Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton
By Graham Lock
Duke University Press Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Astro Black: Mythic Future, Mythic Past
But if you would tell me who I am, at least take the trouble to discover what I have been.
In April 1993 the American magazine Jazziz appeared on the newsstands with a front cover headline that read: "Sun Ra: Visionary or Con Artist?" If the question was, as John Corbett later claimed, "insulting and ignorant," it was not entirely unprovoked. As Corbett himself wryly noted: "Of course, anyone claiming to be from the planet Saturn will be the subject of continuing ridicule no matter how irrefutably out of this world and truly prophetic their music is."
Indeed, the insensitivity of the Jazziz headline was soon eclipsed by that shown in some of the obituaries that followed Sun Ra's death on 30 May 1993. In the Daily Mail, Benny Green referred to Sun Ra's "galactic gobbledegook," portrayed him as "wearing a short interplanetary Noddy bonnet," and complained: "The trouble has always been to know where to draw a firm line between the tomfoolery of an entertaining charlatan and the sincere missionary beliefs of a considerable musical pioneer." In the Independent, Steve Voce, while also acknowledging Sun Ra's "serious contribution to the music," nevertheless poked fun at his clothes and his philosophy, describing him as a "nutter" who "had only one joke." These remarks may have been exceptionally facile, yet their disbelieving tone was certainly not unprecedented in commentary on Sun Ra. Allan Chase has pointed out that "naivete, cynicism, facetiousness, inconsistency, and insanity" have all been put forward to explain what he calls Sun Ra's "differentness." Even writers sympathetic to Ra have tended to dwell on his singularity, perhaps not surprisingly given his claim that "I am not of this planet. I am another order of being. I can tell you things you won't believe."
It is clear from the above quotations that the controversy about Sun Ra has not been primarily musicological. Though critics have differed in their degrees of appreciation, few have had any problem relating his music to the African American creative tradition. Robert Campbell, for example, reported that in the 1980s a typical Sun Ra concert "contained Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington charts, freakouts, standards, blues for piano and organ, slices of R&B, you name it," and back in the 1970s Val Wilmer similarly noted that Ra's music "can range from swing to neo-bop to free collective improvisation, all in a single night." What provoked the accusations of chicanery and/or madness was the "galactic gobbledegook," or what I will call the "Astro Black Mythology," that filtered through the music, alluded to in song titles and lyrics, poems and interviews, and a pervasive influence as well on the design of his record jackets and many aspects of his onstage performances, not least the colorful attire worn by Sun Ra and his band, the Arkestra, which Wilmer has described as deriving from "midway between Africa and the realms of science fiction."
("Astro Black Mythology" is a phrase from Ra's poem/song lyric "Astro Black." In this chapter I use it to refer to what I see as possibly the axis of the Ra cosmology, that is, the creation of an alternative mythic future and mythic past for African Americans. In this context, "Astro Black Mythology" is an appropriate shorthand term for two reasons: it emphasizes Sun Ra's conscious creation of a mythology, and it conveniently encapsulates the two dominant facets of that mythology, the Astro of the outer space future, and the Black of the ancient Egyptian past.)
In an earlier discussion of this Ra mythology, I suggested that it should be looked at as "part of a black historical continuum that reaches back through the blues and slavery to an Egyptian civilization that began 5,000 years ago." My aim in this chapter is to further explore that contention by looking in particular at the two principal components of Ra's Astro Black Mythology: ancient Egypt and outer space. I should stress that I am by no means attempting to explicate Sun Ra's entire philosophy, which would require at least a book to itself. Nevertheless, as I hope will become clear, ancient Egypt and outer space were significant, perhaps core, factors in Sun Ra's mythology, and the fact that he linked them provides us with a key to better understanding what that mythology was about. At the least, I believe I can show that some of the apparently more eccentric and "insane" elements of Sun Ra's works were grounded in a particular cultural context and that a useful way of beginning to make sense of his work is to look more closely at its relationship to certain aspects of African American history.
