Surveying the range of Sun Ra’s extraordinary creativity, this book explores how the father of Afrofuturism brought “space music” to a planet in need of transformation, supporting the aspirations of black people in an inhospitable white world.
Series: Discovering America Series
Sun Ra said he came from Saturn. Known on earth for his inventive music and extravagant stage shows, he pioneered free-form improvisation in an ensemble setting with the devoted band he called the “Arkestra.” Sun Ra took jazz from the inner city to outer space, infusing traditional swing with far-out harmonies, rhythms, and sounds. Described as the father of Afrofuturism, Sun Ra created “space music” as a means of building a better future for American blacks here on earth.
A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism offers a spirited introduction to the life and work of this legendary but underappreciated musician, composer, and poet. Paul Youngquist explores and assesses Sun Ra’s wide-ranging creative output—music, public preaching, graphic design, film and stage performance, and poetry—and connects his diverse undertakings to the culture and politics of his times, including the space race, the rise of technocracy, the civil rights movement, and even space-age bachelor-pad music. By thoroughly examining the astro-black mythology that Sun Ra espoused, Youngquist masterfully demonstrates that he offered both a holistic response to a planet desperately in need of new visions and vibrations and a new kind of political activism that used popular culture to advance social change. In a nation obsessed with space and confused about race, Sun Ra aimed not just at assimilation for the socially disfranchised but even more at a wholesale transformation of American society and a more creative, egalitarian world.
Honorable Mention, 2017 PROSE Award for Music & Performing Arts
Association of American Publishers
Finalist, 2016 Marfield Prize, the National Award for Arts Writing
- Prelude to Infinity
- Intro: Wonder Inn
- 1. Alien
- 2. Marienville
- 3. Bronzeville
- 4. Thmei
- 5. Egypt
- 6. Washington Park
- 7. Arkestra
- 8. Immeasurable Equation
- 9. El Saturn
- 10. Isotope Teleportation
- 11. Cry of Jazz
- 12. Sputnik
- 13. Rocketry
- 14. Tomorrowland
- 15. Interplanetary Exotica
- 16. Space Music
- 17. Myth Science
- 18. Black Man in the Cosmos
- 19. Space Is the Place
- 20. Tokens of Infinity
- 21. Continuation
- Outro: Extensions Out
- Credits and Permissions
Prelude to Infinity
A book on Sun Ra should begin in cacophony. That’s how he opened many, many shows: with a chaos of sounds that cleared the air for the music to come. Horns squeal, drums thump, the bass growls, and the piano piles chord on chord; a space opens for exploration, and music becomes a means of traveling to other worlds. Most Sun Ra fans come to love him and his formidable ensembles through the audacity of his music. It exhilarates, shocks, and complicates, making life feel better than it was before. Music, apparently, can change the world. This inscrutable possibility provided the driving force behind Sun Ra’s creativity. It’s the premise of this book, too. What makes Sun Ra important as a composer and an artist is his unwavering belief that music can take its players and listeners to better worlds—better, at least, by the measure of joyous sounds.
Music isn’t just music. It’s also a social event in a couple of senses. Music occurs as entertainment (a night out, a special occasion) but also as politics (a demonstration, an insurgence). This book approaches Sun Ra’s music as a social event in the latter sense. For all its pursuit of better worlds, his art arose in response to this one, in particular, the brutally segregated world of mid-twentieth-century America. Like most of his black contemporaries, Sun Ra experienced the brutalities of segregation, but his response to injustice was unusual—and unusually inspiring. Instead of pursuing a solution through traditional political means, he turned to culture—music and related forms of expression—to imagine and advance an alternative to an oppressive reality. He practiced a cultural politics of sound and, with the support of a loyal cadre of friends, used every available means of musical production and distribution to promote his message of a better life for black Americans and anyone else who had ears to hear.
