Features | Music | Washington Park

Who Knows Sun Ra?

Charting the legacy of the space-jazz pioneer

Courtesy of University of Chicago Photographic Archive, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Courtesy of University of Chicago Photographic Archive, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

“This is not an open forum, is it? It ain’t, right?” 

The man seated behind me last Saturday at “Reality Has Touched Against Myth”—an esoterically-entitled panel discussion on the life and work of Sun Ra, one of the patron saints of avant-garde—has been grumbling this question over and over for the past ten minutes, to no avail.

An image of Sun Ra dressed in his best space suit, staring blankly beneath a marquee bearing his name, is being projected onto the Logan Center screen, looming over the talking heads seated on stage. Will Faber, a University of Chicago musicologist, and Cauleen Smith, an influential experimental filmmaker in residence at the Washington Park Arts Incubator, have prepared a film presentation. It’s one work from a series of short films which were directly inspired by Smith’s extensive research into the Sun Ra archives in Chicago. The film uses Sun Ra’s interpretation of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” a discordant, free-jazz interpretation of Judy Garland’s signature tune—as its soundtrack. It’s a haunting reinvention of the show tune, highlighting Sun Ra’s natural gift for subverting and refracting obvious melodies and rhythms. The audience, however, remains restless. Students and attendants of the Hyde Park Jazz Festival shuffle in and out of the screening room.

On stage, the panelists shed some light onto the life of the notoriously mysterious and introverted Sun Ra. Art Hoyle, a trumpeter who played in Sun Ra’s Arkestra in the fifties, presents Sun Ra as a shrewd businessman. He suggests that the bandleader’s infamous claim to having been born Saturn was a promotional gambit, a means of differentiating Sun Ra and his nascent group from other similar bands in the South Side scene. Allison Schein, meanwhile, frames Ra as a prolific creator, highlighting the immense body of Sun Ra recordings which her organization curates. Yet none of these individual shards manage to crystallize into a whole.

Finally, the back row interlocutor shouts his question: “This is not an open forum, right?”

Smith, interrupted mid-sentence, is taken aback, but tentatively offers her mic to the man. The speaker, a long lanky man with a graying beard, declines: “Nah, I can project my voice.” He continues. “I just wanted to say that I think some of the people who lived [through] the period here can speak on that type of musician.” The audience begins to murmur in agreement, as control of the room is wrested away from the artists and academics on stage. “It was a mindset for that era. [They] projected a mindset for self-study. When you came to his concert you knew what to expect and how to let yourself extend into that spiritual type of music, spiritual jazz. For us that have lived during that period…[Sun Ra] was part of spiritual of a quest. And I am sure I can get an amen on that!”

The disjointed audience at Logan Center of the Arts gradually unites.

“Amen.”

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Courtesy of University of Chicago Photographic Archive, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Courtesy of University of Chicago Photographic Archive, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

May 22, 2014 will mark the hundred-year anniversary of Sun Ra’s birth. The idea of celebrating this hundred year mark is a strange tribute to a man who was always skeptical of the concept of birth in the first place. Nonetheless, the irony has not stopped the Arkestra, which is still lead by Sun Ra’s sideman, Marshall Allen, from touring and promoting the centennial of Sun Ra’s “arrival on Planet Earth.” The Arkestra, whose original leader passed away in 1993, has already played anniversary shows in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and—just this past Saturday—in New York, all cities where Sun Ra became famous for his extravagant stage shows and pioneering avant-garde jazz recordings.  To date, however, the Arkestra has not scheduled a centennial show in Chicago, the city where Sun Ra got his start.

Will Faber, a PhD candidate in the music department at the UofC and an avid Sun Ra fan, remembers, “I used to tell people that one of my favorite things about Chicago was that you could go to Jazz Record Mart and buy Delmark’s cassette issue of ‘Sound of Joy’ for ninety-nine cents.” John Litweiler, a Chicago-area jazz critic who worked at the Jazz Record Mart in the 1960s, remembers first hearing about Sun Ra and “thinking he was just some oddity out there on the South Side.” It was only later on, after Sun Ra had moved out of Chicago, that Litweiler got his first chance to see Sun Ra live.

