In Print: Traveling the Spaceways

Sun Ra, the Astro Black and other Solar Myths Edited by John Corbett, Anthony Elms and Terri Kapsalis
White Walls/University of Chicago Press

By Ken Waxman

Sun Ra would probably have thought it was fittingly appropriate if too long overdue, but Traveling the Spaceways is a well-researched compendium of information about jazz’s only bandleader to have his origin on the planet Saturn. The 14 chapters, gathered from on two-day symposium on the music, philosophy and influence of Ra (1914-1993), AKA Herman Poole Blount of Birmingham, Ala., deal with the music, art and long-lasting influence of the enigmatic band leader, positioning his astro-futurist philosophy within the major currents of African American thought. Profusely illustrated with vintage Ra photos, album cover and label art, ephemera from the collection of Ra and his associates, plus visual artists’ often full-color representations of the man and other mid-century Black trends, the book does a masterful job of outlining the pianist/bandleader’s importance.

Among the highlights is a detailed investigation of the Arkestra’s formative late 1950s years in its Chicago hometown by scholar/discographer Robert L. Campbell. Another provocative essay by critic Kevin Whitehead examines many of Ra’s earliest recording to prove that rather than being divorced from prevailing musical currents, Ra’s compositions had similarities to advanced tunes and arrangements by such then-mainstream figures as Shorty Rogers, Neal Hefti and Tadd Dameron.

Other articles situate Ra’s triple concerns with the relatively static demographic position of American Blacks at that time, his fascination with extraterrestrial and space-ship imagery, and his philo-Egyptianism, as being well within a long tradition of Afro-American polemical writing and thought, both secular and religious.

Further to this, Graham Lock provides what is arguably the most insightful essay, convincingly linking the composer’s outer-space fascination with earlier African-American spirituals and sermons. “Making the vision real was a central impulse in Sun Ra’s performances,” he writes. “… if his vision had been dubbed ‘Afro Futurist’ the means he used to actualise it were steeped in 19th Century black cultural traditions.” And later: “For Sun Ra empowering Astro Black mythology could replace a history of black … oppression because space … was the place where ‘there are no limits …’.”

Also included are textural analyses of Ra’s poetic, polemical and aphoristic writings, in the context of word play and early 20th century spiritualist movements. Some of the suppositions however lean more towards scholastic criticism than interpretations of the work of a musical composer and improviser. Using the art of some early Sun Ra LP cover as a stepping off point, Victor Margolin contributes a perceptive piece on Black graphic artists and designers in Chicago of that period. However these keen observations move further away from the Ra focus. Including essays poetry, visual art and prose influenced by the Sun Ra persona, other chapters of the book are more problematic. A few complicate the picture by veering into other more fashionable issues vestigial to Ra’s repertoire; some confuse individual enthusiasm for insight. Still, anyone interested in understanding more about the enigmatic career of Sun Ra will revel in the thoughtful scholarship that makes up most of this book.

—For New York City Jazz Record May 2011