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May 31, 2017

Book Notes - Paul Youngquist "A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism"

A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Paul Youngquist's book A Pure Solar World is a fascinating exploration into the life, music, and legacy of Sun Ra.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"An academic specializing in literature and cultural studies, Youngquist presents a critical analysis of Ra's life and work that expounds on the poetry and Afrocentric mythology Ra created in order to show how Ra laid the groundwork for what became Afrofuturism. Through Youngquist's appreciation of the joyful noise Sun Ra gifted to this planet during his brief visit, readers will surely be inspired to explore Ra’s extensive catalog."

In his own words, here is Paul Youngquist's Book Notes music playlist for his book A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism:

I listened to a lot of Sun Ra and his various Arkestras while writing A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism. I've produced a playlist, however, without a single track from their endless discography. I hope you'll explore that on your own. This playlist tells the sonic backstory of A Pure Solar World. It combines music that influenced Sun Ra with music he influenced to convey a sense of the tonal vistas he traversed as he travelled the spaceways. Maybe it's just an alibi for the impossible: writing about music. I'm the first to admit that such writing can feel beside the point. Sound resists sense. Music eats words. The perfect book about music would be one that, when opened, simply played—which I guess is how a playlist works. If so, this playlist might function as an ambient narrative. That's what I'm after here, sonic fiction to intensify all those words in A Pure Solar World. Never mind the cultural problem of being a white guy writing about a black musician, an impossible problem really. Whitey doesn't have the chops to keep up musically. Not this whitey. So whitey writes. But like Sun Ra says, "the possible has been tried. It's time to try the impossible."

Sometimes I wonder how I came to love Sun Ra's music. A preacher's kid from St. Paul, Minnesota, I'm about as hip as Velveeta cheese. But I realize now that certain sounds prepped me for the arrival, in my square world, of the visitor from Saturn. The tsunami sound of MC5, for instance, opened otherworldly vistas. The last track on the band's debut recording, Kick Out the Jams (1969), planted an alien flag that would unfurl in my head. "Starship" is much more than a rock-n-roll tribute to Sun Ra. It takes white-boy overdrive down strange celestial roads, turning distortion into a vehicle for space exploration. Feedback soon dwindles into vocal sighs and electronic chatter, creating an open space beyond four-four time that darkens and warps into prophecy: the spoken word of a Sun Ra poem ("There is a land where the sun shines eternally, / Eternally eternal / Out in outer space"). In 1969 Sun Ra and the Arkestra would perform twice in Detroit on the same bill as MC5, a conjunction of stars I was much too young to witness. But their sounds lit the way to infinity. FM radio beamed other influences too, secrets of the sun: Earth, Wind, and Fire's 1975 number one hit, "Shining Star," for instance, whose title was not its sole solar credential. Unknown to me at the time, the popular funk band owed its origin to the Arkestra. Among its members were players from Chicago's Artistic Heritage Ensemble, founded by an early Arkestra alum, trumpeter Phil Cohran,. "Born a man child of the sun," as the song goes: I now hear Sun Ra way back in the mix.

Sun Ra landed in Chicago in 1946. He was Herman Poole Blount then, "Sonny" for short. The city, among the most segregated in America, was awash in music. If you hustled, you could make a living on the South Side as a player. That's how this Alabama born alien spent his early days. But what do I know of Chicago? Little beyond its music. I've stitched together a phantasmal backdrop to his early efforts, a tapestry of Chicago sounds. Mahalia Jackson was in the air, however uninspiring her Christian message to Sonny's ears. Her glorious rendering of "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" channels a spiritual intensity that can be contested but not denied. I won't argue for its influence on Sonny's later music, but I will note that "Song of the Sparer" from Outer Spaceways Incorporated alludes to the sparrow ("sparer" with a southern accent) as a vehicle for astral travels. Sonny found a more direct and terrestrial influence in the country blues of Lil Green, for whom he worked as piano player and arranger for a year in the mid 1940s. "Why Don't You Do Right?" was her big hit: "Get out of here and get me some money too." Lil didn't fuck around. Neither did Chicago. It would break you if you let it. McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters, provides another instance of its sounds—as he should. He perfected the Chicago Blues. In "Honey Bee," he creates the blues equivalent of free jazz dissonance. Listen as he assaults that Telecaster with his slide. Its shriek rips a passage to some carnal heaven. Chicago sounds transfigure spirit into flesh.

