Sun Ra and the Chicago Years: 1946-1961
— By Jose-Luis Moctezuma | October 9, 2010
The transmigrations of Herman Poole Blount could be said to have begun at the midwest nexus known as Chicago, city of astral-jazz antennae and Saturn-bound transmissions. Before he magnetized the earth’s attention during his peak years in New York and Philadelphia, “Sonny” Blount was a part-time street preacher in Washington Park lecturing on afro-futurism and the biblical etymology of the Dozens; Blount had by then changed his legal name to Le Sony’r Ra and established a secret society called Thmei Research, which focused its energies on cosmic-biblical exegesis, numerology, and the occult history of Egypt. It was in South Side Chicago where the man who would become permanently known as Sun Ra founded El Saturn Records with his manager Alton Abraham and where he and his Arkestra recorded the group’s first pivotal albums. Chicago was central to the development of Sun Ra because, in his words, “the space-voices got me on a space wisdom beam, and the beam led me to Chicago.”
To renew interest in the significance of the formative years Sun Ra spent in Chicago, The University of Chicago Library has generously put up a web exhibit, “Sounds from Tomorrow’s World,” showcasing a portion of the material and documents that make up the Alton Abraham Papers of Sun Ra, housed in the UChicago Library’s Special Collections Research Center. Much of the material was nearly lost to destruction in 2000 when Alton Abraham, Sun Ra’s longtime friend and manager, passed away, but thanks to the efforts of John Corbett and Terri Kapsalis (both currently faculty members at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago) the collection was saved and eventually donated to The University of Chicago Library, where it forms a key section of the Library’s extensive Chicago Jazz Archive.
John Corbett and Terri Kapsalis (along with Anthony Elms) were also responsible for curating a 2007 exhibit at the Hyde Park Art Center (“Pathways to Unknown Worlds: Sun Ra, El Saturn, & Chicago’s Afro-Futurist Underground, 1954-68″) which focused on the lesser-known roles Sun Ra played as a graphic designer, business entrepreneur, mystic technologist, space instrument maker, word poet, and street preacher. Besides co-editing the exhibit’s catalogue and The Wisdom of Sun Ra: Sun Ra’s Polemical Broadsheets and Streetcorner Leaflets, Corbett wrote an informative web article on Design Observer (“Sun Ra, Street Priest and Father of D.I.Y. Jazz”) examining the fertile Chicago period in which Sun Ra’s persona underwent a dizzying range of permutations. Before Space became the Place, Chicago was the earth-hub to where Blount had traveled from his native Birmingham, Alabama, and from whence he came out a cosmic being in tune with the seven rays of jazz.