Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton


Book Pages: 336 Illustrations: 12 figures Published: January 2000

Author: Graham Lock

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, Cultural Studies, Music > Jazz

In Blutopia Graham Lock studies the music and thought of three pioneering twentieth-century musicians: Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton. Providing an alternative to previous analyses of their work, Lock shows how these distinctive artists were each influenced by a common musical and spiritual heritage and participated in self-conscious efforts to create a utopian vision of the future.
A century after Ellington’s birth, Lock reassesses his use of music as a form of black history and compares the different approaches of Ra, a band leader who focused on the future and cosmology, and Braxton, a contemporary composer whose work creates its own elaborate mythology. Arguing that the majority of writing on black music and musicians has—even if inadvertently—incorporated racial stereotypes, he explains how each artist reacted to criticism and sought to break free of categorical confines. Drawing on social history, musicology, biography, cultural theory, and, most of all, statements by the musicians themselves, Lock writes of their influential work.
Blutopia will be a welcome contribution to the literature on twentieth-century African American music and creativity. It will interest students of jazz, American music, African American studies, American culture, and cultural studies.


Blutopia is a lucidly written, expansively annotated exposition of ‘an African American visionary future stained with memories.’ ” — Julian Cowley , The Wire

Blutopia is a wonderful book. Lock lays out each man’s life and ideas in a readable and informative fashion. In addition, his thorough research and reasonable analysis shed new light on previously unexamined aspects of these artists’ careers. in fact, his chapter on Sun Ra is perhaps the best summation of his philosophy that exists. Additionally, his techniques for uncovering the idea-worlds lurking in the interviews and other effluvia generated by an artist living a public life, point the way for future researchers into the world of jazz studies.” — John Howard , American Studies International

“[Blutopia] is already my ‘Book of the Year.’ [Lock’s] theories on Sun Ra, Astro Black mythology and ‘cosmic religion’ are mind-blowing—yes, as they say: space is the place.” — Chrissie Murray , Jazz at Ronnie Scott's

“[Blutopia] provides a fresh approach to analyzing the compositions of these pioneers as it addresses the societal boundaries in which all three struggled to overcome as they found their respective musical voice. . . . [A] useful resource for those wishing to delve deeper into uncovering the impact of racial stereotypes on the creativity of the black composer in the attempt to create a utopian future. . . . Lock lucidly guides the reader through the labyrinth within a social paradigm that has not previously been addressed to such an extent.” — Denise A. Seachrist , Utopian Studies

“[A] brilliant work. . . . The interdisciplinary scholarship here is often remarkable and the prose has a fluidity and passion which more established academics could learn from.” — Alan Rice , New Formations

“[A] superb book.” — Cadence

“[A] welcome corrective to much writing about jazz over the last 70 years. . . . Highly recommended.” — J. McCalla , Choice

“[F]ascinating. . . . [A] well-conceived and important endeavor. We can be thankful we now have another contribution to the small but growing body of literature that explores how African American musicians have participated in the production of the meanings surrounding their music.” — Eric Porter , Journal of American History

“[F]ascinating. . . a tightly focused exploration of music as an alternative history of being black in America, of being ‘the other’ and lastly, of being the focus of unwanted racial stereotypes which obscure the realities of the music.” — Peter R. Terry , Foreword Reviews

“[Lock’s] book offers a very fertile line of thought, and he must be right that it could be applied to other African American music from Scott Joplin to Cecil Taylor. There’s copious annotation but while the scholarship is formidable, the presentation is clear and readable. Blutopia is an important and novel addition to the jazz literature.” — Andy Hamilton , Jazz Review

“[Lock’s] inspirational tone and devotion to the originality and courage of these three figures stay with the reader. . . .” — Mark Swartz , New Art Examiner

