Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra

Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra

by John F. Szwed
     
 

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Always riveting, Space Is the Place is the definitive biography of "one of the great big-band leaders, pianists, and surrealists of jazz"  (The New York Times)—unparalleled for his purposeful outlandishness, a man who exerted a powerful influence over a vast array of artists.

Sun Ra—a/k/a Herman Poole "Sonny  Blount…  See more details below

Overview

Always riveting, Space Is the Place is the definitive biography of "one of the great big-band leaders, pianists, and surrealists of jazz"  (The New York Times)—unparalleled for his purposeful outlandishness, a man who exerted a powerful influence over a vast array of artists.

Sun Ra—a/k/a Herman Poole "Sonny  Blount—was born in Alabama on May 22, 1914. But like Father Divine and Elijah Muhammad, he made a lifelong effort to obscure many of the facts of his early life. After years as a rehearsal pianist for nightclub revues and in blues and swing bands, including Wynonie Harris's and Fletcher Henderson's, Sun Ra set out in the 1950s to find a way to impart his views about the galaxy, black people, and spiritual matters through the various incarnations of the Intergalactic Arkestra. His repertoire ranging from boogie-woogie, swing, and bebop to free form, fusion, and whatever, Sun Ra was above all a paragon of contradictions: profundity and vaudeville; technical pianistic virtuosity and irony; assiduous attention to arrangements and encouragement of collective improvisation; respect for tradition and celebration of the fresh.

Some might have been bemused by his Afro-Platonic neo-hermeticism; others might have laughed at his egregious excesses. But Sun Ra was at once one of the great avant-gardists of the latter half of the twentieth century and a black cultural nationalist who extended Afrocentrism from ancient Egypt to the heavens.

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Editorial Reviews

Rolling Stone
[Sun Ra is] the missing link between Duke Ellington and Public Enemy.
Details Magazine
As trippy and entertaining as the great jazz genius himself.
Stephanie Zacharek

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

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780307822444
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
07/25/2012
Sold by:
Random House
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
496
File size:
4 MB

Meet the Author

John F. Szwed is Musser Professor of Anthropology, Afro-American Studies, Music, and American Studies at Yale University. He has written about music for many publications, including The New York Times, Musician, and The Boston Phoenix. He lives in Trumbull, Connecticut.

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