“He would come on stage wearing these robes you know, and it was a circus but also a total joy.”

For Cauleen Smith, who moved from L.A. to Chicago to delve more deeply into her research on Sun Ra, it seems that the fans of his music in Chicago are among the most zealous she has ever met. “Everyone here wants to tell you their story about him or about the time they saw they saw Sun Ra on stage.”

All these eager voices, all the people who are so quick to tell their own version of the musical and spiritual legacy of Sun Ra and his time on the South Side of Chicago, makes sorting through the narrative of his time here a difficult task. Ultimately, it builds to a question: who really knows Sun Ra, and to whom do all these stories belong?

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Courtesy of University of Chicago Photographic Archive, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Courtesy of University of Chicago Photographic Archive, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Sun Ra moved to Chicago in 1946, having left Birmingham to escape its extreme racial prejudice and meet his musical idol, Fletcher Henderson, godfather of swing. Back then, Sun Ra still had his birth name, Herman Poole Blount, though his friends knew him as “Sonny.” He had grown up listening to Henderson records and knew Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins’ solos on those records by heart.

Blount was known as a child prodigy on the piano from a young age, and after briefly studying music education at Alabama A&M, he decided to move to Chicago to find his idol in the flesh. He moved into an apartment in Washington Park. No memorial has been made to this site—as Cauleen Smith says, “Chicago is not a city that’s really into plaques and mantles.”

While living in Washington Park, Sonny began playing with Fletcher Henderson’s band. But by the late 1940s, Henderson’s traditional swing was no longer the thing, and even bebop, swing’s faster-paced and less danceable successor, was being pushed to the limits of its sonic possibilities. The question of how to push beyond these limitations would dictate the narrative of jazz’s evolution throughout the next decade. In New York, Miles Davis—working off of theories developed by composer George Russell—would famously help develop a new language for jazz—based around modes rather than rapid-fire chord changes. This new style was called “modal jazz” and incorporated scales, or modes, with ancient Greek names like Dorian and Phrygian into their compositions.  These experiments, which Litweiler credits first to Davis’ 1954 recording, “Spring Swing,” culminated in the landmark 1959 album “Kind of Blue.”

While Kind of Blue has become known as “the modal jazz album,” and one of the most famous and acclaimed jazz albums of all time, less critical attention has been paid to Sun Ra’s modal work in Chicago. Beginning in the mid-1950s, the Arkestra began to record its own modal compositions. According to Faber, these modal theories were not based around formalized theoretical texts, but were more deeply connected to Sun Ra’s own belief in the “vibrational and mystical significance of scalar relationships and tonal centers.”

The band wasn’t told to play in Phrygian or Dorian or any of those things—Sonny was always more interested in Ancient Egypt than Ancient Greece—and sometimes they weren’t even told what key to play. As Art Hoyle remembers the band durng this period, sometimes they were just told to play in “space key.”

The idea of space and the cosmos soon became increasingly prominent in Sonny’s work. “From Sonny Blount to Sun Ra: The Chicago Years,” a survey of Sun Ra’s early writings and recordings, records a vision that Blount had received, initially, in college. According to an account written in his diary, “he had a dream in which he was summoned by robed figures” who had transported him through a “narrow beam of light until they all reached their destination—the planet Jupiter.”

Sun Ra was initially ashamed of these visions after one of his classmates at Alabama A&M had stolen his diary and read the Jupiter account aloud to his peers, mocking him.

