Few jazz artists have ever had the sort of spectacular aura created by Sun Ra, the legendary big-band leader who claimed he was from Saturn, outfitted his Arkestra in silky, astral-themed finery, and gave performances that mixed vanguard technique with show biz spectacle. Although he was in New York during the heyday of the New Thing—the free-jazz movement propelled by folks like Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman–Ra resided in his own universe, though he shared the New Thing’s bold sense of exploration.
The seeds for Ra’s one-man revolution were sown in Chicago, where he moved from Alabama in the early 50s. A fascinating document of his Chicago years has just surfaced in a slim volume called The Wisdom of Sun-Ra, published by the local art press WhiteWalls. The book collects typewritten broadsheet screeds that Ra wrote and distributed on city street corners in the mid-50s. Until the appearance of this book, edited by occasional Reader contributor John Corbett and WhiteWalls editor Anthony Elms, only one of the broadsheets was known to exist: a leaflet Ra had given to Coltrane in 1956. These dense missives combine early Black Nationalism, biblical allusion, and elaborate—if fantastical and absurd—etymological theories (“Negroes belong to the race of Mu. Another way to spell Mu is moo. Moo means low. That’s the cow’s word. Negroes are Mr. Moo.”).
These writings were aimed directly at African-Americans, and many of the pieces embrace a unabashedly provocative tilt that sought to excoriate complacency and lack of self-knowledge. But there are passages that have a broader, more timeless significance. In the opening broadsheet, “What America Should Consider,” he sounds eerily prescient regarding America’s arrogance: “The kingdoms of the past fell because they grew too proud and self-satisfied. There is no room for self-satisfaction in a living world because there is too much to learn and do.” The Wisdom of Sun-Ra includes beautiful reproductions of the dog-eared broadsheets, with full transcriptions in the second half of book. As interesting as the writings are in their own right, they’re also offer powerful insights into the personality and philosophy that was central to Ra’s later work.
This collection kicks off a series of projects that shed light on Sun Ra’s early days. On October 1 the Hyde Park Art Center will host an exhibition, Sun Ra, El Saturn & Chicago’s Afro-Futurist Underground, 1954-61, that collects invented instruments, album covers, original copies of the broadsides, and drawings from the bandleader’s Chicago days. (The opening reception is on October 15.) Two weeks later a complementary exhibit called Interstellar Low Ways opens in the same space, collecting work by artists related to or inspired by Ra. On November 11 and 12 the museum hosts an academic conference on Ra’s legacy that will include roundtable discussions, performances, readings, and presentations. Confirmed to attend thus far are John Szwed (author of the definitive Ra biography Space is the Place), Robert Campbell (Ra’s assiduous discographer), Graham Lock (the British jazz scholar), and a number of art historians. There will also be concerts happening around this time with a Ra theme; Ken Vandermark and Thurston Moore are among the scheduled performers.