Sun Ra @ Institute of Contemporary Art

Friday, May 01, 2009 | |

Illustration by Claude Dangerfield

PHILADELPHIA — The jazz musician Sun Ra, ambassador from the Airy Kingdom World Tomorrow, creator of Enterplanetary Solar Exploding Music, and founder of the Astro Intergalactic Infinity Arkestra, is a hero of mine.

To my ears he was not only a genius composer, keyboardist and bandleader, but also constantly surprising. One minute he’s playing elevator schmaltz; then he’s making you float on air; then he’s making you deaf. I love that he was a sharp dresser, sort of kingly, sort of queenly, in faux leopard-skin capes and miner’s hats with lights.

I also admire him for transcending existential categories. He insisted he hadn’t been born, but always existed, coming to Earth from outer space, specifically the planet Saturn. Like many immigrants, he was self-invented, but radically so. He rejected being black or white or American or even human. He opted for extraterrestrial and wore his otherness like a crown.

You’ll find evidence for all of this in “Pathways to Unknown Worlds: Sun Ra, El Saturn & Chicago’s Afro-Futurist Underground, 1954-68,” a small, piquant exhibition of art, writing and ephemera related to his life at the Institute of Contemporary Art here.

Read Holland Cotter's full article for the NYTimes here.