John Corbett | Slideshows

Sun Ra, Street Priest and Father of D.I.Y. Jazz

Sun Ra, photographer unknown, circa 1950, Chicago.

The space-voices got me on a space wisdom beam, and the beam led me to Chicago.
— Sun Ra, 1962

April 13, 1956, Chicago. Sun Ra and his friend and manager Alton Abraham arrive at Balkan Music Co., a small record and musical supply wholesaler at 1425 W. 18th Street, in the neighborhood now known as Pilsen. Helping the other seven musicians unload, they file into the storefront, which doubles as a recording studio, to record the first full-length session for their new label, El Saturn Records.

The band is in top form, coming off a lengthy engagement at Budland, the basement venue at the Pershing Hotel. Originally called Birdland, the club was threatened with lawsuit by the owners of New York's Birdland, an eventuality that Sun Ra helped avoid by renaming it with a word that's spelled differently, but pronounced almost the same. Ra was a logophile — words were another form of music, which was the ultimate artform — and he loved homonyms just about as much as he loved tangy, dissonant harmonies, aggregations of low horns, and parallel unison. Homonymity is why he called his group the Arkestra — on one hand, he slipped in a Biblical reference to the Ark, but on the other hand, Ra always explained that where he came from, in Alabama, that's how you said the word "Orchestra."

It's midnight and the session is in full swing. One take and the band nails "India," the loping, percussion-thick, quasi-Egyptian number with electronic piano and penetrating Art Hoyle trumpet. Things are off to a very good start. Two takes of "Sunology," vehicle for Pat Patrick's meaty baritone and James Scales' tart alto, are so solid that they'll both end up released, but on the longer second version the tape breaks. The band waxes a couple of numbers with singer Clyde Williams ("Dreams," "As You Once Were," which remain unissued until Delmark adds them to the CD reissue of the first Transition Sun Ra LP), then again hits a bullseye with "Big Charles," a tune re-titled "Kingdom of Not." A full take of "Eve" doesn't work, but the dark, stormy piano, bass, percussion part is a killer, and an edit of the first minute-and-a-half cuts out the full band section and turns it into "Portrait Of The Living Sky." They're into the second long tape reel when Ra calls a blues, with John Gilmore's smoldering post-Rollins tenor; it's after 2am, but they call it "Blues At Midnight." And for good measure, the recording closes with a tremendous single take of the Arkestra classic "El Is A Sound Of Joy." Three in the morning, the band packs up for the night, everyone gets a check (union scale, $41.25/hr., with Ra getting a royal $165 leader's fee), and a little bit of history is made.

Super-Sonic Jazz LP cover, design by Claude Dangerfield. Music recorded 1956; issued early 1960s.

Saturn has already issued 7-inch singles, starting with Ra's signature piece, "Saturn" (long thought apocryphal, the only known copy of which has just sold for an astronomical sum on eBay, fifty years later). Abraham and Ra contemplate using the session to put out a 10-inch or a series of extended-play singles, but in February they decide on a full LP, and on Valentine's Day, 1957, at RCA Studios, they edit the record, taking home test-pressings of the long-player that will soon be released as Super-Sonic Jazz. (Two weeks later, the Arkestra will play for psychiatric patients at Hines Hospital, an event commemorated on the '60s LP Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy.) Abraham has a group of record cover designs to choose from, designed by Claude Dangerfield, and he selects a surrealist pianoscape, with piano lids on the horizon, lightning bolts and stars above, flaming piano keys, and from off-screen to the right, an arm holds a beautifully incongruous cocktail shaker. In March, five cartons of 100 LPs each are delivered. Two-color red-and-cream covers are printed, and the full package is hand assembled by Abraham. A poster is made and hung around town. El Saturn has its first album.

Sun Ra in Chicago

The cosmic roles
are written in sundry parchments
tinted with fire
blue vibrations of pulsating flame
energies...G-force dimensions
abstract planes of sound and sight.

— Sun Ra

If you were in Chicago in 1958, you might have happened into a jazz club on the South Side to find a band of musicians dressed in outer-space costumes, chanting "rocket number nine, take off for the planet Venus," and setting loose battery-driven robots. On another day, on a stroll through Washington Park, kitty-corner from the Baptist preacher and across from the Nation of Islam representative, you could have come upon a street-corner lecturer in a flowing faux-leopard cape and black beret, detailing the etymology of the word "negro" and the coded meanings of the Bible. In both cases, the same mastermind was responsible: Sun Ra.