* * *
Sun Ra's concern with ancient Egypt can be approached by means of both its immediate musical context and the broader African American intellectual context. Norman Weinstein has shown that an interest in Africa, including Egypt, has been a feature of African American music since the early years of the twentieth century, and Frank Kofsky has documented a specific upsurge of African references in the American jazz of the 1950s, a phenomenon he attributes to "the growth of nationalist feelings among black musicians," and one undoubtedly fueled by the number of African nations that achieved independence from European colonial powers during this period. Insofar as Sun Ra was involved in nationalist activities in Chicago in the 1950s, when he also formed the Arkestra, and his composition titles at the time included "Africa," "Nubia," and "Aiethopia" [sic], he can be seen as a participant in the growth of these feelings among African American musicians. And insofar as this interest in Africa affected the actual sound of the music, Sun Ra can be counted among the leading participants. The Arkestra began to use two or three drummers, and Ra encouraged all the band members to play miscellaneous percussion instruments. According to Wilmer: "This emphasis on percussion, combined with chants set up by the musicians, was the first sign of conscious Africanisms to appear in the music since Dizzie [sic] Gillespie's Afro-Cuban period." And Chase, writing with reference to Ra's increasing use of "exotic" Latin dance rhythms in the late 1950s, points to both the direct African element in the composition titles and the more circuitous African influences in the rhythms. "Sun Ra's titles enhanced the association of these rhythms with the exotic, and with Egypt and Africa in particular: 'Tiny Pyramids,' 'Nubia,' 'Africa,' 'Watusa,' 'Ancient Aeithopia' [sic], 'Kingdom of Thunder,' 'Paradise.' The rhythms used were more Caribbean than strictly African, but those Caribbean rhythms derived largely from African (and Iberian) sources."
If an LP like 1959's The Nubians of Plutonia (originally titled The lady withthe Golden Stockings) or the 1958 track "Aiethopia" perhaps demonstrated some of the more imaginative uses of such "Africanisms" at the time,16 what really set Sun Ra apart from his other Africa-inspired contemporaries was a deep fascination with Egypt, particularly ancient Egypt, that continued to play a major part in his work for the next three decades. This fascination was evident not only in his choice of name (Ra being the ancient Egyptian sun god), but also in many composition and record titles ("Ahnknaton" [sic], "Pyramids," "Sunset on the Nile," I, Pharaoh), in the occasional renaming of his Saturn record label as Thoth (after the ibis-headed Egyptian moon god), and in the use of Egyptian hieroglyphics and motifs both on record jackets and on stage sets and costumes.
That Sun Ra's references to ancient Egypt were intended, at least in part, to rekindle awareness of black achievement and black history is suggested by a lyric such as "When the black man ruled this land / Pharaoh was sitting on his throne / I hope you understand." This impression was confirmed by my interviews with Arkestra members Marshall Allen and Tyrone Hill in 1990:
The importance of ancient Egypt's blackness is attested to by current Arkestra members. Altoist Marshall Allen answers my queries with "Well, there are a lot of ancient Egyptians in America." You mean black people? "That's right. People from all over Africa are there. You gotta have some kind of identity." And trombonist Tyrone Hill (ex-MFSB) states it even more plainly: "Knowing about ancient Egypt makes me feel better as a person, 'cause those were black people. Our race don't know very much about ourselves. In America, education and the mass media tell you black people got nothing to offer, but we've done many beautiful things. Sun Ra made me aware of this."
Hill's remarks point to Sun Ra's use of ancient Egypt as part of an attempt to revise the history of black people as represented by the white cultural and academic establishments. If the political critique implicit in this attempt differentiated Ra from the more general cultural nationalism espoused by his fellow musicians in the 1950s, it also placed him within an existing African American intellectual tradition.
A small number of African American writers, including W. E. B. DuBois, had previously broached the topic of ancient Egyptian civilization, but it was only in 1954, with the publication of George G. M. James's Stolen Legacy, that prevailing white academic ideas about ancient civilization were comprehensively challenged. James's book, whose full original title was Stolen Legacy: The Greeks Were Not the Authors of Greek Philosophy but the People of North Africa, Commonly Called the Egyptians, claimed not only that Greece, supposedly the cradle of Western civilization, had "stolen" much of its religious, philosophical, and scientific thinking from Egypt, but also it took for granted that the ancient Egyptians had been black Africans, a fact long denied by many white historians. James's book had a considerable impact in African American circles, but it was largely ignored by mainstream academics until its theses were developed some thirty years later by Martin Bernal in his Black Athena. Ironically, Bernal points out that James's ideas had been common currency before the eighteenth century, but that "after the rise of black slavery and racism, European thinkers were concerned to keep black Africans as far as possible from European civilization." DuBois too had made this point, noting that "it is one of the astonishing results of the written history of Africa that almost unanimously in the nineteenth century Egypt was not regarded as a part of Africa." He concluded: "There can be but one adequate explanation of this vagary of nineteenth-century science: it was due to the slave trade and Negro slavery. It was due to the fact that the rise and support of capitalism called for rationalization based upon degrading and discrediting of the Negroid peoples." (As Tyrone Hill's comments above make clear, such "discrediting" has remained a major part of American mainstream culture, and Sun Ra's invocations of ancient Egypt were intended to counter this negative view of black history.)
