Sun Ra. Illustration By: Lizzie Smith
Sun Ra. Illustration By: Lizzie Smith

The Arkestra and the City

"Sun Ra’s Chicago" traces the interstellar musician’s urban roots

It’s a summer night in 1948, and you love jazz and there’s plenty of it. You and maybe some friends get together around 29th Street in Bronzeville. You can fill up the time between now and dawn at a jazz venue every one or two blocks heading south.

Maybe outside the big ballrooms like the Regal Theater, you and your friends just joke around, smoke, and fight while the big bands play. At the Savoy, you have to go in and dance. 

At the Grand Terrace on 35th Street, you are closer to the stage, and the sound is a little different. Earl Hines Orchestra soloists like sometime visitors Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie often defy your expectations, but the bandleaders discourage such forays into what they pejoratively call “Chinese music,” labeling the new sound as strange and foreign, in favor of a focus on tunes, tunes, tunes. 

You don’t know it now, but one of the sidemen at the Grand Terrace is Herman “Sonny” Blount—later known as Sun Ra, who will go on to have one of the most unique careers in experimental jazz. Sun Ra not only innovated in his musical style but elaborated a system of outer space myths and images in his music, liner notes, and performances. He instructed his tightly knit “Arkestra” in “Solaristic Precepts” and attracted a cult following, claiming to be from Saturn. But, as William Sites, associate professor at the University of Chicago Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice, wants us to appreciate in his new book, Sun Ra’s Chicago: Afrofuturism and the City, Sun Ra’s career took off in mid-century Chicago, and it provides a portal into the living reality and utopian horizons of our city in that time. 

A time when, if you’ll remember, you are reaching Washington Park, the home stretch of your night out, but the richest leg—and the neighborhood where Sun Ra lived. Garfield Boulevard is dotted at this time with clubs you can go back and forth between until dawn. Along with the Onyx Club, the Café de Society, the Rhumboogie Café, the Hurricane Theatre Lounge, and Last Chance, there is the most renowned, the Club DeLisa, where until recently Fletcher Henderson—one of the swing era’s masterful, accomplished, exemplary bandleaders—had ruled the roost. 

After the war, the heart of jazz in Black Chicago had migrated down from its Roaring Twenties home in Bronzeville’s core, between 25th and 47th Streets, to here on Garfield Boulevard. Henderson’s departure similarly meant moving on from the Jazz Age—now, various sidemen were leading their own ensembles.

As Henderson winds down his reign at the DeLisa, Sonny Blount picks up piano duties. A few times, you heard Sonny’s arrangements instead of Henderson’s. They were still ballads and dance tunes, but the piano parts were aggressive and expressive. The other members didn’t always know what to do with the phrasings, you could tell. 

Within a couple years, while still in Chicago, Sonny Blount would become Sun Ra. He went on to make experimental jazz that Sites wants us to understand as rooted in jazz standards and the swing era—and also to articulate alternative religious and philosophical views, which Sites argues are rooted in a broader Black heterodoxy and atmosphere of exploration and messianism. To Sites, Sun Ra’s out-there worldview (and band) were driven by more widely shared utopian views: hopes evident every time Black families came to northern cities, built religious and mutual aid groups, met in parks to proselytize, invested in musical education and discipline, read about newly conceivable exotic vacations in Ebony, or wheeled out the TV to the dinner table to watch space launches.

Blount/Sun Ra himself, like thousands of other Black folks in the first half of the twentieth century, migrated to Chicago from Birmingham, an industrial city of the “New South.” Sites points out (as other recent scholarship highlights) that like many other participants in the Great Migration, the musician was already urban before he was a northerner. Sites gives a vivid picture of the urban culture in Birmingham in the 1910s and 1920s, drawing on both historical sources and Black Renaissance literature. Birmingham was a city with music in the streets at night, and one where during the day, Blount studied at the public library housed inside the Masonic Hall in the Black downtown business district—possibly picking up the Masons’ connection between horizon-expanding knowledge and brotherhoods with secret codes and costumes. 

Sun Ra got his early musical education at Birmingham’s Industrial High School, which Sites points out consistently produced highly competent Black musicians under the leadership of Fess Whatley. Like many of them, Sun Ra went out “to the territory,” touring with one of many bands that traveled the South and Midwest bringing swing music to saloons and ballrooms. 

Sun Ra. Book Cover.
Sun Ra. Book Cover.

For Sites, swing bands were vessels for charged ideals. The large group of musicians working together to play a precisely arranged melody with artful showcasing of virtuosic soloists demonstrated Black “sophistication” and artistry. But the style was also taken up by white bands (or, at least for recording, integrated ones)—most definitively by Benny Goodman, whose accessible “populist” sound Sites associates with the optimism and multi-racialism of the New Deal.

Sun Ra’s cities themselves also embody ideals. For Sites, the Birmingham where Sun Ra grew up exemplified the “uplift” ethos of Booker T. Washington, where the quintessential Black leader was both a minister preaching moral reform and an entrepreneur building business institutions that would serve Black community members. Chicago was home to the old Black Renaissance idea of a Black “city within the city,” and to a Second Great Migration-era optimism about post-war society, both of which Sites identifies as forms of utopianism, imagining alternate spaces where things could be better. Arguing that Sun Ra’s later cosmic visions and utopian message grow out of his time in Chicago, Sites encourages us to recast our view of the city in that period from the relatively bleak and industrial one known from Carl Sandburg poems and Nelson Algren novels. 