Years later, though, as the leader of the Arkestra in Chicago, things changed. The first major change was his name. Blount legally declared his name to be Le Son’yr Ra, usually shortened to Sun Ra, and became increasingly vocal about his own outer space origins—he would begin telling people that he had not been born in Birmingham, but rather had been sent down to Earth from his home on Saturn. This new embrace of cosmic imagery paralleled changes in his music. While still greatly indebted to swing, as well as popular songs and melodies, Sun Ra started to experiment more and more with modality, dissonance, and free improvisation. He also became one of the first jazz musicians to incorporate synthesizers, electric keyboards, and modified instruments into his performance. Yet even as Sun Ra became more and more invested in experimentation and his cosmic persona, he never quite abandoned his identity as a musician firmly rooted in the city of Chicago. “Springtime in Chicago” still ranks among his prettiest compositions, and may be a midwestern response to the jazz standard “Autumn in New York.” “Chicago USA,” a strange tone poem to Sun Ra’s adopted city, was also recorded with local vocal group the Lintels and submitted in a contest to become the city’s official theme song. It didn’t win, but still stands as a fine tribute to the city and especially to the South Side, rattling off the stop names of an old Loop-bound Green Line train: Jackson Park, University, Cottage Grove.

Though much of Sun Ra’s national reputation would be built after he moved his band from Chicago to New York, there were a few who kept his legacy alive in Chicago. Phil Cohran, who played trumpet and “sun harp” in the Chicago-era Arkestra, left the band and chose to remain in Chicago, where he become a founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Cohran and the AACM are among the most prominent forces shaping jazz discourse and performance in Chicago today. Though Cohran’s AACM and Sun Ra’s Arkestra represented two separate movements within Chicago jazz.  Cohran himself still speaks candidly of his debt to “Sonny.” In breaks between songs at a Washington Park Arts Incubator performance last spring, he took the time to tell his audience about his mentor, “Sonny,” who “broke the borders down that were in my head. He taught me to really play.”

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Courtesy of University of Chicago Photographic Archive, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Courtesy of University of Chicago Photographic Archive, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

One of the most important aspects of Sun Ra’s time in Chicago was a strange friendship. Not long after moving north, Sun Ra met Alton Abraham, a precocious, fourteen-year-old mystical scholar. According to John Szwed’s seminal biography of Sun Ra, “Space is the Place,” “Abraham was philosophical by nature, serious and scholarly, with a deep interest in science, metaphysics, and Bible scholarship.” He clicked with Sun Ra—who at the time was still going by the name Sonny—and the two quickly became inseparable. Together they ransacked bookstores in Woodlawn and Hyde Park, looking for new means to advance their own esoteric learning.

“They were autodidacts, self-taught scholars,” says Cauleen Smith, praising the pair. “They taught themselves everything and studied everything on their own…they studied numerology, Egyptology, astrology, astronomy, all of it.” The duo soon began sermonizing in Washington Park.

Abraham was also a musician himself and soon became intensely interested in the new sounds that Sun Ra’s groups were creating. He had a better mind for business than Sonny did, and soon became his friend and manager. As John Litweiler recounts, one of the most important parts of Abraham relationship with Sun Ra was his role as promoter. “He kept the band working, playing shows every night, when a lot of other groups were left hungry.” The partnership eventually led to the founding of El Saturn Records, an independently owned record label dedicated to recording and distributing Sun Ra’s music.

Yet Abraham and Sun Ra’s partnership continued to build a movement that went beyond just music. Together, they continued to develop their own pan-religious, transhistorical ideology. As Szwed tells it, they “talked to whoever would listen and argued over matters of ultimate concern with other groups who met there—Garveyites, Communists, fundamentalist religious groups of every stripe, all of whom had their regular spots in the park.” As quoted in Szwed’s book, Abraham recalled that those who critiqued the quasi-Messianic duo said, “ ‘Next you’ll be saying you’re gods!’ We replied we were, gods-in-the making.”

As it turned out, despite their divine aims, neither man was immortal. Sun Ra died in 1993, and Alton Abraham passed six years later. Yet it was the latter whose death led to a sea change in Sun Ra’s reputation in Chicago. Abraham, through his work managing El Saturn Records, had collected a massive and invaluable personal collection of Sun Ra’s records, manuscripts, and ephemera, much of which cluttered the shelves of his own home.

