(This article appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of SSA Magazine.)

Revolutionary Music

Exploring the cultural ramifications of Sun Ra’s avant-garde jazz and fantastical cosmology

Historians are beginning to understand the central role art has played in the efforts of community organizers to subvert ingrained representations of race and to challenge urban inequality. For example, jazz enthusiasts admire the music of avant-garde pianist Sun Ra, a key figure in the American free jazz scene that blossomed in the 1950s and 1960s. Typically, they overlook (if not ignore) the invented cosmology that underpinned Sun Ra’s work, an unconventional blend of radical social criticism and playful utopianism.

Last April, William Sites, an associate professor at SSA, published a historical analysis of Sun Ra’s controversial philosophy in the Journal of Urban History. At first glance, it seems like a different type of project for Sites, whose scholarship generally focuses on the political economy of the city. But music, Sites says, “has been one area that is often neglected when we search for places where critical ideas and practices come from.”

Sun Ra lived and worked on Chicago’s South Side from 1946 to 1961, a period in which the distinctive composer stretched himself artistically—playing an eclectic mix of 20th-century styles in diverse venues—and politically. With business manager and fellow spiritual traveler Alton Abraham, he studied theology, numerology and the mythical civilizations of ancient Africa. Sites contextualizes Sun Ra’s musical activism by culling rich artifacts from Abraham’s personal papers, a comprehensive archive of notes, audio recordings and books his family recently donated to the University of Chicago’s Special Collections Research Center.

As the 1950s progressed, Sun Ra authored emphatic broadsheets and developed a musical language that re-imagined, in Sites’ words, “the cultural world of the present.” It was a sophisticated, abstract ideology that responded in a fresh way to the political degradation of post war black Chicagoans, influencing more visible black activists in the late 1960s and 1970s who, Sites says, found the “market-liberal, race-relations orthodoxies of metropolitan elites” to be shallow.

— Adam Doster