Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra
Always riveting, Space Is the Place is the definitive biography of “one of the great big-band leaders, pianists, and surrealists of jazz” (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.
Charting the whole of Sun Ra’s life and career, Szwed outlines how after years in Chicago as a blues and swing band pianist, Sun Ra set out in the 1950s to impart his views about the galaxy, black people, and spiritual matters by performing music with the Arkestra that was as vital and innovative as it was mercurial and confounding. Szwed’s readers — whether they are just discovering Sun Ra or are among the legion of poets, artists, intellectuals, and musicians who consider him a spiritual godfather — will find that, indeed, space is the place. [Amazon]