This book’s emphasis falls, then, as much on the social conditions that inspired Sun Ra’s music as on the music itself. While the best possible result of reading these pages would be voraciously listening to the vast array of his available recordings, they sound better— more purposeful and canny—to ears tuned to social frequencies. Two such frequencies in particular throw Sun Ra’s music into bold political relief: the segregation of metropolitan Chicago and the popular culture of the Space Age. Brilliantly and with abandon, Sun Ra crossed the inner city with outer space to create music as progressive socially as it was aesthetically. As a response to a world preoccupied with the space race and oblivious to racial injustice, Sun Ra’s music announces not merely a demand for a better world but a program for building one. That’s what its cacophony is all about.
The chapters that follow examine influences often missing from assessments of Sun Ra’s music: occult wisdom, business strategy, the space race, Chicago’s black metropolis, and the popular culture of the Space Age. Sun Ra himself occasionally drifts pretty far back in the mix—a situation necessary to give the political dimension of his work a full hearing. His significant—and overlooked—achievement as a poet receives special attention. Sun Ra viewed his poems (he wrote many over the course of a long career) as a verbal equivalent to his music. Read in that light, they become a kind of user’s guide to infinity, offering instructions about listening to music meant to change the world. The poems may resemble little else in contemporary literature, but that’s what makes them original, important, and even beautiful. Sun Ra believed that beauty is necessary for survival and that creating and communicating it makes life better. However strange, his remarkable poetry contributes to that aim, enhancing the beauty of his music by translating its aspirations into words.
One measure of Sun Ra’s success in envisioning a better, more beautiful tomorrow lies in the number and talent of the musicians his work continues to inspire, a rich variety of creative heirs. Their kaleidoscopic musical adventures keep Sun Ra’s visionary purpose alive. His standing as the great forefather of Afrofuturism, a movement devoted to imagining new black futures, guarantees the longevity of his renown. Sun Ra took it upon himself and his music not to demand freedom and equality in this world but to create even greater possibilities, even better worlds to come. His fellow Afrofuturists adapt his example to new opportunities and terrains. They and the many other artists and activists he inspires embrace culture rather than the ballot or the church as the most effective means of improving the world. Together they travel the spaceways, from planet to imagined planet.
Readers interested in accompanying him should have some sense of what lies ahead. This book does not provide a full introduction to Sun Ra’s life. John Szwed’s biography, Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, fulfills that task magisterially. It’s an indispensable guide to an incomparable life. Although biography provides a loose narrative arc to the chapters that follow, they are thematically focused and can productively be read in any order or disorder. A book on Sun Ra and his explosive music should eschew too tidy a linearity. This one shares with most others, even Szwed’s, a preoccupation with Sun Ra’s formative years in Chicago. Work needs to be done on the later years in Philadelphia, but that will have to wait for future hands—let’s hope not for long. Perhaps it’s clear that love and admiration for Sun Ra’s joyous music inform everything that follows. The greatest compliment we can pay that art is simply to listen and live with happiness.
“Play it. Play it, Sun Ra!”
1960. The Arkestra is gigging at the Wonder Inn, swinging hard on one of Sun Ra’s compositions, “Space Aura,” sixteen hammering bars of harmonized saxophone jabs punctuated by a slithering trumpet reveille.1 John Gilmore then takes off on tenor for two tone-pounding choruses, attacking notes from below, garroting them from behind, making them wail. George Hudson follows on trumpet, quavering and snarling over those harmonies until the head returns and the Arkestra churns to a cacophonous finish, resolving on a darkly beautiful chord, Gilmore’s tenor two octaves below Hudson’s trumpet—but a quarter tone above the pitch.
Play it, Sun Ra!
The Wonder Inn. Say it fast and it’s “wonderin’,” a place of possibility and speculation: the Arkestra’s steady gig for more than a year, sometimes seven nights a week (after six hours of rehearsal). Just south of Seventy-Fifth at Cottage Grove, the Wonder Inn occupied a red brick building, with frosted glass blocks in front flanked by two doors and capped with a crenellated parapet. The door on the left opened directly into the club, a single long room with a bar along one wall and tables along the other. At the far end, a small stage stood under a gazebo-like dome decorated with an ivy motif hung from the ceiling.
