For the 45 years he was on the music scene, the keyboardist, composer, and bandleader known as Sun Ra (1914-93) was one of the most original and iconoclastic Black artists of the 20th century. And if his musical legacy isn’t enough, Sun Ra was also a visual artist, which is the subject of the new book Sun Ra: Art on Saturn: The Album Cover Art of Sun Ra’s Saturn Label co-edited by Chris Reisman and Irwin Chusid. The book is out now from Fantagraphics.

Best known as a jazz bandleader and composer, Sun Ra was also an experimentalist whose musical works ranged across the entire history of Jazz and beyond. Sun Ra albums such as Space is the Place, The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Vols. 1-2, and Cosmos, encompassed musical styles from New Orleans, swing, bebop, R&B, blues, the avant-garde and electronica. His eclectic range, along with his outer space-inspired wardrobe and cosmic philosophies, exemplified the tenets of Afrocentrism—world history from the perspective of African peoples—and helped give birth to Afrofuturism, an aesthetic vision of the African diaspora and its relationship to science, technology and the future.

An independent artist for his whole career, Sun Ra controlled every aspect of his business, which included creating his own art for LP album covers and record labels (including artwork by members of his band, the Arkestra), which over the years have become valuable sought-after artifacts by record collectors and art enthusiasts. Reisman is a record collector and Chusid, exclusive administrator for Sun Ra, LLC., is a Hoboken, N.J.-based journalist, author, WFMU-FM radio host, music producer, and self-described “landmark preservationist.” PW talked with Chusid about working with the Sun Ra estate, Sun Ra’s visual art, and the making of this book.

Publishers Weekly: Describe how you came into Sun Ra’s orbit.

Irwin Chusid: I got involved through a very circuitous chain of events. It wasn’t a job I sought. I didn't know that much about Sun Ra in 2013. [His music] had strange electronics, a kind of screeching, saxophone jazz. But on the other hand, there was a lot of stuff that I'd heard that was very likable and very creative. I have a good friend, Michael Anderson, who also lives in New Jersey, and has the foremost collection of Sun Ra tapes. I've known Michael since 1992. He played in Ra’s Arkestra, lived in Ra’s house in Germantown, Philadelphia, and he was Ra’s tape librarian. But he was not a businessman.

So, Anderson came to me and said he needed a manager, because he was having some issues with people who weren’t paying him: a lot of predators, miscreants and frauds, people claiming they own things that they didn't. I didn’t know what I was getting myself involved with. I eventually met the heirs of Ra’s estate; his lawful heirs were identified after a lengthy probate process in Jefferson County, Alabama, where Ra died intestate. They were the rights owners for Ra's publishing and recordings. I came to represent the family and undertook legal action against several unlawful claimants. So, at that point in 2014, I became the administrator of Sun Ra, LLC. I was the bridge between the family, who were the rights holders, and Michael, the tape archivist.

Tell us about another key figure in Sun Ra’s history, his Chicago-based business partner, Alton Abraham (1927-1999).

In the late 40s, Ra, who was known as Herman “Sonny” Blount at that time, was based in Chicago. He did arrangements for big bands, taught vocal techniques to doo-wop groups, played piano for Fletcher Henderson's big band, and put together his own ensembles, which were early versions of his Arkestra. He was attracting a following among musicians, but it was all word-of-mouth. And at some point, in the early 1950s, he met with Abraham, who was a radiologist and an entrepreneur.

He and Sonny were kindred spirits. They were conversant in religion and religious philosophy, spiritualism and the cosmos, and they were also interested in interplanetary travel. Abraham really was the business guy, and Sonny, who had changed his name—first to Le Sony'r Ra and eventually to Sun Ra—was the musical genius. They formed Saturn Records, and Abraham was pivotal in helping Sun Ra get a foothold in the music business and managing his business affairs.

Tell us about the origins of this book.

There were two stages. In the first stage, I thought that the Saturn recordings that Abraham issued between 1957 and the 1970s were really interesting and would make an interesting book. So, I pitched it to publisher Gary Groth of Fantagraphics back in 2016. I’ve done work with them before: I was told by the publisher that the book was a little out of their range. At that point, I did nothing. I didn’t know if I could really do this. There were only about maybe 40, maybe 45 covers that were printed. I thought there wasn’t that much material and postponed the project indefinitely.

In the second stage, I was contacted by a guy named Chris Reisman from Hudson Valley Vinyl, up in Beacon, New York in 2019. He said, I really want to do an album covers book. I said, well, I don't think there's enough art. And he said, what about the hand-made covers? And I said, what hand-made covers? I was not aware that there were countless covers of some of our records from the 1970s. After they stopped printing covers, they started doing them by hand. And he started showing me samples so I said if you can help me with this book, you'll be the co-editor. Chris really sought out the collectors and helped me get scans of these covers. Now, we had a lot of material and Fantagraphics became more interested. That was the origin of the book.

What was Sun Ra’s motivation to do this artwork?

He needed money, and he determined that the quickest way to generate immediate income was to press new records faster than Abraham could produce them in Chicago. These records would have blank sleeves, and rather than have someone design an official cover, and title and compile the information, the quickest way was to [put the records into] these generic sleeves, get the band together in the kitchen, or whatever, with a bunch of markers and photographs, and just do arts and crafts. They could produce these handmade covers assembly-line style. So now they had a pile of records with homemade covers. Ra knew they could sell, because they had a built-in market at his concerts and in local record shops.

Talk about how this book augments and amplifies Sun Ra’s impact on Afrofuturism.

Sun Ra never heard the term Afrofuturism in his life. That term is a neologism that was coined by writer Mark Dery, in the year 1993, the year that Sun Ra died. But it describes an aesthetic. It describes a vision, and it describes a philosophy that certainly applies to Sun Ra.

Clarification: The phrasing of some of Irwin Chusid's responses in an earlier version of this interview have been clarified.