Episode 109: Sun Ra’s Chicago

This episode of Across The Margin: The Podcast presents an interview with author and Associate Professor in the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice at the University of Chicago, William Sites. Sites’ first book, entitled Remaking New York: Primitive Globalization and the Politics of Urban Community, focused on the transformation of New York City during the final quarter of the twentieth century. His latest — which is the focus of this episode — is entitled Sun Ra’s Chicago: Afrofuturism and the City, a book that can be aptly described as a comprehensive exploration of the formative years of American jazz composer, bandleader, piano and synthesizer player, and poet Sun Ra. Sun Ra’s Chicago persists as much more than simply a biography, but an analysis of the urban spaces and relationships that shaped the transcendent musician into the otherworldly philosophical leader of his band, the Arkestra. Sun Ra, born Sonny Blount, was one of the most wildly prolific and eccentric figures in the history of music. Renowned for extravagant performances in which his Arkestra appeared in neo-Egyptian garb, the keyboardist and bandleader espoused an interstellar cosmology that claimed the planet Saturn as his true home. In Sun Ra’s Chicago, Sites brings this grandiose musician back to Earth — specifically to Chicago’s South Side, where from 1946 to 1961 the accomplished artist lived and relaunched his career. The postwar South Side of Chicago was a hotbed of unorthodox religious and cultural activism. It was an unruly musical crossroads where Sun Ra drew from a diverse array of intellectual and musical sources — from radical nationalism, revisionist Christianity, and science fiction to jazz, blues, Latin dance music, and pop exotica — to construct a philosophy and performance style that imagined a new identity and future for African Americans. Sun Ra’s Chicago shows that late twentieth-century Afrofuturism emerged from a deep, utopian engagement with the city — and that by excavating the postwar black experience of Sun Ra’s South Side surroundings, we can come to see the possibilities of urban life in new ways. In this episode host Michael Shields and William Sites converse about Sun Ra’s birthplace of Birmingham, Alabama and examine how the city’s extraordinarily vibrant musical culture began to shape a young Sonny Blount. They then explore Sun Ra’s time in Chicago, where he grew to fame gigging at Club DeLisa and in Calumet City as they explore the myriad of influences and relationships (particularly his friendship with Alton Abraham) that became central to the development of his music and mythology. Ultimately, this episode serves as an ode to the legend and legacy of Sun Ra and serves as a celebration of the intergalactic genius of a true visionary.

Grab a copy of Sun Ra’s Chicago here!


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