Thomas Stanley's new book 'The Execution of Sun Ra' blasts off with free jazz philosopher
By By Baynard Woods
Dec 01, 2014 | 7:39 PM
I've been pondering the words"It's after the end of the world, don't you know that yet?" since I first heard them echo out of the planetary weirdness of Sun Ra's 'Space Is the Place' 20-some odd years ago. As in a Zen koan, at first, these words make no literal sense. How could there be knowledge, or speech, after the end of the world? On the other hand, if it was over, how could we not know?
But I couldn't let it go. Growing up in the apocalyptic south, I was raised waiting for the end of the world. It would be, in some sense, so freeing for it to have already happened. And in many ways, the A.D. of the Christian era is all after the end of the world—the end of the ancient world, the ancient gods, the time in which we wait for the Messiah. The problem with the notion of Jesus as Messiah is that the kingdom didn't come, unless the world already ended and we just haven't noticed yet.
Or conversely, as Hindu texts such as "Bhagavad Gita" and the "Upanishads" say, perhaps everything has already been accomplished by God. Or maybe, as if in some kind of cross between "The Matrix" and "Jacob's Ladder," our entire culture is some kind of post-apocalyptic dream, where we work out all our shit before moving on to another realm. All of these explanations touch on the depth of Sun Ra's simple sentence, chanted several times throughout the song, as June Tyson sings "space is the place," but none can account for it entirely. It is the way that the "myth science" of this sentence hovers above so many different meanings that gives it its force.
I've just tried to "execute" Thomas Stanley executing Sun Ra, in his book "The Execution of Sun Ra Vol. II: The Mysterious Tale of a Dark Body Sent to Earth to Usher in an Unprecedented Era of Cosmic Regeneration and Happiness." Stanley, who teaches at George Mason University, takes the title of the book from the futuro-Egyptian free-jazz big-band icon himself who liked to riff on the double sense of the word execute to mean both to kill and to accomplish, set in motion, or perform. In executing Sun Ra, the book performs a kind of posthumous Sun Ra, taking his claims about an alter destiny for earth and specifically for African-Americans seriously, but not so seriously as to destroy them by nailing them down with logic. Instead, Stanley allows the various significances to skronk around like the lines of melody bombarding traditional jazz in any Sun Ra song like a solar storm.
"The Execution of Sun Ra" riffs, or improvises, on the mystical and philosophical beliefs that, along with the costumes and the communal nature of his band, were always part of Sun Ra's solar myth arkestra experience. Stanley acknowledges that the reader "has every reasonable expectation from its title that this book will be about Sun Ra, the late jazz mystic and self-proclaimed oracle of the omniverse," and it sort of is. But he also says the book is "by no means an attempt to read Sun Ra as a text and render his ideas as some type of social philosophy or quasi-religious program, although it must necessarily appear in places as exactly that." Instead, working his way toward what his book will do by a kind of negative theology, Stanley, who will be talking about the book and performing Sun Ra-inspired music at the Red Room on Dec. 6, calls it a "true response" to his own encounters with the man and his music.
It's a fascinating and sometimes frustrating approach. Though "The Execution of Sun Ra" is not about Sun Ra, and is certainly not a biography, the biographical details about Herman Blount, the man who changed his legal name to Le Sonny'r Ra, are fascinating. Stanley's book references the salient details of Ra's life—his birth in Jim Crow Alabama, his time with big-band pioneer Fletcher Henderson, his time in Chicago, and ultimately the nearly half a century that he spent leading his own big band, the Arkestra—and offers perceptive analysis of his putative asexuality or his relationship with Louis Farrakhan as a political pamphleteer in Chicago. But the bits of narrative in this book make it difficult to get a clear picture of the man's life.
Take something as simple as Sun Ra's real first name, Herman. Stanley spends a chapter meditating on the story that Sun Ra's mother named him after a magician named Black Herman—but goes on to uncover several different itinerant spiritualists of that name, turning the simplest biographical fact into a hokum-filled mystery. The discussion opens a small window on to a fascinating world, but it ultimately feels rather empty, because Stanley doesn't ever know quite what to make of it. Here it becomes clear that "execution" means something like Montaigne's "essay"—it is merely an attempt to grapple with Sun Ra's mode of being.
We can get some kind of picture of Sun Ra through this execution, which attempts to follow Sun Ra's own strange logic as we see it in the transcribed conversations that make up the end of the book. "Here's a word, phonetic, pan. That's a word meaning all, like when you say pan-American. It means all. Now, this word moves into this [writing]. That's pain, when you bring it out like that, it moves over into this. [writing] That's pân, that's what black people's been, somebody's pawn, you know," Ra riffs in one lecture to his bandmates, before going on to connect the word "all" with the word "ail" in order to explain what is ailing Black America.
Ra's lectures, transcribed from rehearsals, are as fascinating and confounding as his music. We come away from them with a clearer picture of his cosmology, which is directed toward, and comes from, the black experience in America. In the lectures and an interview with Stanley, Sun Ra's anger with black culture for its hostility to the avant-garde becomes clear, and it is almost heartbreaking when he talks about the frustrations of similarly brilliant free-jazz innovators Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, all of whom were largely ignored by mainstream culture.
In the film "Space Is the Place," Sun Ra must battle the Pimp, The Overseer, for the fate of the black race. But he is also, as Stanley's execution made clear, battling the predominant role of Christianity in that experience, claiming that the Bible is a work of evil, written by administrative angels, revealing nothing of the creator. Instead, Sun Ra made the brilliant move of linking ancient Egypt with the space age, claiming he himself had been educated on Saturn. In an age where America must be reminded that #blacklivesmatter, we can almost hear the contrary trickster Sun Ra through the pages of this book issuing the cosmic hashtag #blacklivesspirit as a rejoinder.
Stanley's book feels so frustrating because it is stuck between models. Sometimes it is akin to John F. Goodman's excellent "Mingus Speaks," which collects the bass master's own words and at others it resembles Hilton Als' brilliant inhabiting of Richard Pryor (and his sister among others) in last year's gorgeous "White Girls." In some ways Stanley goes too far and in other ways not far enough. The book is self-published and could benefit greatly from an editor who pushed him to clarify.
As such, Stanley's sometimes-brilliant book is not a good introduction to Sun Ra or his life ("Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra," by John Szwed is a much better introduction). But if you are already a fan, "The Execution of Sun Ra" will remind you of the profound weirdness of the man and his music—and perhaps convince you of his necessity in the current cultural debate. But, if the music itself doesn't convince you of this, nothing will. And the book suggests a track for each chapter, creating a cosmic mixtape of arkestral music for mental therapy.
Thomas Stanley will discuss “The Execution of Sun Ra” and perform with his ensemble MOM2 at the Red Room on Dec. 6 along with the Baltimore-based ensemble That’s Us. For more information, please visit redroom.org.