In fact, in his years in Chicago, Sun Ra benefited from the factors that always make catalysts for the future: new types of work, social connections, and forums for ideas. In Washington Park, the neighborhood where he lived and played at the DeLisa, the namesake park was home to a “Forum” descended from bohemian radical spaces of the World War I era—but in the evolving Chicago landscape, now less socialistic, more (and more diversely) religious, and all-Black in its attendance. 

At the Forum, Sun Ra and collaborator Alton Abraham circulated broadsheets produced under the auspices of their “Thmei Research” collaboration. These did not advertise a clear confession to join like the also-in-attendance Moorish Science Temple, Nation of Islam, Ahmadiyya Muslims, and Black Israelites. Instead, they offered wide-ranging exegeses and speculation about the origins and fate of Black people, drawing from wide reading in Theosophy, occult tracts, and a broad tradition of religious Ethiopianism that identified Black people in America with peoples or places known from ancient sources like the Bible. In content, the Thmei tracts themselves were often perplexing, hard to follow, and pessimistic in a way that might be disconcerting to a reader expecting a militant or empowering message. (Not purely a changeling fantasy of exalted origins, this myth actually figures Black Americans as deserving of their own oppression because, according to Thmei lore, they killed Christ in their guise as the ancient Jews.) But their method is interesting: Sites highlights how many of the broadsheets run on the conceit of some truth (itself often of the characteristic Thmei worldview, which Sites describes as “caustic and strangely redemptive”) concealed in American popular song by pun or allusion.

But Blackness and freethinking were far from the norm in all urban spaces of the era. Money and segregation were often definitive, from Chicago’s segregated musicians’ unions that geographically divided the city, to the gigs Sun Ra and others played in Calumet City, a “sin suburb” where they worked all night providing the soundtrack to stripteases for audiences of white ethnic steel workers. It was exacting: Sites describes a Jim Crow arrangement where Black musicians were separated from white strippers by curtains, and the proprietors aimed for “continuous action,” where sets were lined up with the steady rhythm of workers coming off the shift. 

But the intense demands of the strip club gigs honed musicians’ skills: they had to adapt on the spot to the performance’s key flourishes and reveals, and some of the performers requested music like “Rhapsody in Blue” that was highly complex to learn and perform. Sites claims that Sun Ra not only refined his playing, but nurtured his “passion for standards,” developing a familiarity and intimate repartee with the “tunes” of the “Great American Songbook” that borders on the mystical, especially taken together with these same songs’ role in Thmei lore.

Sites makes sure we see the force of Sun Ra’s nonconformity: his conscientious objection to service in World War II, his struggle to have his arrangements played, his draw as a sort of guru or Socratic interlocutor for his bandmates (telling them variously that the piano will become obsolete, that if they displease him he will leave them behind when his spaceship comes, and that the forms of segregation practiced on Jupiter make Alabama look enlightened). Despite this, Sun Ra at first usually cut a receding figure on the bandstand, probably taking after Fletcher Henderson. Sites attributes the bandleader’s eventual shift to a more assertive stage presence to his Thmei collaborator and business partner, Alton Abraham. Sites works with material from the Alton Abraham archive at the University of Chicago’s Special Collections Research Center to show Abraham’s integral role in managing the recording and publishing side of the Arkestra project, which Sites describes as a band that also served as a fellowship of nonconformist seekers and a “community organization.” 

Sites emphasizes the role of physical space, too. Sun Ra goes from practicing in bandmembers’ mothers’ living rooms to building a relationship with a venue, the Wonder Inn, where the band could play a regular gig and practice all day. He was committed to fanatical group practice, in large part a legacy of Industrial High School’s industrial model for music education. But there was more to the political economy of jazz than hard work yielding returns. The jazz age heyday of “Black Metropolis” nightlife was enabled by overpacked densities. With the fall of racial covenants and Black people’s subsequent moves to more of the South Side, new venues emerged, but each one anchored a solid entertainment interest much more tenuously. 

So while Sites, a sociologist, helpfully lays out these kinds of material constraints to cultural life, he is really interested in how art can transcend them, or feel like it. It’s inside the Wonder Inn—playing a set late into the night, robed in fanciful get-ups, reading poetry, engaging in call and response with an audience, and détourning George Gershwin songs—that we feel how the Arkestra could take you into another space in the way that Sites characterizes as utopian. 

Sites’s book brings Sun Ra back to Earth and helps us understand not only Sun Ra but also jazz and American cities in this crucial period. One occasionally loses sight of the sheer oddity of Sun Ra, and familiarity with his later, more experimental Arkestra work after leaving Chicago largely goes assumed. Most valuably, though, Sites writes ably about jazz, both the music itself and the experience of making and consuming it, from riding with the instruments in the back of a territory band bus, to how sound develops under the demands of striptease gigs, to the struggle for practice space. In an effective counterpoint to his jazz writing, Sites brings us into the “parks, storefront churches, music clubs, and neighborhood bookstores” where alternative ideas like Sun Ra’s and a thousand others were nurtured and developed. Like jazz music, Black imaginative life in the 20th century was a project of improvisation on themes, drawn from America and a wider cosmos, for which Sun Ra’s career, for all its singularity, is amply illustrative. 

William Sites, Sun Ra’s Chicago: Afrofuturism and the City. $30. The University of Chicago Press. 328 pages

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Benjamin Ginzky is a law student at Chicago-Kent and lives in Hyde Park, where he is a docent at the Oriental Institute and involved with the 57th Street Meeting of Friends. He also edits nonfiction at Mouse Magazine. He last wrote for the Weekly about the Black Arts Movement and art rooted in Chicago’s urban space.

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