imagining of Black music.

Here’s the album via YouTubes.

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Finally, no review of the Chicago scene is complete without reference to Anthony Braxton’s 3 Compositions Of New Jazz (1968). It’s here that I completely lose the plot of what’s going on in the music. Radical improvisation, unconventional song titles, and a deep commitment to texture and tone in the music creates an album that is as much jazz as a distinctive sonic experience. At this point, the musical situation that produced Sun Ra appears indistinct to me, but the probing and experimental spirit of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.

Here’s the album via YouTubes.

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To be clear, I’m not trying to suggest that Sun Ra somehow initiated the experimental music scene in Chicago (pace Lewis 2008), but that the same spirit of sound experimentation anchored in both the rich musical history of Chicago (jazz, blues, soul, et c.) and the challenges associated with Chicago’s Black community informed, in different ways, Sun Ra’s music and the jazz that exploded from Chicago in the mid to late 1960s.

The relationship of this music to developing forms of Black identity demonstrates the continued vitality of Chicago music scene and its ability to adapt to the pressures that undermined the conditions that made post-war Bronzeville a crucible for musicians like Sun Ra.      

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: More Sun Ra Notes

This weekend, I spent a bit of time reading Anthony Reed’s provocative and challenging Soundworks: Race, Sound, and Poetry in Production (Duke 2021). The book is complex and I’m not sure that I have the chops to give it even a superficial summary. It considers the relationship between race, free jazz (broadly construed), and poetry particularly over the course of the “long Black Arts movement (1950-1974).” 

The book prompted me think about my Sun Ra project differently. From the onset, I had imagined that whatever I ended up writing would look to unpack or understand the relationship between Sun Ra’s music and poetry and the archaeology of the Near East and Egypt as filtered through his eclectic imagination, Afrocentrism, Afrofuturism, and mysticism as well as late-20th century attitudes toward race. This is a fine approach, I think, but it tends to see the context for Sun Ra’s work as more important than the work itself. In other words, it suggests that to understand what Sun Ra was trying to do, we have to find his influences which will offer a key to unpacking his work.

After reading Reed’s book, however, I’ve started to wonder if a more productive (and certainly more provocative approach) might be to read Near Eastern archaeology in the context of Sun Ra? Instead of assuming that Sun Ra’s vision of blackness, Africa, history, poetics, and music exist as a distorted mirror of a social, cultural, economic, racial, political or archaeological reality, it seems at least as valid to assume that Sun Ra’s creative work can provide insight into how we understand Near Eastern archaeology and the distinctive character of a black past.

Of course, I’m not entirely sure what an archaeology and history anchored in forms of expression shaped by Sun Ra’s creativity would look like. Moreover, Sun Ra’s creative vision was not static or even consistent over the course of his long career. At the same time, it is easy enough to suggest that Near Eastern archaeology and our understanding of Egypt, the Levant, and archaeology as field have also not remained stable. In other words, assuming that our academic knowledge of the past should take priority over knowledge generated through creative works reifies key elements of colonial, racial, and class-based ways of seeing the world. This isn’t to say that academic forms of knowledge are inherently bad or problematic; after all, they support professional disciplines that have the potential to liberate individuals and communities by mitigating privilege and revealing the workings of power.

At the same time, a significant body of archaeological theorizing has shown, the ways that we narrate, analyze, and interpret the past produce powerful institutional and cultural structures that consistently mitigate efforts to produce radical knowledge. In this context, the radical black knowledge of the Near East produced by Sun Ra and other contributors the Black Arts movement in the 1960s and 1970s offers an often contentious position of critique that reveals way in which our academic forms of knowledge limits the use of archaeology to produce socially useful identities. 

Reading the ancient Near East through Sun Ra (and his fellow travelers) creates a way of thinking about class, race, colonialism, nationalism, and even technology across 20th century Black communities.

Reed’s book pushed me to consider the relationship between jazz and poetry across the pluralities of Black identity and a range of Black communities in the United States. By situating Sun Ra’s efforts to imagine new pasts and futures within this shifting discourse, we can understand his efforts to navigate a relationship to emerging calls for post-colonial African nationhood (It’s Nation Time!), a Black middle class seeking to construct a past for itself modeled partly on the efforts of various middle-class white groups to celebrate their own ethnic and national identities (see: From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement), and the pressures to commercialize his artistic output while also critiquing the uneven benefits of capitalism.  

