Happy Birthday, Sun Ra [Part 2]
Sun Ra, Part 2
From the early 1950s until 1982, Sun Ra and the various configurations of his big band released, by some scholars’ count, more record albums than anyone else. Few of those albums were insignificant. One could debate which of the first four albums—Sound of Joy; Jazz by Sun Ra, Vol. 1; Super-Sonic Jazz; and Jazz in Silhouette—is the most wonderful.
Super-Sonic Jazz and the USSR’s Sputnik satellite both launched in 1957. Outer space was declared a real thing by President Eisenhower the following year when he made the first national address to be beamed from a satellite,[iii] and various Cold War efforts were made by superpowers to explore and extend the thrust of missiles and rockets—for war, for exploration, for communication.
But what if space were not only the realm for governments and corporations, but also for cultural movements? Sun Ra’s space program, parallel in time but perpendicular in concept, matched those of the US and USSR. In that same year of the Sputnik launch, Sun Ra and his Arkestra changed emphasis from Thmei Research to a new culture, a new music, and most visibly, a new style of dress: space-age capes with images of ringed planets and suns, space-helmet-style headgear, moon boots, silver-lamé shirts. All of this with some element of Egyptian flavoring as well. As much an act of artistic distinction—a style of dress adopted whole cloth by George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic in the 1970s—Sun Ra declared it an act of creative resistance, of political agency through culture, of empowerment, that there are worlds Black people can explore as Black people and make their own.
In Sun Ra’s program, the band, the musicians, the astronauts, the dancers, the music—together they comprise the spaceship—in Sun Ra’s vernacular, the Arkestra—that propels us all into an outer space. As Paul Youngquist writes, “Artfully and on a plume of music, Sun Ra blasts Blackness into space.”[iv] These are wonderful concepts when taken in earnest and wonderful when seen as the antics of a West African Trickster god and a Signifying Monkey working through Sun Ra as their clairvoyant. Sun Ra rarely dropped his Saturnian persona, but he was hip and winked “A race without a sense of humor is in bad shape. A race needs clowns.”[v]
Sun Ra demanded his bandmates meet high standards of “Precision, Orchestration, Discipline.” That other jazz ensembles couldn’t was grist for his signifyin(g) boasting and cutting. And though he had allegiance to and love for the Black people on the South Side of Chicago, he never agreed to be a human being himself but identified instead as an angel—a nice trick and sideways funny boast he would regularly make. But trickster ain’t no angel. Credit Sun Ra more for opening space for Trickster to roam and play than for embodying trickster traits himself. Like he said, he was an angel.
In March of 1956, the Sun Ra Arkestra recorded its first single of note, the ground-breaking “Super Blonde” (b/w “Soft Talk”), and they would continue to release singles into the 1980s. They put out more than thirty 45-rpm singles, signaling a singularly signifyin(g) phenomenon. Just this oeuvre of sixty tunes, all under four minutes, spans everything from classic doo-wop, Saturnian improvisations over Count Basie/Fletcher Henderson-styled big band arrangements, and rhythm and blues, to the wacky “M Uck M Uck” sung by Yochanan (the Space Age Vocalist), novelty and holiday tunes, and other otherworldly sounds.
No musical artist before or since can match Sun Ra’s idiosyncrasy or range. When you rehearse five hours a day year in and year out, diverse genres present boundaries easily crossed. Unique as their practice of self-producing, -cutting, and -selling their albums was—in the early days you had to go to their shows in order to buy a Sun Ra record—they forged the prototype for everything DIY in music since. And in a nod to trickster time travel, the Sun Ra Arkestra would release albums with songs for the future that had been recorded far in the past. For example, he moved to New York in 1961, but albums after that date frequently included recordings from Chicago’s mid-fifties. By his own testimony, Sun Ra released music only when the world was ready for it. The trickster-esque time travel of his music is dizzying: different names for the ensemble, different players, different recording dates, all woven onto the same vinyl record, played then and released now.
So happy birthday to the founding father of Afrofuturism, Sun Ra.
[i] Quoted in John Szwed, Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020), 382.
[ii] Szwed, Space Is the Place, 29.
[iii] Cary O’Dell, “President’s Message Relayed from Atlas Satellite–Dwight D. Eisenhower (December 19, 1958),” Library of Congress, 2012, https://www.loc.gov/static/programs/national-recording-preservation-board/documents/EisenhowerSpaceMessage.pdf.
[iv] Paul Youngquist, A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2016), 134. And many of the ideas in this paragraph are inspired by and borrowed from Youngquist.
[v] Szwed, Space Is the Place, 236.