This collection was, reportedly, tossed out after Abraham’s death and left in a dumpster by his late spouse. The collection was recovered by John Corbett, a Chicago area music writer and Sun Ra obsessive, after he found out about the trashed treasure through a mass, anonymous email, according to a 2008 Chicago Reader article. (Corbett was not able to be reached for comment by press time.)

Seeking to preserve the collection, Corbett worked throughout the new millennium to find a proper home for the music and artwork that was left behind. Part of this treasure trove now forms the “the Alton Abraham Collection,” a subset of the Chicago Jazz Archive which is maintained by the UofC’s Special Collections Research Center and managed by Corbett vs. Dempsey, a North Side gallery space co-founded by Corbett in 2004. In the past decade, the collection has been the focus of several milestone publications and exhibitions, including the 2008 exhibit “Pathways to Unknown Worlds” at the Hyde Park Arts Center and the essay collection “The Wisdom of Sun Ra.” For some of Chicago’s Sun Ra fanatics, then, Corbett’s preservation work has made him something of a savior.

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Courtesy of University of Chicago Photographic Archive, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Courtesy of University of Chicago Photographic Archive, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

“That’s all bullshit,” says James Stubbs-Abraham, one of Alton Abraham’s sons and current co-owner of El Saturn Records, when I call him to ask him about Corbett’s recovered collection. According to Stubbs-Abraham, those possessions belong to his father’s estate, which he believes was looted by “a covenant of thieves.”

James and his brother Alton Stubbs were being trained by their father to take over El Saturn during the years leading up to his death. James never met Sun Ra and was mostly uninterested in “the weird old records with the Afrocentric women on the covers” that he remembers seeing in his father’s house growing up.

Up until 1994, James had been in L.A. trying to pursue his own music career and work with rap legend Eazy-E. When he returned to Chicago, though, his father sat him down and began to give him and his brother lessons on how to become “a strong, positive black man.” The lessons included instruction not only in the art of free-form jazz, but also lectures on “sound, color, dimensions, metaphysics, and alchemy,” says James, as well as Bible study. “Everyday we had to read from the Bible, chapter by chapter, verse by verse.” As with all of Alton Abraham’s endeavors, these abstract diatribes were also paired with practical considerations about how to run a record label. James’ job was to “deal with the release of [El Saturn] material and making sure band members got their money.” According to James Abraham, when his father’s estate lost the recordings and material, El Saturn was effectively left in the dust.

James is currently working with an attorney to try and stake a claim to what he believes is his, though he yet to file his claims in court. During the Q&A session at the Sun Ra panel this past Saturday, however, Abraham saw a chance to publicly voice his opinions before an audience. Speaking later on the phone, Abraham stated, “We want to do something about this, we want to re-release all the material that was on Saturn Records….We want to tie the knot and bridge the gap and not be controlled by other people’s interest.” In the meantime, James is working as a real estate agent and a part-time actor. He still maintains the “Friends of Sun Ra & Alton Abraham El Saturn Records” Facebook page and manages the day-to-day affairs of the label, but he is hoping for a more substantial change to be made.

“I’m just waiting here for all my cards to turn a royal flush.”

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Courtesy of University of Chicago Photographic Archive, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Courtesy of University of Chicago Photographic Archive, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Whether or not Stubbs-Abraham’s claims are true, there is still some room for debate about where the Alton Abraham collection should be placed. At the Arts Incubator, Smith expresses some reservations about having the material kept in a private university setting. “Chicago is a working-class city, and though there are many great universities here, not everyone has access to those institutions, especially now. It used to be that you could just walk to the Regenstein and check out whatever you wanted. Since the nineties, you haven’t been able to do that at any university library.” Today, Sun Ra and Alton Abraham—who some speculate, once studied in the Regenstein stacks—would have to request special admission just to see their own collection.

