Writing the life story of a man who readily admitted almost nothing about his early years except that he was born on Saturn isn't a job for your everyday, run-of-the-mill academic. John F. Szwed, a professor of anthropology, Afro-American studies, music and American studies at Yale University, is the right guy for the job. Space Is the Place, his biography of Sun Ra, the legendary, visionary, whacked-out big-band leader who died in 1993 at the age of 79, is a meticulously detailed piece of scholarship, but not a leaden one.
Tracing the life story of the man who was born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Ala. -- who, as a child, quickly ran through every book in his school library, and who later, as a young man, would walk the streets of Birmingham dressed in a bed sheet and sandals "like a prophet from the scriptures" -- Szwed makes it clear that Sun Ra's eccentricity was part and parcel of his brilliance. He painstakingly traces the roots of Sun Ra's philosophy (a heady nectar distilled from black nationalism, Egyptian-inspired mysticism, interplanetary travel and the idea that the secrets of universal harmony can be revealed through music), placing it squarely in the context of American social history by way of Jupiter.
Szwed recognizes Sun Ra as a brilliant arranger and band leader who drew inspiration from a massive galaxy of sources: the tradition of Fletcher Henderson's big band, the cocktail music of Les Baxter, songs from Walt Disney movies, even disco. And while he buys into Sun Ra's schtick with just the right amount of humor, he also sees the eccentric genius behind that schtick. Sun Ra knew that the vast mysteries of jazz could never be explained away by theory alone: "You know how many notes there are between C and D?" he'd tell his musicians. "If you deal with those tones you can play nature, and nature doesn't know notes. That's why religions have bells, which sound all the transient tones. You're not musicians, you're tone scientists."
Sometimes Szwed's narrative swing gets bogged down -- he outlines some of Sun Ra's rambling theories in excruciating detail. And although he has plenty of passion for his subject, he doesn't have a loopy enough vocabulary to capture the exuberance, or even the sheer musical inventiveness, of Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Arkestra's live performances. Still, he believes wholeheartedly in their magic. He delights in describing their stage costumes (Sun Ra himself favored outrageous headgear, including a hat topped with a blue light). He understands that the vision of a group of grown men -- many of them older men, if you saw them in the '80s or thereafter, as I did, repeatedly -- with jewel-toned chiffon tunics layered over regular shirts and pants, wearing what looked like sequined tube tops on their heads, was simultaneously a display of pride, pageantry and utter lunacy. And their sound was magnificent and free -- no wonder Sun Ra would look on benevolently from behind the piano, as if he were sunbathing in the cosmos.
Toward the end of any given performance, when the group would drop their instruments to sing -- always slightly out of tune, and yet with a resonating, obvious pleasure -- it was impossible to keep from slipping right into the logic of their crazy plan for intergalactic, interracial harmony. Even if you were the type who hated audience participation with all your heart, you found yourself joining in on, say, "Let's Go Fly a Kite." To refuse would have been proof of nothing, except that you were made out of wood. -- Salon