The space barely contained the Arkestra. Crammed behind Sun Ra’s piano, the band played intrepid sets that could last for hours, making the room reverberate with expansive, often experimental sounds. As patrons drank and hustled and talked, occasionally urging the music on, the Arkestra played with audacity and imagination, one of the best working bands in Chicago—or anywhere else. Its members took their music seriously but made it entertaining, too, eschewing the austerities of the beboppers, with their aloof virtuosity and windowpane shades. Their attire was sharp but relaxed, even playful; they sported bow ties and jackets with skinny lapels, their heads topped sometimes with a fez and sometimes with a space hat blinking red and green in the smoky light.
They followed Sun Ra’s music down pathways to unknown worlds. They were space explorers, six to ten players in close solar orbit. They pursued musical perihelion, aspiring beyond worldly music to skirt the sun—often as the tape rolled, as it did on that night in 1960 at the Wonder Inn. Released as Music from Tomorrow’s World in 2002, long after the passing of both club and composer, the recording provides a high-altitude transmission from the Arkestra in flight. Joy echoes in the air. The crowd comes alive with booze and chatter. The spacious set list includes standards, show tunes, originals, and a hip instance of exotica.
The Arkestra could play anything—and on this recording it does so with discipline, energy, and wit. By turns tender and raucous, the music soars and swings sideways. Something funny begins to happen. There is a joker in the pack of charts. Sun Ra calls “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” the old Gershwin number, and the Arkestra serves up a staid cover as straight as anything Fletch ever played, until it breaks into song with a wink and a nudge: “The stories you’re liable / To read in the Bible / They ain’t necessarily so!”2 Really? They ain’t? A soft voice follows whisper-lisping something barely audible over the Inn’s din, something a bit weird and a little lyrical. A poem maybe?
Imagination is a magic carpet
Upon which we may soar
To distant lands and climes
And even go beyond the moon to any planet in the sky.
It’s Sun Ra’s voice, in recitation mode. A wry preacher, he calls a question that ends in a shout: “If we are here / Why can’t we be there?” The Arkestra laughs, sputters, and launches full throttle into “How High the Moon,” the standard beloved of the bebop set now turned propulsion device for space travel to another world. And why not?
Why can’t we be there?
“Youngquist has published an excellent critical take on Sun Ra’s creation myth and its relation to broader currents of America’s postwar social imaginary. ”
“[Youngquist] writes with spirited engagement: like much of the best writing on Sun Ra, he is an unapologetic convert, and there is a winning evangelism to his analysis. . . . his writing is fired by the sense that Sun Ra's musical metaphysic truly matters in the here and now.”
“The title is well chosen. Sun Ra’s legacy is as much the vision of another world, and another way of being, as it is a unique approach to music. . . . [His] relationship with pop culture is equally fascinating and the impact he made on a wide range of artists who achieved far greater mainstream commercial success . . . is significant to say the least. Youngquist’s prose is vivid and concise, making a subject some might still find forbidding anything but. A welcome invitation to the spaceways.”
“Sun Ra left Earth a better place than he found it. Youngquist’s deep dive into this art is creative, discursive, and probing. . . . A strictly formal critique of the musician would have generated its own insights, but by pulling the music of Sun Ra into its broader context, Youngquist engages readers in something grander. They—both Sun Ra and Youngquist—give the contentious politics of resistance, the starlit frontiers of imagination, and the contours of hope a fresh look. As Sun Ra would agree, it is only a fresh look at our world that will rocket people to a new and more splendid universe.”
“I am bowled over. Youngquist explains—better than anyone before and, in many particular regards, for the first time—how Sun Ra’s poetically logical illogic and musically purposeful nothingness offered, and offers, a pathway for escaping the often-degrading experience of being African American in America. Youngquist dances seamlessly between hip insider talk and scholarly observation, between fiction and history, between celebration and criticism. This book is terrific, sensational. What a delight.”
Barry Kernfeld, editor of The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz and author of What to Listen for in Jazz
“A Pure Solar World is a major accomplishment. Working through the tangle of incomplete and misleading information surrounding Sun Ra and Saturn Records, Paul Youngquist provides the most thoroughly researched work on Sun Ra to be published in recent years. To anyone with a serious interest in comprehending the Ra universe, this volume will be an invaluable guide.”
Aldon Lynn Nielsen, Pennsylvania State University, author of Integral Music: Languages of African-American Innovation