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

By Kate Butler

This monumental biography was published last year, seven years after the death of Sun Ra at the age of 79. Monumental is an appropriate word to describe the book on many levels. Its subject matter is one of contemporary music’s most intriguing characters. He also has remained one of the most elusive; officially changing his given name Herman P Blount to Le Son’y Ra (commonly known as Sun Ra), he would only respond to queries about his youth by saying he did not come from planet Earth. He lived a life that was immersed in music, forgoing women, drink, drugs and any other distractions, being a vegetarian (well before the sixties) and a pacifist (dating from the Second World War). In light of his determination to keep his ‘human’ life obscure the biographer, John F Swzed’s treatment of the formative years in the first part of the book gives a remarkably strong picture of the prodigy who became acknowledged as a jazz genius.

Swzed is a Professor of Anthropology at Yale University, while also having joint appointments in African American studies, Music and American Studies. So he appears to be pretty qualified to take on the intricacies of a man who was determined to find an alternative history to the white man’s and use music as a code in a fashion akin to a secret order. Swzed’s writing also qualifies him in his great appreciation of Sun Ra and his music and translating it into an enjoyable narrative, interspersed with quotations of Sun Ra and the musicians who worked with him.

Blount grew up in Alabama, in a sheltered community that had a strong tradition in the education of music. Academic and a voracious reader, he went on to study classical piano (including the likes of Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich) in Alabama State College for Negroes. Moving to Chicago he worked with the father of swing, Fletcher Henderson and began the formation of his band the Arkestra. Training the band, Sun Ra’s intuitive genius was represented by the unbelievable discipline in rehearsal which would result in childlike partying on stage. Despite being a prolific composer, he would also improvise greatly, even citing the entrance of a late member of the audience as reason enough to change the flow of his orchestration. He also expected improvisation from his musicians, but only because they understood what he was trying to say.

What can be hard to construe from the book is what exactly the message was. Metaphors of Egypt, space, the future (manifest in his long-standing fascination with electric instruments) and fantastical performances alongside the creation of some of the most mental music going are difficult to decipher. But it would seem that was his intention after all.
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