“Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra” by John Szwed

(If you’ve read this entry before March 17th, note that I finished the book the day before and have extensively edited this entry.)

Before I talk about this book itself, I have to complain about something. I bought it at a thrift store in San Diego for about 65 cents. It was discarded from the Chula Vista (a city just south of San Diego) library. Now, what reason would there be to discard this book? All critical opinion is that it may be the definitive work on Sun Ra, who himself was indisputably one of the most important figures in American music. Furthermore, there are no copies listed as being available in the San Diego system. To be fair, they do have one book (“Blutopia”) in which Sun Ra is discussed along with Duke Ellington and Anthony Braxton but Sun Ra definitely deserves a little more love than the local library systems seem to want to accord him.

OK, that rant is done.

Dr Szwed’s book can be, admittedly, tough going. It’s pretty scholarly in places where he’s deconstructing Sun Ra’s music in terms of his life and milieu. But it is thorough to a fault, and fascinating if you’re willing to take the time to trace Sun Ra’s journey. I see some parallels with Frank Zappa, of all people. They were both unfettered by convention, intensely dedicated and prolific composers and believed in the spectacle of performance, and both thoroughly rejecting of alcohol and drugs and relevant to creativity. The demands they placed on their musicians in terms of discipline and commitment were punishing. However you can’t draw the comparison too closely: Zappa was a cynic and pragmatist while Sun Ra was a mystic. Zappa’s wife and kids were important to him, but Sun Ra was a lifelong bachelor, and if ran with any women there appears to be scarcely any evidence of that.

If your local library has a copy, get it. Particularly if you’re at all interested in the history of American jazz and the avant-garde (Sun Ra lived from 1914 to 1993, and flourished musically starting in the late 1940s/early 1950s).

I looked up some bios of Dr Szwed. From his bio at the U of Minn Mankato: besides a number of books he’s written on jazz, of which “Space is the Place” appears to the be first, he is credited with “Doctor Jazz,” a book included with the CD set, “Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax,” 2005, for which he was awarded a Grammy in 2006. Getting a Grammy for music writing is impressive!

I don’t know who’s to blame for it, but there are a few minor editing errors that have slipped by. For instance, the book refers to Mr. Natural, a creation of “Art Crumb” (cringe) and to the “Farfissa” organ (properly spelled Farfisa). In one place his “Arkestra” is spelled “Archestra.” But these are certainly trivial and don’t take away from the quality of the book.

The most striking thing about Sun Ra is how his entire life seemed to be defined by his radical beliefs. He seemed alternately pitying, dismissive and despairing of humanity. He sought through his music to show that there was another dimension of existence, one in which there was no violence, exploitation, greed or selfishness. But this didn’t seem to be just a posture to him or a marketing gimmick; he stuck to his philosophy all his life.

If that was all that was to him, frankly there wouldn’t be much to differentiate him from any one of a million wild-eyed street-corner prophets. But he was unquestionably a musical genius as decades of his composing and recordings of his bands and groups made clear. Somehow he understood early that it would be important for him to record as much as possible.

In his late 70s he finally began to slow down, but even at 75 – 76 years of age his touring schedule was awesome; particularly since he was more popular and famous overseas than he was in the US (isn’t this a story we’ve heard many times?)

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