A Year of Listening Dangerously (Part III): Sun Ra, The Cry of Jazz, and Afrofuturism by Daniel Letourneau
A Year of Listening Dangerously
Part III: Sun Ra, The Cry of Jazz, and Afrofuturism
Is my tomorrow
It has no planes
Hereby, my invitation
I do invite you
To be of my space world
- Sun Ra, "Enlightenment"
I thought I was going to be writing about some of my favorite Sun Ra albums. I'd been familiar with his music since college, when I pulled a crummy .avi file of Space is the Place off someone's computer on the local peer to peer network. I imagine that's how quite a few people came to Sun Ra, through his 1974 film that teeters between campy B-movie and philosophical statement, the kind of thing you watch under the influence in a room where there's a blacklight and tapestry hung on a wall. When the recent Strut Records compilation Singles came out, it reignited my interest in Sun Ra’s music, particularly the very early tracks which drew from doo wop music, exotica, and big band jazz. I realized I was mostly familiar with his later period work, like Space is the Place, and before I knew it I'd fallen down the rabbit hole, as usual. By the end of 2017, Sun Ra was one of my most listened to artists of the year. As I prepared to write about some of my favorite albums, I started listening to even more and dove into John Szwed’s authoritative biography Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, feverishly taking notes to try to wrap my head around the incredible career of the man his friends called “Sonny.”
It was while reading that book that I first heard about a film called The Cry of Jazz. Instead of a P2P network, I had trusty YouTube in 2018, and I quickly found another crummy upload of this film and added it to my watchlist. While watching the 34-minute film later that night I had to pause at multiple points to pick my jaw up off the floor and curse every jazz teacher I ever had for not introducing me to it before.
Released in 1959, The Cry of Jazz was the project of Edward Bland, a black musician, composer, arranger, and disc jockey from the south side of Chicago, IL. Frustrated by what he believed was his white colleagues trying to "wipe the Blackness out of jazz," Bland set out to make a film that would set the record straight with his own philosophies. When discussed today, the importance of The Cry of Jazz is generally relegated to its status as one of the first independently created African-American films and for its rare early footage of Sun Ra and his Arkestra, who provided the soundtrack. However, I think that the actual arguments that Bland presents have not been given proper credit, and what little analysis does exist seems to miss the point. More than just a footnote in his career, The Cry of Jazz helps to illuminate the lasting impact Sun Ra has had on American culture.
The film is structured around a conversation between a bi-racial group of young men and women at a jazz club. When Alex, a black jazz arranger and clear stand-in for Bland, overhears one of the white attendees remark to another that “rock and roll is jazz,” he steps in and begins unloading about the history of jazz and its relation to—in fact, its reliance on—the traumatic experience of the African-American. Though the scripted conversations come across a little hokey today thanks to the amateur acting (everyone involved in the film was so on a volunteer basis), Bland would later describe The Cry of Jazz as a "thesis film," with these conversations merely serving to hold the viewer's attention in between the more academic sections where Bland presents his arguments through monologues by Alex. Over stark images of racial inequality in Chicago and the sounds of Sun Ra, Bland outlines the structure and history of jazz to show that it is a unique creation of the African-American life.
Bland identifies a number of dualities which help shape jazz through the application of limitations. At the broadest level, Bland describes jazz as a reflection of the suffering and joy of the African-American, represented musically through a relationship between restraint and freedom. When slaves were taken from their homelands to America, their past was destroyed and their futures denied. Even after the abolishment of slavery, systemic racial prejudice forced African-Americans to confront "the endless daily humiliation of American life, which bequeaths [them] a futureless future." In jazz, the restraining elements of the form and the changes, structural elements that repeat endlessly, represent this suffering. Stuck without a clear past or future, African-Americans were forced to celebrate the present. The elements of melodic improvisation and the swinging rhythm in jazz, elements of constant re-creation, represent the freedom in joy of the present. Here, Bland also loops the argument back around on itself, noting that the swing rhythm itself is a duality between stress and length (or tension and release, like restraint and freedom), and therefore is also a direct product the difficulties of the African-American experience.
Naturally, the skeptical white characters remain puzzled and unconvinced by Alex’s lecture, and when one asks what the future of jazz will be, Bland gives him a simple response: “Jazz is dead!”