Those sounds inspire happiness too. That's how Sun Ra defined jazz: happiness. What happier music than swing? Maybe it kills whatever cool I could claim, but swing makes me smile. It's the music Sun Ra heard first in hometown Birmingham, and he made it a perennial idiom. Over the course his long career, he never stopped playing it. Fortune favored Sonny in Chicago. In the mid-forties, the great Fletcher Henderson was playing an extended gig at Club De Lisa, and he needed a rehearsal pianist. Sonny fit the bill. He revered Henderson for the precision playing of his ensemble, its disciplined fidelity to arrangement and rhythm. "Precision-discipline" would become a catch phrase for the Arkestra's craft. You can hear how it sounds on Henderson's 1933 recording of "Yeah Man!," a tune that entered the Arkestra's book early and never disappeared. The Henderson orchestra plays in crisp sections over the perfect pulse of piano and bass, soloists blowing sleek lines up above. Later Arkestra renditions of "Yeah Man!" can get raucous, but they never forsake Henderson's trademark coherence. A band like Billy Eckstine's ups the rhythmic ante even further. "Love Me or Leave Me" (1944) provides a happy example that owes everything to rhythms building relentlessly from chorus to chorus. Sonny listened and learned. He innovated too, transforming the piano's role in the swing ensemble from metronome to meteor, cutting a path across orchestrated skies. In this he owes much to Thelonious Monk's strange combination of angularity and stress. Monk doesn't swing. He struts, treating the beat like a law of nature that his harmonies shun, as on "Misterioso" (1958). In walks Ra: "some call me Mr. Ra, others call me Mr. Ree. You can call me Mr. Mystery." Sonny's piano propels swing to higher musical spheres.

Sun Ra used music to explore the cosmos. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut too. It was the Space Age, after all. I felt the pull of outer space, the pulse of alien skies. As America prepared to hurl a man into orbit through the combined powers of technology and democracy, popular culture evolved a snappy soundtrack for technocratic fantasies: exotica. With rocketry shooting the moon and decolonization transforming the globe, pop music took up the dual task of orchestrating the Space Age and exoticizing alien cultures. Exotica (since rebranded as Space Age Bachelor Pad Music) crossed cocktails with sultry rhythms, gingham with unctuous strings, and created sounds to lounge by—preferably with a hottie on the couch. Les Baxter, Martin Denny, Esquivel: these were names for necking, maybe dancing a little too—with the clear conscience that comes with knowing that the only thing alien about this music was the ersatz savage on the record jacket (usually a white chick in a wee bikini). Sun Ra took full musical advantage of the idiom. It inspires the ambient shimmer and dark rhythms of numerous early Arkestra recordings. Martin Denny's "Jungle Flower" from his aptly named Exotica LP (1957) provides a luscious example: chunky piano over lumbering congas under twinkling chimes punctuated (it's the jungle) by uncanny (possibly animal?) cries. Repurposing such sounds for liftoff was a simple matter of citation: change "jungle" to "space" and exotica blasts off, as on Les Baxter's otherwise pretty terrestrial LP, Space Escapade, whose tracks bear titles like "A Distant Star," "Winds of Sirius," and "The Other Side of the Moon." "Saturday Night on Saturn," in spite of stabbing strings and hipster congas, approaches Sun Ra perihelion in its bold, cycling bass line and jagged brass. Space Age exotica reaches sublime heights, however, in Russ Garcia's 1958 LP Fantastica, which mixes electronic with traditional instruments to create sounds that anticipate Sun Ra's Mini Moog explorations. "Red Sands of Mars" is a spare and spooky track. It opens with a drone of (obviously) extraterrestrial origin that crash-lands on a Martian soundscape: drifting flute, sinewy oboe, and harmonized horns over interplanetary congas. This is Space Age Bachelor Pad music worthy of the lifelong Space Age bachelor Sun Ra.

Sun Ra and the Arkestra moved from Chicago to New York in 1961, seeking an audience for their innovative music. They stayed for most of the decade. I was a child during the sixties, and for me New York existed only on TV, the place where the evening news originated, beaming its images into my Midwestern home: a belly shot Lee Harvey Oswald, bleeding Viet Cong, brutalized southern blacks, a row of men in sport coats on the balcony of a Memphis motel, pointing upward. A new spirit animated the Arkestra in New York, bringing openness, intensity, and improvisatory elan to rehearsal and performance. A political insistence set in too, oblique but indignant. Sun Ra broadcast a subversive message for black people: forsake the cage called America, look to the Cosmos, and seek a better world. He composed space music to defy sonic and social prejudice. Its sound channels similar acts of musical insubordination, and New York was full of them. John Coltrane recorded "Alabama" live at Birdland in 1963 to commemorate four young black girls killed by a Ku Klux Klan bombing in Birmingham. Coltrane's saxophone intones a solemn invocation, sustained by McCoy Tyner's trembling piano: an auditory epitaph. Only music can extenuate a deed so senseless, so stupid, so corrupt. The work of Archie Shepp, another tenor player, adds indignation to consolation. His strident 1965 recording entitled "Rufus (Swung His Face At Last To The Wind, Then His Neck Snapped)" eschews forgiveness. Its strangled phrases rage against the violence blacks experience everywhere, every day. "Hear me," his saxophone screams. "In the name of this tortured sound, stop the persecution." Albert Ayler goes one step further, summoning spirits to redress injustice. His composition "Ghosts," from the 1964 LP Spiritual Unity, conjures restitution for black suffering. Only spirit can bequeath it. A hymn-like melody gives way to harrowing evocation: guttural growls, plangent squeals, freakish transients crying the spirit home: "we are ghosts, living and dead." Sun Ra heard such judgments in the music suffusing in New York. He responded with openness and improvisation, space music for a better tomorrow.

