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?  

Music Monday: Some Sun Ra Notes

This weekend, I started to think just a bit more seriously about writing something on Sun Ra and the relationship between his work (both in music and writing) and Orientalism. I’ve toyed with some ideas related to this topic a few months ago, and you can read some of them here. I’m not entirely sure where this project is going, but I wanted to get some momentum behind it.

To help this project along, I took a dive into Kevin McGeough’s massive and impressive (and massively impressive) The Ancient Near East in the Nineteenth Century: Appreciations and Appropriations (Sheffield Phoenix Press 2015). I was particularly interested in the final chapters of volume 3 which deal with the Theosophical movements of the late 19th century and, then, in the final part a quick tour through some of the early 20th century legacies of 19th century views of the Near East with special attention to Freud and H.P. Lovecraft.

McGeough’s attention to Helena Blavatsky’s work drew my attention both because her works appeared in Sun Ra’s library and because she located the source of an ancient and unchanging wisdom in ancient Near Eastern (particularly Egyptian) sources. While Blavatsky’s understanding of the Egyptian, Near Eastern, and Classical texts left much to be desired, her work nevertheless reflected a growing popular and academic interest in the Near East that had fomented over the 19th century. Oddly, her most famous work Isis Unveiled (1877) does not appear in Sun Ra’s library but her subsequent book, The Secret Doctrine (1888) does. Connecting Sun Ra’s rather eclectic esotericism to theosophy of Blavatsky may be useful in disentangling some of the pseudoscientific elements of his thinking which are explicit in both his poetry and his fascination with the space age.

Sun Ra’s library also contained books by Gerald Massey, the eccentric 19th century poet and playwright, who wrote a number of works that sought to trace Biblical origins to the Nile valley. In particular, Sun Ra owned a copy of Massey’s A book of the beginnings : containing an attempt to recover and reconstitute the lost origines of the myths and mysteries, types and symbols, religion and language, with Egypt for the mouthpiece and Africa as the birthplace (1881).   

I also want to try to understand works like Oahspe: A New Bible by John Ballou Newbrough which is a mystical text that was dictated to Newbrough while in a trance. It evokes both Biblical and Egyptian motifs in its spiritualism and likewise appears in Sun Ra’s collection. Similarly Sun Ra’s library contains works of James M. Pryse, another late 19th century Theosophist. 

The other aspect of Sun Ra’s work that has fascinated me is his connection with African American writers who looked to connect Black culture and race, in various ways, to Egypt, the Near East, and Biblical narratives. The most prominent of these was George G.M. James‘s work, Stolen Legacy: The Greeks Were Not the Authors of Greek Philosophy, But the People of North Africa, Commonly Called the Egyptians (1954) which anticipated some of Martin Bernal’s arguments in Black Athena and famously attracted the critique of Mary Lefkowitz

James’s work represents a key early text that we might associate with Afrocentrism. And I’d like to try to understand similar 19th and early 20th century works in Sun Ra’s library. For example, I was not familiar with Boston Napoleon Bonaparte Boyd whose work appear among Sun Ra’s books. His work, Search light on the seventh wonder; x-ray and search light on the Bible with natural science; discoveries of the twentieth century,  from what I gather, attempted to link Biblical and historical narratives to the condition of Africa and Blacks in society and the need to reclaim lost knowledge to restore true wisdom to the world.

Similarly, I’m fascinated by the work of Theodore P. Ford, especially his God Wills the Nego (1939) which sought to locate the history of Black people in Ethiopia and Egypt as a way to restore their status in mid-century American society. (There is one line of thinking that connects Ford with Wallace Fard Muhammad, the mysterious founder of the Nation of Islam.)

Finally, I want to understand a bit more about his relationship to the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the shooting of certain scenes from Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise (for a review of it, see here).