Saturday, June 7, 2008
John Corbett: Sun Ra, Street Priest and Father of D.I.Y. Jazz
Sun Ra, photographer unknown, circa 1950, Chicago.
Guest Observer John Corbett: Sun Ra, Street Priest and Father of D.I.Y. Jazz
The space-voices got me on a space wisdom beam, and the beam led me to Chicago. — Sun Ra, 1962
April 13, 1956, Chicago. Sun Ra and his friend and manager Alton Abraham arrive at Balkan Music Co., a small record and musical supply wholesaler at 1425 W. 18th Street, in the neighborhood now known as Pilsen. Helping the other seven musicians unload, they file into the storefront, which doubles as a recording studio, to record the first full-length session for their new label, El Saturn Records.
The band is in top form, coming off a lengthy engagement at Budland, the basement venue at the Pershing Hotel. Originally called Birdland, the club was threatened with lawsuit by the owners of New York's Birdland, an eventuality that Sun Ra helped avoid by renaming it with a word that's spelled differently, but pronounced almost the same. Ra was a logophile — words were another form of music, which was the ultimate artform — and he loved homonyms just about as much as he loved tangy, dissonant harmonies, aggregations of low horns, and parallel unison. Homonymity is why he called his group the Arkestra — on one hand, he slipped in a Biblical reference to the Ark, but on the other hand, Ra always explained that where he came from, in Alabama, that's how you said the word "Orchestra."
It's midnight and the session is in full swing. One take and the band nails "India," the loping, percussion-thick, quasi-Egyptian number with electronic piano and penetrating Art Hoyle trumpet. Things are off to a very good start. Two takes of "Sunology," vehicle for Pat Patrick's meaty baritone and James Scales' tart alto, are so solid that they'll both end up released, but on the longer second version the tape breaks. The band waxes a couple of numbers with singer Clyde Williams ("Dreams," "As You Once Were," which remain unissued until Delmark adds them to the CD reissue of the first Transition Sun Ra LP), then again hits a bullseye with "Big Charles," a tune re-titled "Kingdom of Not." A full take of "Eve" doesn't work, but the dark, stormy piano, bass, percussion part is a killer, and an edit of the first minute-and-a-half cuts out the full band section and turns it into "Portrait Of The Living Sky." They're into the second long tape reel when Ra calls a blues, with John Gilmore's smoldering post-Rollins tenor; it's after 2am, but they call it "Blues At Midnight." And for good measure, the recording closes with a tremendous single take of the Arkestra classic "El Is A Sound Of Joy." Three in the morning, the band packs up for the night, everyone gets a check (union scale, $41.25/hr., with Ra getting a royal $165 leader's fee), and a little bit of history is made.
Saturn has already issued 7-inch singles, starting with Ra's signature piece, "Saturn" (long thought apocryphal, the only known copy of which has just sold for an astronomical sum on eBay, fifty years later). Abraham and Ra contemplate using the session to put out a 10-inch or a series of extended-play singles, but in February they decide on a full LP, and on Valentine's Day, 1957, at RCA Studios, they edit the record, taking home test-pressings of the long-player that will soon be released as Super-Sonic Jazz. (Two weeks later, the Arkestra will play for psychiatric patients at Hines Hospital, an event commemorated on the '60s LP Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy.) Abraham has a group of record cover designs to choose from, designed by Claude Dangerfield, and he selects a surrealist pianoscape, with piano lids on the horizon, lightning bolts and stars above, flaming piano keys, and from off-screen to the right, an arm holds a beautifully incongruous cocktail shaker. In March, five cartons of 100 LPs each are delivered. Two-color red-and-cream covers are printed, and the full package is hand assembled by Abraham. A poster is made and hung around town. El Saturn has its first album.
Sun Ra in Chicago
The cosmic roles
are written in sundry parchments
tinted with fire
blue vibrations of pulsating flame
abstract planes of sound and sight.
— Sun Ra
If you were in Chicago in 1958, you might have happened into a jazz club on the South Side to find a band of musicians dressed in outer-space costumes, chanting "rocket number nine, take off for the planet Venus," and setting loose battery-driven robots. On another day, on a stroll through Washington Park, kitty-corner from the Baptist preacher and across from the Nation of Islam representative, you could have come upon a street-corner lecturer in a flowing faux-leopard cape and black beret, detailing the etymology of the word "negro" and the coded meanings of the Bible. In both cases, the same mastermind was responsible: Sun Ra.
