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.
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.
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.
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.