Writer, Curator, and Collector
Alton Abraham (1927–1999) was Sun Ra’s manager and main supporter in the 1950s and well into the 1960s. He helped build the Arkestra, arranged rehearsals and concerts in Chicago, publicized the band, produced their earliest recordings, cofounded Saturn Records, and, by 1952, had encouraged Ra to legally change his name from Herman Poole Blount to Le Sony’r Ra. One of the first black X-ray technicians in Illinois, Abraham was both a scientist and a mystic—he and his associate James Bryant were avidly interested in alien abduction and other UFO studies. (Bryant, like Ra, identified as having been visited by extraterrestrials.) Theirs was a small, ripe group of occult specialists, with Ra at the helm.
When Sun Ra passed away—an event in 1993 that his enthusiasts often refer to as “departure day,” bookending his “earth arrival day” 79 years earlier—I wrote a piece commemorating him in DownBeat. Abraham saw it and called me, which was a delightful surprise, and over the course of the next six years we met a few times and spoke frequently on the phone. When I heard Abraham died in 1999, I considered the material he had shown me, which constituted some essential documents and a few extra-special items of Saturn Records ephemera, as well as the huge cache that he’d mentioned having. Figuring that the stuff would be safeguarded by someone in his family or by Bryant, I did not pursue it—until a year later, when by coincidence I heard that the contents of Abraham’s house were being thrown away.
At that point, through a wild and circuitous series of events, my wife, Terri Kapsalis, and I bought the contents of the house, managing to save this important material just as it was being walked in bags to the front curb. We filled a twelve-foot cubic space of Sun Ra-related material at a storage facility, where we worked diligently for several years, sorting, arranging, archiving, discarding, and assessing all manner of Saturnalia and Ra-o-philia. There were incredibly important finds, like the previously unknown early writings from which Ra gave street-corner sermons in the mid-1950s and the original artwork for many of the early Saturn releases, as well as gas bills, candy wrappers, and all the other kinds of things that one would expect to find in a home salvage operation. When all was said and done, there were more than 400 audio tapes as well as nearly 100 boxes worth of papers, photographs, books, artworks, instruments, and other items deemed worthy of keeping.
In 2007, wanting to keep these materials close to their point-of-origin in Chicago, we donated the bulk of them to the Special Collections Research Center at the University of Chicago and donated the audiotapes to the Chicago-based Experimental Sound Studio Creative Audio Archive. The idea in both cases was to make them accessible to scholars, artists, and other interested parties. Thus far, multiple artistic projects and at least one major scholarly study, Paul Youngquist’s A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism, have come from the Alton Abraham archives. They were also the source of an exhibition that Terri and I curated together with Anthony Elms, which took place at the Hyde Park Art Center in 2006 and at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, and the Durham Art Guild, North Carolina, in 2010.
Along with these materials were additional ones that we had in multiple, many of them exceedingly precious uncut copies of printed sheets used to make record covers, often referred to as “tip on” sheets. In 2016, Terri and I gifted a complete set of them to the Tang Teaching Museum, where we hope they will continue to spread inspiration and fascination with all things Ra, leading viewers to what he called “art forms of dimensions tomorrow.”