Sun Ra: Pathways To Unknown World

D. Scot Miller for
Signal to Noise Magazine - Summer 2007
"Pathways to Unknown Worlds: Sun Ra El Saturn and Chicago's Afro-Futurist Underground 1954-68
White Walls Inc., 2007
In Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, Afro-futurism is a place "where the material culture of Afro-American folk religions are used as sacred technologies to control virtual realities", this is the most apt definition of this creative movement known as Afro-futurism and its technique for expression Afro-Surrealism. The book Pathways to Unknown Worlds: Sun Ra El Saturn and Chicago's Afro-Futurist Underground 1954-68, illustrates Afro-surrealism in practice.
This book accompanies the exhibition presented October 1, 2006 at the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago and also serves as a companion piece to Whitewall's The Wisdom of Sun Ra: Sun Ra's Polemical Broadsheets and Street corner Leaflets published in 2006. Together, these volumes give a glimpse into the creative and philosophical processes of the man born Herman Pool "Sonny" Blount as he re-invented himself into the mystic journey-agent Le Sun-Ra.

Editor John Corbett begins the text portion of this photo essay on Chicago's Southside, April 13, 1956, where Sun-Ra, pianist, bandleader, mystic, and businessman and Alton Abraham, his partner in all matters musical, financial and spiritual on the day that they began the first full-length recording for El Saturn Records, one of the first, and most successful artist-owned record labels in Jazz.
Corbett's fluid and succinct biographical introduction shows that the editor has a familiar enough grasp of the Sun Ra mythology to glean how the visual ephemera of the volume illuminates on the development of the Ra persona, the Arkestra, and Thmei Research group, the small, secret fraternal organization that informed Sun-Ra and Abraham's vision.

Glenn Ligon contributes an essay called Greatest Hits (1954-1986) an aphasia inspired collage of Ra's early broadsheets as he presented them in Washington Square Park - amid Christian, Nation of Islam, and Moorish Science street-corner proselytizers - interspersed with snippets from Black stand-up comedians like Richard Pryor and Dick Gregory. The effect is both humorous and profound. Oft-times the comedian becomes the prophet, the prophet shows humor and the whimsical transforms to the lamentable in an afro-surreal twist that traces to the ecstasy of the blues.

First-person accounts from Alton Abraham's son Adam, singer Ricky Murray, trumpet-player Art Hoyle, singer Hattie Randolf, tenor saxophonist Von Freemen, Drummer Robert Barry and a genuinely moving meditation on alienation and other-worldliness by Camille Norment make up the textual narrative, but the essence of the book can be found in the photo-copied notes, notations, and sketches from Ra and his fellow travelers.

Often beginning with rough sketches done in pencil and ink, the subtle album covers from records like Jazz From Tomorrow's World give way to transparencies and tonal separations from the numerous covers designed by Claude Dangerfield including We Travel The Spaceways and Sun Ra Visits the Planet Earth, and on to even greater sophistication in technique with the use of print blocks and cut-outs designed by Sun-Ra, and further to the lurid Jazz in Silhouette cover.

The most telling of this thin volume, however; is the "notes and ephemera" section where the entire cosmos of The Arkestra is distilled to catch phrases on an evolving series of business cards and ticket stubs. "Those Atonites Are At It Again," says an early one. "Beta Music for Beta People", says another. There's even one from El Saturn offering to record the local church sermon which "Enables the pastor's voice to be within reach of every member when spiritual guidance is needed," almost as a reminder that the Afro-futurist visionaries were also shrewd businessmen. As the artist formerly known as Sonny is quoted, "Sun-Ra is not a person, it's a business name."  The business was space, and business was good.