Of course, right now, I continue just to scratch the surface of the growing body of work on Sun Ra and the larger Black intellectual movement of the mid-20th century. As I develop a broader understanding of the goals and approaches of this movement (notwithstanding its development and the idiosyncrasies of Sun Ra himself), I’m hoping to turn its critiques back toward the Near East. While my grounding in Near Eastern archaeology and history is probably not substantial enough to do anything more than to propose a bridge between two interpretative moments. Even that, however, might be productive and rewarding.

Three Things Thursday: Roads, Books, and Things

Thing the First

Last week, I read a rather well executed article by Alvise Matessi titled “The ways of an empire: Continuity and change of route landscapes across the Taurus during the Hittite Period (ca. 1650–1200 BCE)” in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 62 (2021).

The article does exactly what it says in the title: it analyzes the routes through the Taurus mountains during the Hittite period. The method is as (relatively) simple as it is compelling. The author generated Least Cost Corridors through the area on the basis 90 m DEMs and compared these corridors to the location of Hittite settlements and landmarks. While I’m not terribly interested in his conclusions per se, this approach struck an intriguing balance between the presence of longer term routes through the region (defined in large part by topography) and short term shifts within these larger patterns. 

My colleague and collaborator Dimitri Nakassis sent this along to me with the intent to get us thinking a bit about how patterns of movement across the Western Argolid reflect a similar tension between longer term routes through the region and more narrowly historically defined variation that might be visible at the scale of our intensive survey. In fact, an article on settlement and the Early Modern road network in the region that we published earlier this year offered a nice, if less sophisticated, example of how two different patterns of movement across the region intersected. The main corridor through our survey area followed the route of the Inachos River, but at various periods other routes including those that crisscross the region perpendicular to the river’s path, were significant and remain visible in organization of settlements in the Western Argolid     

Thing the Second

I’m starting to pull together my annual summer reading list. This list is mainly aspirational (at best) and at worst hangs over my head all summer (an into the fall) as as a reminder of my lack of discipline.

Right now, I’m trying to develop the part of my summer list that will deal with the music and context of Sun Ra. It’s for a post-book project that’s just starting to simmer. This weekend, for example, I started to read Anthony Reed’s Soundworks: Race, Sound, and Poetry in Production (Duke 2021) which is a challenging read (and vaguely reminds me of my buddy Paul Worley’s Telling and Being Told (Arizona 2013)  which focuses on orality and performances in Mayan literature), but it evokes many of the artists and musicians that I want to understand better. I’m also eager to tuck into William Site’s new book Sun Ra’s Chicago (Chicago 2020) which I hope will expand my understanding of Ra’s early career and formative influences in that city.

To balance these more recent books, I also plan to read some classic works that unpack the history of jazz (especially the kind of avant-garde creative music with which Sun Ra has been associated). I’m familiar with works like Szwed’s biography of Sun Ra and Paul Youngquist’s A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism (Texas 2016), but I need to familiarize myself with works like Graham Lock’s Blutopia (Duke 1999) which is a bit of a touchstone for later scholars working both Sun Ra and jazz. 

Along similar lines, I need to read a bit more seriously on Afrocentrism, particularly in a mid-century American context. I have Stephen Howe’s book, Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes (Verson 1999) on my “to read” shelf  as well as Wilson Moses’s Afrotopia: the Roots of African American Popular History (Cambridge  1998), Clarence E. Walker’s We Can’t Go Home Again: An Argument about Afrocentrism (Oxford 2001), and Algernon Austin’s Achieving Blackness: Race, Black Nationalism, and Afrocentrism in the Twentieth Century (NYU 2006). 

At the risk of a bad pun, I’m jazzed!

Thing the Third

The final thing is about things. This weekend, I aim to retire my long-serving MacBook Pro laptop. There was a time when I upgraded computers every year or so and this prevented me from developing much of a sentimental attachment to chunks of plastic, silicon, glass, and aluminum. This laptop, however, has served me well for almost five years. In fact, it’ll serve out the rest of its day doing light-duty file serving and storage. 

Last year, I traded in my beloved 2004 F150 for a newer truck. It’s a cliche to say this, but it happened so fast. One day, the truck and I were inseparable, and the next, it was sitting in the back lot of a car dealer.

I know its crazy to assume that things have feelings, but I also think a good bit about how our long term attachment to things like cars, laptops, watches, and homes creates an attachment that is both irrational and real.

How should I retire my laptop? Or trade in a beloved truck? Or gently allow a treasured watch to fall out of my weekly rotation? 

Shouldn’t there be some kind of ceremony or moment recognizing the bond and at least allowing for the slimmest possibility that the connection between a thing and myself is mutual?