It seems that Sun Ra had embarked on his study of ancient Egypt before Stolen Legacy was published, and it is certain that he was using the name Ra by 1952. He confirmed to both Chase and me (in 1990) that he had read Stolen Legacy, but unfortunately he did not say when. It is curious that on one of his earliest releases, the 1957 LP Jazz by Sun Ra (later reissued as Sun Song), he actually dedicates a track not to the Egyptians but to the ancient Greeks! "CALL FOR ALL DEMONS ... In ancient Greece the word DEMON meant living spirit. The Grecians were not an ignorant people, they had both culture and wisdom. This song is my tribute to them." It seems unlikely that Sun Ra would have written this, at least without mentioning that the Greeks' "culture and wisdom" were probably derived from the Egyptians, had he already read Stolen Legacy.
Later recordings and pronouncements by Ra, however, reveal some interesting parallels with James's account of ancient Egypt. For example, James noted the significance of the notion of discipline in what he called the "Egyptian Mystery System"; Sun Ra wrote a series of numbered compositions under that general rubric ("Discipline 15," "Discipline 27-11," "Discipline 99," etc.), and he often stressed the importance of discipline in both music and life. James also explored the Egyptians' belief in a heliocentric universe and the central importance of the sun god in their cosmology, topics frequently alluded to by Sun Ra in titles such as "The Sun Myth," "Sun Song," The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Secrets of the Sun, When Sun Comes Out, as well as in his use onstage of sun-shaped instruments and symbols. In our 1990 interview, Sun Ra complained bitterly about the destruction of sun iconography in Egypt and South America by Christians who, he said, "were trying to put this planet in darkness." He decried it as "a planned strategy to get rid of what they called sun-worship; but it wasn't sun-worship, it was the truth."
This hostility toward Christianity, coupled with a concern for the social situation of African Americans in the 1950s, is possibly the most significant of the similarities between Sun Ra's work and that of James. James, like Ra, was hoping to effect a revision of black history that would not only see the world accord African Americans new respect but would also "mean a most important change in the mentality of Black people: a change from an inferiority complex, to the realization and consciousness of their equality with all the other great peoples of the world who have built great civilizations." James argued that some of the later Roman emperors had championed Christianity as a means to suppress the Egyptian Mystery teachings: "In keeping with the plan of Emperors Theodosius and Justinian to exterminate and forever suppress the Culture System of the African continents the Christian church established its missionary enterprise to fight against what it has called paganism. Consequently missionaries and educators have gone to the mission field with a superiority complex, born of miseducation and disrespect...." As a corrective, James proposed his "New Philosophy of African Redemption," a reeducation program that would enlighten the world "as to the real truth about the place of the African continent in the history of civilization," one that would produce a change of belief and behavior in the black population: "It really signifies a mental emancipation, in which the Black people will be liberated from the chain of traditional falsehood, which for centuries has incarcerated them in the prison of inferiority complex and world humiliation and insult." One immediate form of action that James advocated was "a perpetual protest" against the Christian church's misrepresentations of black culture and black history. He seems to have had in mind what he calls "missionary policy" regarding contemporary depictions of African society, but for Sun Ra it was the Christian church's role in African American society that caused more concern. Wilmer has summarized Ra's early rejection of the Christian church: "At home, in the South ... he evoked parental wrath when he turned his back on the church, but he detested the palliative effects of religion and the way it led to the resigned acceptance of the status quo by the people around him. Later, in Chicago, he attempted to show the Black urban proletariat ways of improving their situation. 'I felt that the Black people of America needed an awakening,' he said."
Certainly in the 1950s Ra issued pamphlets in Chicago that offered reinterpretations of parts of the Bible, which he insisted was not the Good Book but the Code Book, its real truths suppressed by orthodox Christianity but still available to those who had the key to unlocking its secrets. A vital component of this decoding operation was the process that Sun Ra called "doing the equations," a form of play on the structure and meaning of words that could also involve numerology. It was a process that he demonstrated when he taught briefly at the University of California at Berkeley in 1971: "A typical class (according to Paul Sanoian, one of his students) found Sun Ra writing Biblical quotes on the board and then 'permutating' them—re-writing and transforming their letters and syntax—into new equations of meaning. His lecture subjects included ... a radical reinterpretation of the Bible in light of Egyptology." While this process might be adduced by some as evidence of Sun Ra's "insanity," it might also have its roots in African American folk beliefs, in the use of what a character in Zora Neale Hurston's anthropological study Mules and Men calls "by-words": "'They all got a hidden meaning' just' like de Bible. Everybody can't understand what they mean. Most people is thin-brained. They's born wid they feet under the moon. Some folks is born wid they feet on de sun and they kin seek out de inside meanin' of words.'" Sun Ra could certainly be said to have had his feet on the sun! Note, too, the apparently commonplace belief that the Bible is full of "hidden meanin.'" The importance to Ra of finding "de inside meanin' of words" is underlined by his brief poem, "To the Peoples of Earth," which reads:
Proper evaluation of words and letters (Continues...)
In their phonetic and associated sense
Can bring the peoples of earth
Into the clear light of pure Cosmic Wisdom.
Excerpted from Blutopia by Graham Lock. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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