Pianist, composer, bandleader, mystic and self-proclaimed extraterrestrial, Sun Ra was born Herman Poole "Sonny" Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1914. During later stints starting in the 1960s in New York and Philadelphia, Ra gained an international audience. But it was over the course of the 15 years that Ra lived in Chicago (1946-1961) that he adopted his new identity, legally changing his name to Le Sony'r Ra, assembling the first of his big bands, the Arkestra, establishing key associations with musicians like John Gilmore, Pat Patrick and Marshall Allen, sketching and then fleshing out his own elaborate self-mythology.
The Chicago period has been almost exclusively known through a group of important records that were made there in the mid- and late-50s, albums and singles that were issued on Ra's own El Saturn label, one of the first musician-owned record companies, co-owned by Ra's business manager and fellow mystic Alton Abraham. But it was a pivotal era in Ra's development for a variety of factors, not all of them musical. Ra was the central figure in a secret society, based on the South Side. Thmei Research, as it was known, was dedicated to mystical, occult, paranormal studies, which included highly original readings of the Bible, numerology, and deep research into non-mainstream histories (especially the lost history of black Egypt), and the group was also intensely trained on new technologies, scientific ideas, and experimental concepts, especially concentrated on space and the future. In about 1951, Thmei began writing a dictionary of occult terms, and they were ultimately interested in following a line of reasoning familiar to black intellectuals at the time, a quest for independence through the possibility of separatism, rather than integration. Documents show that Abraham and Ra were investigating unclaimed land in the west, and an "El Saturn Treasure Map" from the early '60s finds Ra's music spreading around the globe, while Ra and his cohorts set up a utopian society on 10,000 acres of land.
El Saturn Records
Beta Music for a Beta World — El Saturn Records motto, c. 1960
Before the 1950s, artist-owned record companies were unheard of, but Sun Ra pioneered the idea along with a couple of other musicians and composers — notably jazz musicians Charles Mingus/Max Roach's Debut label and classical composer Harry Partch's Gate 5. In 1955, Ra and Abraham registered their company El Saturn Records in Chicago. Saturn's earliest records were released starting in 1956, and after Super-Sonic Jazz they issued Jazz In Silhouette, with a cover by one H.P. Corbissero, probably a pseudonym for Ra himself (Herman Poole = H.P.). In a period of intense activity, before the focus of Saturn was shifted to Ra's residence in Philadelphia in the 1970s, Ra and Abraham helped define the do-it-yourself ethic that came to be a central part of the American independent music industry, designing and in some cases manufacturing the covers themselves. In the process, they maintained a previously unimaginable degree of control over the look and content of their releases.
The designers of Saturn Records were drawn from a group of semi-professional and amateur artists, some of them associates of the Arkestra. Claude Dangerfield, who designed Super-Sonic Jazz, made numerous preliminary studies and sketches. These cover designs mix space iconography with a highly personal mixture of apocalyptic and tiki lounge imagery. Dangerfield's images were combined and recycled for a series of releases, most of which were actually issued in the '60s, after Ra had moved to New York; these include Sun Ra Visits Planet Earth and Interstellar Low Ways. Sun Ra himself designed several Saturn LP covers in the mid 1960s, sending them back to Chicago, where Abraham used them to manufacture — often in his own home — and assemble the covers. Ra's artwork — which had zig-zagging and swirling designs made using the surrealist technique of automatic drawing — were used for the covers of Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow and Outer Planes Of There. These raw images were re-drawn in ink on boards, which were then used to make metal plates that were finally hand-inked and used to print the covers, painstakingly, one-by-one, at Saturn headquarters. Like most of their materials, these print blocks were produced on Chicago's south-side, using independent black businesses, like Capital Photo-Engravers on Stony Island and South-Side Printing on S. Wabash. Through a very uncommon agreement with RCA Records, negotiated by Abraham, Saturn was able to press copies of their records in unusually small numbers, on demand, sometimes even pressing 20 copies for a given concert.