“[Lock] is a lucid writer, intelligent and incisive, and Blutopia displays the sterling qualities we’ve come to expect from him. . . . Lock should be congratulated for recontextualising the music of Ra, Ellington ,and Braxton, and enhancing our understanding of it by way of social, cultural, and historical perspectives. Blutopia makes their musical philosophy more comprehensible, and their vision seem more profound. That’s no small achievement.” — Brian Marley , Avant Music News

“It seems odd to lump together the greatest jazz showman, Sun Ra; the greatest Jazz orchestrator, Duke Ellington; and the greatest contemporary Jazz experimentalist, Anthony Braxton. But Lock illuminatingly argues that the three men’s cultural motivations are similar. . . . Explicating music-as-sociology rather than music per se, Lock is utterly enthralling, even in the notes.” — Ray Olson, Booklist

“Lock carefully compresses a wealth of information and interviews about these three musician/philosophers. . . . Blutopia [began] as an academic work but Lock turns it into something more by presenting a solid case for creative forces whose music ‘could yet turn out to be black holes, in which our little local universe of Western materialism will be swallowed up—leaving us in a sea of music and color.’ ” — Rupert Wondolowski , City Paper (Baltimore)

“Lock deserves praise for his explication of the influence Ellington’s race-conscious secondary school education had on his racial-uplift agenda and epic sense of pageantry; ditto for his comparisons of Ra with the Yoruba trickster god Esu, and for elucidating the mystical content of Braxton’s diagrammatic song titles. . . . Throughout Blutopia, Lock makes the most of his research. . . [He] is good at teasing out the subtle and not so subtle patronizing tone many white observers have taken regarding the highfalutin artistic aspirations of jazz’s African-American experimenters.” — Greg Tate , Bookforum

“Lock explains [the musicians] from the inside out. His achievement is to take the musicians seriously as theorists in their own right, then to draw them into the meshes of African-American musical and spiritual traditions. . . . ” — Scott Saul , TLS

"Lock’s well-researched and sympathetic account in Blutopia offers admirably clear discussions of important issues. . . . Blutopia will surely help blaze new trails to sites of the musical and critical imagination located in ‘other planes of there.’" — Paul Allen Anderson , Current Musicology

“Graham Lock’s Blutopia will stand as a pivotal text in the development of a serious consideration of African American creative music. Lock offers a range of fresh, new materials, and is at the same time approaching the problematic of the black musical intellectual tradition from an extremely exciting and original perspective.” — John Corbett, author of Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage to Dr. Funkenstein

“Graham Lock’s rightly-named book expertly and impeccably attends to the mission African-American music has been on. Its address of a utopic assertion shaded by blue, dystopic truth in the work of Sun Ra, Ellington, and Braxton knowingly shows how distinctly out music ‘in the tradition’ has long been. Entering the discourse advanced by such assertion with exemplary grace and discernment, ever the right tone and touch, it succeeds beautifully in recognizing and furthering the music’s blutopic studies.” — Nathaniel Mackey, University of California, Santa Cruz

“Lock is upping the ante on the scholarship of music. He gently leads the reader into largely unknown territory with impressive lucidity and evenhandedness.” — John Szwed, author of pace Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra


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Price: $27.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Graham Lock is Special Lecturer in American Music at the University of Nottingham. He is the author of numerous articles, reviews, and books, including Forces in Motion: Anthony Braxton and the Meta-reality of Creative Music and Chasing the Vibration: Meetings with Creative Musicians.

Table of Contents Back to Top

Introduction: Blutopia

Part I: Sun Ra: A Starward Eye

1. Astro Black: Mythic Future, Mythic Past

2. Of Aliens and Angels: Mythic Identity

Part II: Duke Ellington: Tone Parallels

3. In the Jungles of America: History Without Saying It

4. Zajj: Renegotiating Her Story

Part III: Anthony Braxton: Crossroad Axiums

5. All the Things You Are: Legba’s Legacy

6. Going to the Territory: Sound Maps of the Meta-Real

Coda: House of Voices, Sea of Music



Works Cited

Index of Compositions and Recordings


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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2440-9 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2404-1
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