Chicago

View of “Sun Ra,” 2021. From left: Super-Sonic Sounds (El Saturn Records, 1957); Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow (El Saturn Records, 1965); The Night of the Purple Moon (El Saturn Records, 1970). Photo: Robert Chase Heishman.

View of “Sun Ra,” 2021. From left: Super-Sonic Sounds (El Saturn Records, 1957); Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow (El Saturn Records, 1965); The Night of the Purple Moon (El Saturn Records, 1970). Photo: Robert Chase Heishman.

Sun Ra

Corbett vs. Dempsey

Isn’t it in a bird’s nature to want to fly, as it is in our nature to want to dance and sing?

Like most of you, I spent my time during the pandemic relatively earthbound. But luckily, I had the opportunity to soar when I took in “Sun Ra, The Substitute Words: Poetry, 1957–72,” a small but potent exhibition of the experimental jazz legend’s poetry at Corbett vs. Dempsey, organized to celebrate the gallery’s release of Extensions Out, Plus: Four Poetry Books (1959/1972) (2021), a facsimile collection of Sun Ra’s DIY publications—Jazz by Sun Ra (1957), Jazz in Silhouette (1959), and The Immeasurable Equation and Extensions Out: The Immeasurable Equation Vol. II (both 1972)—as well as a limited-edition, seven-inch vinyl single.

Sun Ra (1914–1993), aka Le Sony’r Ra—who was born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama—lived and worked on Chicago’s South Side from 1946 to 1961. Though he is renowned for his avant-garde production and scintillating cosmic rhythms with his multipiece Arkestra, he spent his years in the Windy City working as a big-band leader and collaborated with a number of R&B artists, including singer Malcolm “Little Mack” Simmons and blues shouter Wynonie Harris. Sun Ra was one of Afrofuturism’s main engineers, and he influenced many out-of-this-world acts, such as Bootsy Collins and George Clinton. But throughout all of Sun Ra’s recordings we hear a deep and encyclopedic knowledge of myriad histories, musical and otherwise—from Rachmaninoff and Bessie Smith to ancient Egyptian belief systems and Freemasonry—which were always embedded in his forward-thinking output.

Sun Ra was a polymath: In addition to being a prolific musician, he was a lyrical poet with a deeply spiritual and philosophical bent. His verses, some of which were published as liner notes for his recordings, tell us exactly this. In the presentation here were a number of his 45s (remember those?), beautifully showcased in their covers on a thin wall-mounted shelf. Among them were Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow (1965) and The Night of the Purple Moon (1970)—both of which were put out by El Saturn Records, founded by Alton Abraham, one of the first African Americans to own a record company in the United States. Poring over these works made me long for the experience of handling a vinyl record, the unveiling of an album’s artwork as you slowly opened it up, and everything else that disappeared when music went digital.

I always took Sun Ra’s word for it that our experiences on this planet are quite literally universal, and that all thinking, feeling entities want to explore the universe, be it in our own minds or via some interplanetary spacecraft. Sun Ra’s poem “Birds Without Wings,” from his book The Immeasurable Equation (original copies of the aforementioned volumes were elegantly displayed in a pair of vitrines at the gallery), starts off with this powerful and subtle first stanza, a forlorn meditation on our terrestrial existence, our inability to take flight: “Birds without wings / Birds without wings / Poised, tensed— / Are they unaware / There are no wings / Where wings should be?”

The poem “Another Fate,” also from The Immeasurable Equation, begins by describing the very desirable goal of spending one’s lifetime seeking, both within and without: “To rise above all the cultures of the land / Is to appreciate all. / Yet be apart and a part.”

In Buddhism, we talk about the oneness of us all (and in Rastafarianism, we refer to it as “one love”). Sun Ra’s art—capacious and cosmic, spectacular and singular—takes us into this world of generosity, this unity. Even in an exhibition as modest as this one, we were exposed to the artist’s insights and his supernatural sense of funk.