Sounds from Tomorrow's World: Sun Ra and the Chicago Years, 1946-1961

When Herman Poole “Sonny” Blount settled on Chicago’s South Side in 1946, he did so rather inconspicuously. Though studious and intelligent, Blount had dropped out of college. He had also spent some time in an Alabama prison for registering as a conscientious objector during World War II. Quiet, intellectual and somewhat eccentric, there was little to suggest that over the next two decades, Blount would become Sun Ra, one of jazz music’s most innovative and respected band leaders.

By the time he left Chicago in 1961, eventually settling in New York and later Philadelphia’s Germantown, he was the leader of the Arkestra (a big band like no other in jazz), and a composer and arranger of some of the most avant-garde jazz of the time. He was also the architect of a philosophy that informed his music, his life, and the lives of those around him: a synthesis of Black Nationalism, Egyptology, futurism, occultism and Southern Baptist preaching.

Upon arriving in Chicago, Sonny Blount first worked as an arranger, writing for swing band leaders like Red Saunders and Fletcher Henderson, and sometimes sitting in on piano at club gigs. In 1952 he began billing himself as Sun Ra, and by 1954 he had begun rehearsing with his own big band, an eight man group that would become his Arkestra. Sun Ra and His Arkestra began playing at Chicago clubs such as Kirk’s Grand Terrace, the Vincennes Lounge, Parkway Ballroom and Budland. By 1956, the Arkestra had released its first LP.

As he was writing and performing his music, Sun Ra was also writing poetry and prose, exploring the occult, producing music for vocal and doo-wop groups, and founding a secret society and a record label—all the while preaching sermons to passersby in Washington Park. Sun Ra’s time on the East Coast brought with it well-known albums, a higher profile in the jazz world and a world-wide fan base that still exists, but it all began in Chicago.

Sounds from Tomorrow’s World explores Sun Ra’s time in Chicago, it should be noted that this exhibit represents just a small portion of the collection’s full scope. The exhibit includes scores and poetry written by Sun Ra, vinyl records, album artwork, promotional materials, and several of Sun Ra’s early controversial broadsheets.

All of the material from this exhibit is drawn from the Alton Abraham Papers of Sun Ra, located in the Special Collections Research Center, The University of Chicago Library. The collection, which contains material from throughout Sun Ra's career, was generously donated by and acquired from School of the Art Institute of Chicago professor, jazz writer, and Sun Ra scholar John Corbett and writer, cultural critic, and faculty member at the School of the Art Institute Terri Kapsalis in 2007 and forms part of the University of Chicago's Jazz Archive.

The present existence of this collection is thanks to Mr. Corbett and Ms. Kapsalis, who were able to save it from destruction in 2000 after the death of the original owner, Alton Abraham. Abraham was Sun Ra’s friend, and acted as business partner in Saturn Records and other commercial ventures, as well as agent and manager for Sun Ra and his Arkestra. The contents of this collection reflect these various relationships.