Sun Ra and the Arkestra traveled the spaceways through the seventies, eighties, and nineties, down to the present. Contrails of their explorations still hang in the black sky, signage for new worlds. I came late to those astral sounds, long after I left St. Paul to attend grad school back east (as they say in Minnesota), where I somehow discovered Sun Ra. Or perhaps he discovered me, becoming in a profound sense my teacher. Like the best teachers, he changed my life. He'll change yours too, if you listen with an open heart to the happy music he made with his various Arkestras. Many are their musical legacies, too many to notice here, but a few deserve mention. Chicago remains the place of Sun Ra's greatest influence. The Arkestra transformed that highly segregated place into an open space of experimentation. It continues in the street-wise cacophonies of The Art Ensemble of Chicago, a mobile laboratory for sound reinvention that grew out of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. The Art Ensemble took the Arkestra's space explorations to the streets with rowdy Afro-surreal assaults on conventional tones, times, and timbres. Then, like the Arkestra, they took Chicago to the world. In 1974 they recorded Fanfare for the Warriors, whose title track shows the Arkestra's sidereal touch in its superheated ensemble screams, but the clarity of its solos, buttressed by a flirtatious bass, keeps everything grounded. Art Ensemble as Earth Arkestra? Not really, but the band illuminates Sun Ra's more terrestrial possibilities. These acquire a Life of Their Own and ravage the planet in the alien-invader funk of George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic. Clinton pirates Sun Ra's space machine and lands a band of extraterrestrial brothers back on Earth. He strips down the Arkestra's polyrhythmic probing—it's all about the one, after all—and retrofits infinity to funk. The Mothership flies much lower than the Arkestra, but works its tellurian magic to surprising effect. "Unfunky UFO" (dig Bootsy's concussive bass) provides hope where it's not expected: "You've got all that is really needed / To save a dying world from its funklessness." It's the Arkestra as accidental funk engine, unexpected vehicle of earthly delight. Sun Ra approves, flattering the flatterer with the groove heavy "UFO" from his 1979 LP On Jupiter. When space music meets funk, planets align. But funking things up might not be Sun Ra's most luminous legacy. His greatest heirs and innovators practice an ars electronica. Sun Ra's singular achievement on synthesizer—Mini Moog and cousin keyboards—inspires electronic explorations of thrilling audacity. The work of Ras G and the African Space Program (aka Gregory Shorter, Jr.) sets a high standard for sonic density and disturbance. He openly claims a solar lineage in the way he titles his recordings: Ghetto Scifi (2008), I of the Cosmos (2008), Alternate Destiny (2010), Spacebase is the Place (2011), Back on the Planet (2013), Other Worlds (2015). On the track called "Back on the Planet" from the CD of the same name, Ras G eschews music in any conventional sense in order to cast and carve sound. Intense, compressed jags of electronic noise build over a blistering beat punctuated by spoken phrases ("it's a whole 'nother world up here") and unearthly drones. This is the space Sun Ra and the Arkestra flew through first. Its most daring cartographer, master navigator of infinite sounds, is Jamal Moss, better known as Hieroglyphic Being. Everything he produces honors the master. It's pointless to list titles. They all orbit the sun. Hieroglyphic Being charts space in multiple dimensions, creating "beta music for beta people," as Sun Ra would say. Some work gestures toward lost histories to remediate a soulless present, as with The Disco's of Imhotep (2016). Other work makes bold crossings from digital to analog worlds and back. An exhilarating instance appears on a recording with the J.I.T.U Ahn-Sam-Buhl entitled We Are Not the First (2015). Marshall Allen, the old Arkestra stalwart, appears with Heiroglyphic Being and a host of other great players to create a series of auditory provocations. "Fuck the Ghetto, Think About Outer Space" answers social crisis with music in a way only Sun Ra could inspire. It dares listeners to listen better, to hear spirit where only misery prevails.

Or seems to. Learn the lesson. Think about outer space. Travel the spaceways.

Paul Youngquist and A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism links:

excerpt from the book
video trailer for the book

Booklist review
The Free Jazz Collective review
PopMatters review
Public Seminar review

VICE interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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