Pianist, composer, bandleader, mystic and self-proclaimed extraterrestrial, Sun Ra was born Herman Poole "Sonny" Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1914. During later stints starting in the 1960s in New York and Philadelphia, Ra gained an international audience. But it was over the course of the 15 years that Ra lived in Chicago (1946-1961) that he adopted his new identity, legally changing his name to Le Sony'r Ra, assembling the first of his big bands, the Arkestra, establishing key associations with musicians like John Gilmore, Pat Patrick and Marshall Allen, sketching and then fleshing out his own elaborate self-mythology.

The Chicago period has been almost exclusively known through a group of important records that were made there in the mid- and late-50s, albums and singles that were issued on Ra's own El Saturn label, one of the first musician-owned record companies, co-owned by Ra's business manager and fellow mystic Alton Abraham. But it was a pivotal era in Ra's development for a variety of factors, not all of them musical. Ra was the central figure in a secret society, based on the South Side. Thmei Research, as it was known, was dedicated to mystical, occult, paranormal studies, which included highly original readings of the Bible, numerology, and deep research into non-mainstream histories (especially the lost history of black Egypt), and the group was also intensely trained on new technologies, scientific ideas, and experimental concepts, especially concentrated on space and the future. In about 1951, Thmei began writing a dictionary of occult terms, and they were ultimately interested in following a line of reasoning familiar to black intellectuals at the time, a quest for independence through the possibility of separatism, rather than integration. Documents show that Abraham and Ra were investigating unclaimed land in the west, and an "El Saturn Treasure Map" from the early '60s finds Ra's music spreading around the globe, while Ra and his cohorts set up a utopian society on 10,000 acres of land.


El Saturn Records

Beta Music for a Beta World
— El Saturn Records motto, c. 1960

Before the 1950s, artist-owned record companies were unheard of, but Sun Ra pioneered the idea along with a couple of other musicians and composers — notably jazz musicians Charles Mingus/Max Roach's Debut label and classical composer Harry Partch's Gate 5. In 1955, Ra and Abraham registered their company El Saturn Records in Chicago. Saturn's earliest records were released starting in 1956, and after Super-Sonic Jazz they issued Jazz In Silhouette, with a cover by one H.P. Corbissero, probably a pseudonym for Ra himself (Herman Poole = H.P.). In a period of intense activity, before the focus of Saturn was shifted to Ra's residence in Philadelphia in the 1970s, Ra and Abraham helped define the do-it-yourself ethic that came to be a central part of the American independent music industry, designing and in some cases manufacturing the covers themselves. In the process, they maintained a previously unimaginable degree of control over the look and content of their releases.

Jazz in Silhouette LP cover, design by H.P. Corbissero. Music recorded 1958; issued early 1958.

The designers of Saturn Records were drawn from a group of semi-professional and amateur artists, some of them associates of the Arkestra. Claude Dangerfield, who designed Super-Sonic Jazz, made numerous preliminary studies and sketches. These cover designs mix space iconography with a highly personal mixture of apocalyptic and tiki lounge imagery. Dangerfield's images were combined and recycled for a series of releases, most of which were actually issued in the '60s, after Ra had moved to New York; these include Sun Ra Visits Planet Earth and Interstellar Low Ways. Sun Ra himself designed several Saturn LP covers in the mid 1960s, sending them back to Chicago, where Abraham used them to manufacture — often in his own home — and assemble the covers. Ra's artwork — which had zig-zagging and swirling designs made using the surrealist technique of automatic drawing — were used for the covers of Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow and Outer Planes Of There. These raw images were re-drawn in ink on boards, which were then used to make metal plates that were finally hand-inked and used to print the covers, painstakingly, one-by-one, at Saturn headquarters. Like most of their materials, these print blocks were produced on Chicago's south-side, using independent black businesses, like Capital Photo-Engravers on Stony Island and South-Side Printing on S. Wabash. Through a very uncommon agreement with RCA Records, negotiated by Abraham, Saturn was able to press copies of their records in unusually small numbers, on demand, sometimes even pressing 20 copies for a given concert.

