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Sun Ra’s Chicago

Afrofuturism and the City

Sun Ra (1914–93) was one of the most wildly prolific and unfailingly eccentric figures in the history of music. Renowned for extravagant performances in which his Arkestra appeared in neo-Egyptian garb, the keyboardist and bandleader also espoused an interstellar cosmology that claimed the planet Saturn as his true home. In Sun Ra’s Chicago, William Sites brings this visionary musician back to earth—specifically to the city’s South Side, where from 1946 to 1961 he lived and relaunched his career. The postwar South Side was a hotbed of unorthodox religious and cultural activism: Afrocentric philosophies flourished, storefront prophets sold “dream-book bibles,” and Elijah Muhammad was building the Nation of Islam. It was also an unruly musical crossroads where the man then known as Sonny Blount drew from an 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 milieu, we can come to see the possibilities of urban life in new ways.


"One of the ten best Chicago books of 2020. Plenty of books have been written about Afrofuturist pioneer Sun Ra and his Arkestra, but Sites is the first to make Chicago his co-protagonist. . . . Sites provides crucial context on how Chicago's Afrocentrist philosophy, religion, and jazz scenes helped turn Blount into Sun Ra.

Chicago Reader

“Four stars. A must-read for fans of the musician and his city. . . . Fascinating and thoroughly readable. . .  Sites makes the engaging argument that the idiosyncratic jazz legend’s penchant for interplanetary journeys and African American utopia was in fact inspired by urban life right on Earth.”

Spectrum Culture

“An important contribution. . . Sites draws on an impressive number of disciplines to ground Ra’s spacebound theatrics in material history. . . . He cites work from urban studies, African American studies, theology, and literary theory. . . It’s difficult to imagine anyone other than Sites writing a work that demands mastery of these specific disciplines.”

The Wire

"Not the launching point for an introduction to the life of Sun Ra, but rather a deeper dive into the city life and utopian vision informing his work and philosophy, emphasizing that (Urban) Space Is the Place."

Library Journal

“Highly readable. . . What Sites is good at is the detail of the period. . . He is good, too, on the economics of segregation, the racial divisions of the American working class, and the role of the black establishment. . . But best of all, especially to musicians and jazz fans, he is great about the musical life of Chicago, the Pershing and Du Sable venues, and the Jim Crow squalor of Calumet City, the sin suburb of Chicago. Where this book really scores is in its investigation of the sheer 'otherness 'of Sun Ra.”

Jazz Journal

"Sites’s project in this work is to get back to this future city by understanding Sun Ra’s geographic, intellectual, and galactic journeys. . . . Sites’s considerable skills as an urban cartographer help to further remap Chicago. . . . In Sites’s analysis, Sun Ra’s work continues to rethink the U.S. city."

Rain Taxi

“One of the most unique books to ever look at the music of Sun Ra. . . Digs very deep into Ra's early years – time that isn't covered in as much details as in other projects – and the book paints a picture of the city that's as vivid as the jazz legend himself. . . Sites comes at the project from a different perspective than most music writers – which makes for a very fresh volume that may well open up whole new territory in the exploration of jazz and community.”

Sun Ra’s Chicago is a masterful account of the musician’s formative years. Sites deftly applies a wider lens to his biography, analyzing the urban spaces and networks that shaped Sonny Blount’s transformation from an itinerant musician into the otherworldly philosophical leader of the Arkestra. This book is essential reading not only for Sun Ra listeners but for readers interested in the crosscurrents of Black intellectual thought and the utopian possibilities, past and present, of America’s cities.”

Erik S. Gellman, author of Troublemakers: Chicago Freedom Struggles through the Lens of Art Shay

"Like its subject, Sun Ra’s Chicago is a category buster—social history, musicology, urban studies, hermeneutics, cultural reclamation—and as such, a revelation. Sites tells a story of countercultural ferment in 1950s south side Chicago that is detailed and provocative. Sun Ra, Alton Abraham, and the members and friends of the Arkestra were truly a 'creative class' long before that term, as we know it, was coined."

Larry Bennett, author of The Third City: Chicago and American Urbanism

Table of Contents

Urban Routes, Utopian Pathways

Part I: Birmingham

1    Downtown Sounds
2    Industrial School to Territory Band
3    Leadership Dreams

Part II: Chicago

4    South Side Music Scene
5    “Sound So Loud It Will Wake Up the Dead”
6    Utopian Chicago
7    African Space
8    Wonder Inn, 1960


Association for Recorded Sound Collections: Award for Excellence, Best Historical Research in Recorded Jazz
Certificate of Merit

Pattis Family Foundation: Chicago Book Award

Museum of African American History Boston: MAAH Stone Book Award

Union League Club of Chicago: Outstanding Book on the History of Chicago
Honorable Mention

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