The proclamation that “jazz is dead” seems to be the only bit of Bland’s thesis that has remained in conversation, no doubt thanks to its shock value. It may sting a bit today, but must have felt seismic in 1959. Perfectly echoing a white character’s exasperated protest that “jazz is selling more records today than ever before!,” critics of the film are compelled to point out the number of seemingly all-time jazz albums that came out in the direct wake of this film in 1959: Kind of Blue by Miles Davis; Time Out by the Dave Brubeck Quartet; Mingus Ah Um by Charles Mingus; The Shape of Jazz to Come by Ornette Coleman. All major works of great import, certainly, but if we consider Bland’s theories on why jazz is dead, it can be argued that these albums represented the first wave of work to be created in shadow of jazz’s death. Take for instance The Shape of Jazz to Come, an album that if you had asked me a year ago I might consider my favorite jazz album of all time. It might be low-hanging fruit to pick on a Wikipedia article, but take a look at this excerpt from the entry on The Cry of Jazz, under the subsection "Jazz in 1959" which attempts to undermine Bland's declaration:
With The Shape of Jazz to Come, Ornette Coleman took jazz in a radical new direction by debuting avant-garde jazz. This new style did away with many of the characteristic features of jazz, including easily discernible rhythms, regular form, and planned harmonic structure. For instance, the track “Lonely Woman” is not based on an underlying chord progression. While The Shape of Jazz to Come was very controversial, it did expand the boundaries of jazz.
Now, consider Bland's reasons for the death of jazz, which based on the dualities described before ends up reading like a mathematical proof:
The three reasons for the death of jazz are: 1) that the changes cannot evolve and retain the form; 2) that the form cannot evolve and retain the swing; and 3) that both the changes and form cannot evolve simultaneously and have jazz.
If Coleman and "avant-garde jazz" is acknowledged to have discarded "easily discernible rhythms, regular form, and planned harmonic structure," then by Bland's theory he would be correct to say it is not jazz. In this line of thought, I'm immediately reminded of the work of French philosopher Alain Badiou, whose Logics of Worlds uses mathematics derived from set theory in order to describe "the underlying structures determining the ‘logic’ or relations of appearance determining what is treated as existent in each world, including various degrees of existence correspondent to the degrees of truth allowed by the world's specific categorical architecture." Whether you agree with his stance or not, it is undeniable Bland created his own logic of appearing in the world of jazz.
I feel it must be stated that this exclusionary stance is not a bad thing, and I would argue it does not mean that there could not/would not be “jazz” in the future as some may believe. Bland’s theorem deduces that jazz is dead because its limitations mean it cannot grow. Music could still be made in the framework of jazz, but because the framework is defined by its limits, Bland notes that it could only continue as "empty variations on obsolete themes, or worse." His take also isn't as bleak as some would make it out to be. He offers a clear path forward, saying that although the "body" of jazz is dead, the "spirit” of jazz will be used to move forward: "The death of jazz is the first faint cry of the salvation of the Negro through the birth of a new way of life."
What would this new way of life, this new music, be like? The answer may lie with the man who provides the soundtrack to The Cry of Jazz, Sun Ra.
Sun Ra and his band the Arkestra had been based in Bland’s home of Chicago since 1945, and over the years he had evolved the group’s sound to a unique blend of the big band swing of Duke Ellington, the bebop of Thelonious Monk, and the space-age exotica of Les Baxter and Martin Denny. Bland became an admirer Sun Ra's music, giving it a platform as a radio disc jockey, and the two became friends. More crucially, Sun Ra and his business partner Alton Abraham owned their own record label, so when Bland was looking for someone to provide music for his film so he didn’t have to, he was able to cut a deal with Sun Ra and Abraham to use their music in exchange for appearance in the film, credit, and publicity. The band is featured most prominently during the monologue section where Alex traces the history of jazz, from spirituals and blues to New Orleans jazz, swing, bebop, and cool jazz. He concludes the history by calling out Sun Ra by name as the author of “the newest sounds to come along in contemporary jazz,” before adding, “The Sun Ra says of his music that it’s a portrayal of everything the Negro really was, is, and is going to be, with emphasis focused on the Negro's triumph over the occurrence of his experience.”
Though you may not know it from their appearance in the film wearing traditional, conservative suits, by this time the Arkestra had fully adopted Sun Ra’s interest in space and Egyptology, replete with outlandish costumes and composition titles like “Plutonian Nights” and “Ankh.” Sonny had long come to insist that he had been taken by aliens to the planet Saturn, not to mention the fact that he had legally changed his name in 1952 from Herman Poole Blount to Le Sony'r Ra (shortened to Sun Ra), inspired by the Egyptian sun god. Though Bland supported Sun Ra professionally, he was dismissive of his cosmic/ancient ideology, even calling it “propaganda.” However, some of the ideas he presents in The Cry of Jazz are not dissimilar from what Sonny was preaching, particularly the strains of his philosophy that would influence what became known as Afrofuturism.