When I ask Faber whether he believes the material should be held by the university, rather than in a more public place, he responds that the question doesn’t quite address the complexities of the situation. Faber, who in addition to being a scholar, is also the board president of the Live the Spirit Residency and organizer of the Englewood Jazz Festival, says he does not believe this is just a narrative of “the University versus ‘the community.’ It’s not as simple as that.” Litweiler, similarly, views the Regenstein’s Special Collections as invaluable to Sun Ra fanatics. “There’s a guy there that I see all the time, always wearing a Sun Ra shirt. He shows up every week to pour over the archives, just trying to see if he can find something new.”

The debate over who owns Sun Ra’s music and who has the right to tell his story may never end. During Saturday’s panel discussion, the impromptu Q&A session soon became a soapbox for everyone who thought they knew the real Sun Ra. It seemed like everyone in the audience claimed to be the one who saw him play out on 59th and Prairie, or rapped with him about metaphysics and the cosmos, or who really understood all that stuff about Saturn.

Smith, however, was the one who ultimately reigned in the crowd with a story.

“Sun Ra used to do this thing during practice with his band, he’d play this one note that was off, like in a minor key or something, and he kept playing that note until everyone in the band heard and started doing the same thing, until they got it. It was an exercise in listening. It brought people together.”

This story has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: October 7, 2013

The print version of this story misspelled the names of jazz musicians Marshall Allen, who is the current bandleader of Sun Ra’s Arkestra, and George Russell, the late composer.

Thoughts on “Who Knows Sun Ra?”

  1. Does anybody know whether Sun Ra was familiar with the works of the British writer and painter Wyndham Lewis? In his novel ‘The Childermass’ (esoteric enough to attract Ra with its description of the after-world) there is a fleeting description of an ‘electric piano’. The book was published in 1928, but the electric piano wasn’t used until the early 1930s and then only in classical orchestras. Ra was one of the first jazz musicians to use an electric piano, especially for composing at home.

    By the way, the Wyndham Lewis archive is housed at Cornell University.
    Lewis wasn’t a musician himself, but it would seem that his flights of fancy may have triggered something innovative in a musician like Ra. It would be intriguing to know if Ra, who spent so much time reading and studying when he wasn’t working on his music, ever came across Lewis.

  2. Reader beware: The reported colorfully describes events in this article that he told me himself he did not witness. This type of invention, fabrication and assumptive projection is very common for this publication. Financed by the University of Chicago, the Southside Weekly (sub-heading: U of C-students’-ideas-about-the-community-surrounding-Hyde Park-printed-sloppily-every-week) functions as a fantasy-rag for its students who use the opportunity to project their ideas and anxieties upon populations about whom they know nothing and lack the journalistic skills to investigate with integrity.

    Quoted here is the component of the article that the journalist told me himself that he did not witness:
    “An image of Sun Ra dressed in his best space suit, staring blankly beneath a marquee bearing his name, is being projected onto the Logan Center screen, looming over the talking heads seated on stage. Will Faber, a University of Chicago musicologist, and Cauleen Smith, an influential experimental filmmaker in residence at the Washington Park Arts Incubator, have prepared a film presentation. It’s one work from a series of short films which were directly inspired by Smith’s extensive research into the Sun Ra archives in Chicago. The film uses Sun Ra’s interpretation of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” a discordant, free-jazz interpretation of Judy Garland’s signature tune—as its soundtrack. It’s a haunting reinvention of the show tune, highlighting Sun Ra’s natural gift for subverting and refracting obvious melodies and rhythms. The audience, however, remains restless. Students and attendants of the Hyde Park Jazz Festival shuffle in and out of the screening room.”

    Unfortunately the student-writer fails to site the source for this colorful description.

    I am aware that the solution to dealing with this rag is not to make comments online but to stat another newspaper that respectfully addresses issues and people on the Southside. Working on it…

  3. To clarify: I did attend the “Reality Has Touched Against Myth” lecture that is described in this story. I told Ms. Smith I regretted missing the first five minutes of the lecture during which the panel was introduced, but the accusation that I did not attend the event is false.

    It’s also untrue that the South Side Weekly is “financed by the University of Chicago.” The Weekly’s operations—its printing and distribution—are entirely funded through advertising revenue, much of which comes from South Side businesses and institutions, including the UofC.

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