Abraham and Ra had ambitious plans for Saturn. In a notebook, a sketch shows them envisioning a Saturn Records skyrise complex, with separate floors dedicated to Bible and space research, Sun Ra's records going platinum and a Saturn limousine chauffeuring them around. In the early years, Ra recorded for a few other labels, including Transition and Savoy, and in the '70s he (with Abraham's help) forged a relationship with the ABC-Impulse! label which introduced him to a worldwide music audience. But the fierce independent streak that defined El Saturn helped establish Ra's approach to releasing his music, starting with those first releases, made in tiny batches with hand silk-screened or block-printed covers on the South Side of Chicago.
The Sun Ra Broadsides and Leaflets and the Emergence of Afro-Futurism
A people without wisdom will surely perish. How very careless has America been with its willful neglect of true art and beauty. — Sun Ra, from liner notes to Jazz In Silhouette
MUSIC, LIGHTS, ACTION!!!! Atonal reality and blended rhythms. . . . Imagination . . . . . .! With wings unhampered Unafraid Soaring Like a bird Through the threads and fringes of space and time Into a better To-morrow. . . . . . . . Loosening the chains that bind. . . — Le Sun-Ra (excerpt from the poem "Tone Pictures") "It's more than just music. It's interpretation." —Sun Ra
One of the least well-known aspects of Sun Ra's tenure in Chicago was his activity as a writer and street-corner lecturer. Recently, a cache of his early writings was discovered, including previously unknown broadsides and manuscripts, written by Ra and proclaimed aloud — often in Washington Park — or handed out as mimeographed sheets. Before these works were discovered in 2000, only one such document had been circulated, a sheet titled "Solaristic Precepts" that Ra gave saxophonist John Coltrane in 1956. Ra's investigations, undertaken as part of the secretive Thmei Research group, was related to broader cultural trends of the 1950s, including a fascination with outerspace — leading up to Sputnik and the moon-landing — but Ra's alignment of the notion of African-American alienation with a utopian vision of interplanetary transplantation qualifies him as a visionary proponent of Afro-Futurism. These early manuscripts also show Ra's curiosity with language, his playful and paradox-ridden approach to etymology, his attempt to decode the Bible, and his intense scrutiny of the lexicon and social roots of racism.
As far as Sun Ra was concerned, the past was passed. "Yesterday belongs to the dead/Tomorrow belongs to the living." The past was violence and "the chains that bind." But imagination could usher in a better tomorrow, one full of pleasure and freedom and discipline. Freedom and discipline were not contradictory. As far as Ra and his peers were concerned, these ideas went hand-in-hand. And music was the method, the primary means for unleashing these positive vibrations in order to build a more promising world.
Sun Ra did not leave the past completely behind. He and his colleagues excavated many ancient concepts and texts, central among them the Bible and Egyptology, mining the past in order to formulate the future. Evidence of Ra's integration of past and future, as well as various cultural traditions, appears on the cover design for a Saturn brochure, which mixes a Buddhist lotus with Egyptian ankhs and spaceships. Ra's imagined tomorrow incorporated transformative music and outer-space clothing, futuristic technologies and various mysticisms, utopian community, extraterrestriality and a belief in the possibility of immortality.
The year Ra left this planet, cultural critic Mark Dery coined the term "Afro-Futurism," broadly defined as "African-American voices with other stories to tell about culture, technology, and things to come." Ra is now recognized as a key figure in Afro-Futurism. Through his writings and lyrics, record titles and cover designs, and especially his provocative music and otherworldly presence, Ra established himself as a visionary and innovator. He reached the most people via bigger launching pads in New York, California, across Europe, and Philadelphia, but he built his first solar boats, metaphorically speaking, in the Windy City, and his music and persona first took shape and was tested in the African-American community of this great Midwestern metropolis.
John Corbett is a writer and independent curator who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is a regular contributor to Down Beat Magazine and codirects Corbett vs. Dempsey Galley in Chicago. Corbett is the author of Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage to Dr. Funkenstein. An exhibition, Pathways to Unknown Worlds: Sun Ra, El Saturn & Chicago's Afro-Futurist Underground, 1954-68, curated by John Corbett, Anthony Elms and Terri Kapsalis, took place at the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago, October 1, 2006 — January 14, 2007. Two books on the work and writings of Sun Ra have been published by WhiteWalls, distributed by Univeristy of Chicago: Pathways to Unknown Worlds: Sun Ra, El Saturn and Chicago's Afro-Futurist Underground, 1954-68 and The Wisdom of Sun Ra: Sun Ra's Polemical Broadsheets and Streetcorner Leaflets.