Afrofuturism was not coined as a term until 1993 by cultural critic Mark Dery, who used it to describe “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture – and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.” Dery noted the movement in the work of science fiction writers like Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler, but also in the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Rammellzee and the music of Parliament-Funkadelic and (of course) Sun Ra. While there is nothing explicitly science fiction about The Cry of Jazz, its core arguments grapple with the same issues that Afrofuturism does. When Dery coined the term, he asked, “Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?” To imagine a new future, Bland also advocated for the use of technology, not in the traditional science fiction sense of robots or spaceships or what have you, but the technology of jazz itself. And in its advocation of Sun Ra as a leader in this way forward, The Cry of Jazz is prophetic.
By renaming himself and adopting an interstellar origin story, Sun Ra embodied Afrofuturism, creating a new past for himself and imagining a new future. He even had his own term for this philosophy, Astro-Black mythology, which Szwed describes as “a way of expressing the unity of Egypt and outer space, of bringing a black reading of the Bible together with elements of ancient history and science to update the black sacred cosmos.” Sun Ra believed music was the transportive force needed to realize this mythology of the future, as detailed in notes accompanying his first album, Jazz by Sun Ra, released in 1957: “The real aim of this music is to co-ordinate the minds of peoples into an intelligent reach for a better world, and an intelligent approach to the living future.” In his quest to create the kind of music needed to transcend the ills of Earth, he became an advocate of (Earth-bound) technology in his music, experimenting with tape recording and audio effects and adopting instruments like the electric piano and Moog synthesizer at a time when few jazz musicians were doing such things. The Arkestra’s live shows became spectacles of sound, movement, and color so outlandish that you couldn’t help but feel transported out of whatever time and place you happened to be.
In the film Space is the Place, my introduction to Sun Ra, music is the literal fuel to the spaceship the Arkestra inhabits, traversing the universe until they reach an undiscovered planet where they intend to relocate the black race of Earth. Back on Earth, Sun Ra contends with skeptical African-Americans and a kidnapping by NASA scientists, and elsewhere time-travels to 1940s Chicago to engage in a supernatural card game for the fate of the black race with a nefarious being called The Overseer. After a failed assassination attempt during a concert, Sun Ra and the Arkestra teleport the black race onto their ship and leave before Earth is seemingly destroyed.
Like The Cry of Jazz, the film was chided by some for its amateurishness, but has since become a touchstone of the Afrofuturist canon, of which the most recent and highly-hyped entry is Marvel’s blockbuster Black Panther. As Afrocentric fiction with deep roots in pan-African history and mythology and an optimistic narrative, it is no surprise that Black Panther has resonated with audiences of the Black Lives Matter era to the tune of over a billion dollars. While few would confuse it with Space is the Place on production values, Afrofuturist philosophy permeates both works, offering alternative ideas of a future of black excellence in the face of opposition. Though Sun Ra later remarked that Ed Bland “was wrong” about the death of jazz—and you’d be hard pressed to find many people who would disagree other than me here—what Bland and The Cry of Jazz certainly did get right was its own formulation of how African-American culture could be used to construct a new reality. He argues that, like the vibranium in Black Panther, jazz (or rather, the death of jazz) gave African-Americans a tool with which to excel, to overcome the forces that intended to strip their lives of meaning. This was the space where Sun Ra lived, refusing his terrestrial origin and offering his music as a vehicle toward a new way of life, as exemplified (if exaggerated for effect) in Space is the Place. With the renewed attention given to Afrofuturism, there is no better time to jump into Sun Ra’s extensive discography and see why everyone from George Clinton to Janelle Monáe saw in him the same thing Ed Bland hinted at in The Cry of Jazz, a leader for a new way forward. To quote the refrain of one of my favorite Sun Ra pieces, sometimes “you’ve got to face the music, you’ve got to listen to the cosmos song,” and perhaps once you do, you might agree: Jazz is dead, long live Sun Ra.
Bland, Edward. “On ‘The Cry of Jazz.’” Film Culture, No. 21. Summer 1960.
Dery, Mark. “Black to the Future: Afrofuturism 1.0.” Fabrikzeitung, 1 Feb. 2016, www.fabrikzeitung.ch/black-to-the-future-afro-futurism-1-0/.
Livingston, Paul M. “Logics of Worlds: Being and Event II” Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, 10 Aug. 2009, http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/logics-of-worlds-being-and-event-ii/.
Szwed, John F. Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. Pantheon Books, 2000.
The Cry of Jazz. Dir. Ed Bland. 1959.