By John Murph
Space Is the Place:
The Lives and Times of Sun Ra
by John F. Szwed
(Pantheon, New York, 475 pages, $29.95)
from Jazz Notes 9/3 1997Copyright © 1997, John Murph
It would be a gross understatement to say that the convoluted mystery and mystique of Sun Ra were as bewitching as - perhaps even more so than - his sonic explorations and elaborate multi-disciplinary performances. At once a free-spirited stargazer and a hard-nosed disciplinarian, Sun Ra composed an enormous body of work that is filled with aesthetical paradoxes. Inviting and confrontational, brutal and beautiful, ancient and futuristic, his works have incorporated nearly every stylistic idiom within the jazz spectrum. But for many, it was the prismatic philosophy that synthesized elements from the Bible, Egyptology, Black Nationalism, numerology, etymology, and, most importantly, astronomy that lured and transported them to outer reaches of their imaginations.
In John Szwed's magnificent biography Space Is The Place, the musical magic and the mesmerizing mythos are unveiled with acute clarity and tremendous respect as it chronicles the life of a young, reclusive musician from Birmingham, Alabama, to his formative years in Chicago to his explosive heyday in New York, Philadelphia,and California. Drawing from interviews of band members, other musicians, jazz scholars, and numerous tapes, Szwed successfully de-mystifies Sun Ra to reveal a man who was extremely well read and socially aware.
Yes, the bizarre eccentricities are also examined with microscopic intensity, for example, the mind-boggling teachings, the draining rehearsals, the eyebrow-raising payment methods, and the wacky disciplinary and punishment procedures. But what elevates this biography above the heap of melodramatic pulp nonfiction is Szwed's meticulous research and analysis of the heady philosophies which obscured the biographical history of Sun Ra. His incorporation of socio-political history and philosophical analysis in a descriptive and detail-enriched framework is relentlessly captivating. Highly informative, evenly paced, and wonderfully engrossing, Szwed's biography of one of jazz's most beloved, yet difficult, figures is one of the best reads of the year.