Abraham and Ra had ambitious plans for Saturn. In a notebook, a sketch shows them envisioning a Saturn Records skyrise complex, with separate floors dedicated to Bible and space research, Sun Ra's records going platinum and a Saturn limousine chauffeuring them around. In the early years, Ra recorded for a few other labels, including Transition and Savoy, and in the '70s he (with Abraham's help) forged a relationship with the ABC-Impulse! label which introduced him to a worldwide music audience. But the fierce independent streak that defined El Saturn helped establish Ra's approach to releasing his music, starting with those first releases, made in tiny batches with hand silk-screened or block-printed covers on the South Side of Chicago.

The Sun Ra Broadsides and Leaflets and the Emergence of Afro-Futurism

A people without wisdom will surely perish. How very careless has America been with its willful neglect of true art and beauty.
— Sun Ra, from liner notes to Jazz In Silhouette

Atonal reality and blended rhythms. . . .
Imagination . . . . . .!
With wings unhampered
Like a bird
Through the threads and fringes of space and time
Into a better To-morrow. . . . . . . .
Loosening the chains that bind. . .

— Le Sun-Ra (excerpt from the poem "Tone Pictures")

"It's more than just music. It's interpretation."
—Sun Ra

One of the least well-known aspects of Sun Ra's tenure in Chicago was his activity as a writer and street-corner lecturer. Recently, a cache of his early writings was discovered, including previously unknown broadsides and manuscripts, written by Ra and proclaimed aloud — often in Washington Park — or handed out as mimeographed sheets. Before these works were discovered in 2000, only one such document had been circulated, a sheet titled "Solaristic Precepts" that Ra gave saxophonist John Coltrane in 1956. Ra's investigations, undertaken as part of the secretive Thmei Research group, was related to broader cultural trends of the 1950s, including a fascination with outerspace — leading up to Sputnik and the moon-landing — but Ra's alignment of the notion of African-American alienation with a utopian vision of interplanetary transplantation qualifies him as a visionary proponent of Afro-Futurism. These early manuscripts also show Ra's curiosity with language, his playful and paradox-ridden approach to etymology, his attempt to decode the Bible, and his intense scrutiny of the lexicon and social roots of racism.


As far as Sun Ra was concerned, the past was passed. "Yesterday belongs to the dead/Tomorrow belongs to the living." The past was violence and "the chains that bind." But imagination could usher in a better tomorrow, one full of pleasure and freedom and discipline. Freedom and discipline were not contradictory. As far as Ra and his peers were concerned, these ideas went hand-in-hand. And music was the method, the primary means for unleashing these positive vibrations in order to build a more promising world.

Sun Ra did not leave the past completely behind. He and his colleagues excavated many ancient concepts and texts, central among them the Bible and Egyptology, mining the past in order to formulate the future. Evidence of Ra's integration of past and future, as well as various cultural traditions, appears on the cover design for a Saturn brochure, which mixes a Buddhist lotus with Egyptian ankhs and spaceships. Ra's imagined tomorrow incorporated transformative music and outer-space clothing, futuristic technologies and various mysticisms, utopian community, extraterrestriality and a belief in the possibility of immortality.

The year Ra left this planet, cultural critic Mark Dery coined the term "Afro-Futurism," broadly defined as "African-American voices with other stories to tell about culture, technology, and things to come." Ra is now recognized as a key figure in Afro-Futurism. Through his writings and lyrics, record titles and cover designs, and especially his provocative music and otherworldly presence, Ra established himself as a visionary and innovator. He reached the most people via bigger launching pads in New York, California, across Europe, and Philadelphia, but he built his first solar boats, metaphorically speaking, in the Windy City, and his music and persona first took shape and was tested in the African-American community of this great Midwestern metropolis.


An exhibition, Pathways to Unknown Worlds: Sun Ra, El Saturn & Chicago's Afro-Futurist Underground, 1954-68, curated by John Corbett, Anthony Elms and Terri Kapsalis, took place at the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago, October 1, 2006 - January 14, 2007. Two books on the work and writings of Sun Ra have been published by WhiteWalls, distributed by Univeristy of Chicago: Pathways to Unknown Worlds: Sun Ra, El Saturn and Chicago's Afro-Futurist Underground, 1954-68 and The Wisdom of Sun Ra: Sun Ra's Polemical Broadsheets and Streetcorner Leaflets.

Posted in: Graphic Design, History, Music , Obituaries

Comments [11]

wow.. an article, partially about design, that mentions Sun Ra, Charles Mingus and Harry Partch in the same sentence (bliss). Super-Sonic Jazz is one of my favorites... The Nubians of Plutonia has to be my favorite Sun Ra album though. How do you top a cut like Plutonian Nights or The Golden Lady?

Great article. Thanks.

Hey John, thanks -- a great article! (though it seems oddly similar to the intro in your "White Walls" book Pathways to Unknown Worlds linked above, that reproduces many of Ra's spaced out designs and ephemera -- an invaluable reference, and still available!

Alton & the Chicago reading group should be credited with turning Ra onto many of the occult books and mystical writings (Blavatsky, Lawrence, etc.) that would leave a deep impact on his ideas and artwork, a phase that has not been heavily documented -- also would like to mention Immeasurable Equation his book of poetry, which Alton (El Saturn) printed for Ra and is now available in reprint published by Alton's son Adam, and Phealos books.

Also, credit to the massive Hartmut Geerken German publication Omniverse: Sun Ra that was the first known book to collect almost all the handmade cover images and releases of Sun Ra. -- Be in Peace.
Cary Loren

Fantastic post about one of America's most important artists. Sun Ra was a musical visionary of the first rank, and his record sleeves were nearly always inspirational. In John F Szwed's book Space is the Place - the Life and Times of Sun Ra, this appears: "By handprinting the covers, they could avoid printing costs altogether. Often the covers carried only a simple title, or only the location of the recording in black ink; but at timers they became more elaborate, with multicolored grids, rainbows or astral scenes; or there might be photos of Sun Ra pasted on, hand-tinted, the whole cover laminated with a piece of textured plastic shower curtain. Sometimes every cover of a single record was different." Genius.
Adrian Shaughnessy

Hooray, you've discovered Sun-Ra, must be fascinating for you. Now you can try to contextualize him in terms of "movements" and design. Yawn. Just like the people that coined academic terms after his death, you are treading in an area/art form you can't help but misunderstand because you can only interpret it in the realm of "study", without any capacity to just let it be. Leave this stone unturned -- I mean no offense when I say you aren't the first to flounder, and I while I wish you could be the last, the truth is since the Arkestra is something the public can continue to experience, there will be continued attempts at assimilation/ownership.
rick fox

Although I have been a fan of Sun Ra --and was lucky enough to see him play a handful of times, it was nice to learn about the artwork. Thank you

One of my favorite anecdotes that is told in the above mentioned biography, is after a performance that Sun Ra and the Arkestra played in Paris. A man in the audience was outraged by what he had endured and proclaimed to Sun Ra, "My daughter could play that!" Sun Ra responded, "Maybe she could play it. But could she write it!"

Something to think about.


Sometimes a website appeals for something one believes one detects about the people who write it. It is not just the one good post, or the many good posts, but something about the tenor of the site that says that behind it, there are nice people.

I like your site.

I cannot find a 'compliment this site' button, so I am putting it in the most recent post.

Perhaps sites should have a 'compliment this site' button?
david bennett

hey rick,
I think your attitude is terribly pretentious and elitist. Try to lighten up and stop taking yourself so seriously.


Great article, thanks.

Rick, you're a tool.

what you have done here is expose your ignorance of who john corbett is, and what he has done regarding documenting and preserving sunny's legacy.

you could start that step toward getting your facts straight by checking this out:


corbett is no dilettante. he has done the hard work on the ground and put his own resources to bear on bringing a fuller picture of sun ra's wisdom to all of the earth's people. this design article has no doubt surprised many of the faithful, in a good way. it's a shame that your contribution is to slag the author.

all the years I would hang with sunny I never once saw corbett. the aacm started cuz jazz showcase types would not let ppl like braxton play gigs. (braxton will still not have anything to do with chicago). now we have corbet and his crew (vandermark ,hungery brain et al) pulling the same crap. (you cant play our gigs, you cant play) most of theas ppl arnt even from chicago but carpet baggers,smelling a buck .
afro black

To John Corbett-- thank you for a great essay. The slide show featuring the original artwork and even color separations was of great interest to me as an artist/musician.

To the haters out there-- God forbid anyone should do anything to actually spread the word about the great Sun Ra. I would suggest that Mr. Corbett's efforts have more to do with the music and the art than they do with "smelling a buck".
Rick Jacobi

John Corbett John Corbett is a writer and independent curator who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is a regular contributor to Down Beat Magazine and codirects Corbett vs. Dempsey Galley in Chicago, and has written Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage to Dr. Funkenstein.

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