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Thread: John Szwed - Sun Ra: Space is the Place (Book)

  1. #1
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    John Szwed - Sun Ra: Space is the Place (Book)

    OK, so I’ve been a little obsessed with the man from Saturn lately. But after watching the film, I just had to go back and re-read Szwed’s book which is one of the most well researched and written (IHMO) jazz biographies available. Jazz biography is a dodgy subject, there’s a lot of junk out here but some gems as well and this is one of them.

    Szwed tracks Ra from his birth (he would say arrival) in Alabama on May 22, 1914 (he shares my birthday!) and sketches out his formative years. There’s not much for him to work with, since Ra was deliberately vague about his childhood, but he paints a picture of a shy, bookish young man obsessed with religion, science and music.

    Sun Ra arrives in Chicago after the Second World War and passes briefly through Fletcher Henderson’s ensemble before forming his famous Arkestra. Szwed describes in fascinating detail about Ra’s voracious and esoteric reading habits... every religion book imaginable, Egyptian history, afro-centric history, science fiction and hard science all found their way into his mindset and therefore into his music.

    The descriptions of the epic length bull sessions/rehearsals really give an insight into the music and the man who made it. There’s a fairly detailed discography at the end of the book. Ra recorded for small labels and released massive amounts of material, so not everything is there, but enough to give you an appreciation of the man’s career and accomplishments.
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  2. #2
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    As you can tell from my member information on the left, I dig Sun Ra, too Szwed has also written a well-regarded bio of Miles called So What: The Life of Miles Davis, as well as the excellent Jazz 101. I've been meaning to check out his Sun Ra bio but it keeps slipping my mind. Thanks for the reminder.

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    I thought Space is the Place was a good read too, but that it was flawed by a lack of dates and a hazy chronology. Admittedly, Sun Ra didn't make either thing easy, but more diligent research could presumably have nailed the time/space continuum down a bit harder. I'm carping a bit, I guess.

    I'd also like to have seen some examination of Sun Ra's sexual orientation. In many ways he was extraordinarily camp, and this together with his rigidly same-sex band 'households' suggest a same-sex preference. I mean, I don't care one way or the other in any moralistic or religious sense, it's just another biographical strand that would be worth looking at - and if Ra was gay, then it might explain why he adopted Saturnalia: a way of 'getting away' with his 'strangeness' in the ghetto.

    One of the best bits in the book is the page-long list of band names the Arkestra went under over the years. Fantastical.

  4. #4
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    Originally posted by Muskrat Ramble
    Szwed has also written a well-regarded bio of Miles called So What: The Life of Miles Davis, as well as the excellent Jazz 101. I've been meaning to check out his Sun Ra bio but it keeps slipping my mind. Thanks for the reminder.
    I don't know if it fair to called Szwed's bio of Miles "well regarded."

    Don't get me wrong, I think it, like the Sun Ra bio, is excellent, but when Szwed's Miles bio was reviewed in the Times Book review it was panned. I bought it because I had read the Sun Ra bio and like it and was surprised that the critic didn't like his follow up book.

  5. #5
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    Hardbop, I said "well regarded" because of things I've heard from fellow fans, things like you note. A single review in the Times doesn't mean too much to me versus what lots of jazz fanatics say.

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    What is sad about the Times pan was the fact that if I hadn't known Szwed's work from the Sun Ra bio I wouldn't have bought that book. After reading the bio, I was kind of stunned the that the reviewer didn't like it.

  7. #7
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    Yeah, that's why it's best to never rely too much on any one reviewer. In fact, I mainly turn to reviews (books, film, music, whatever) for entertainment since I like the art of criticism in its own right. But for actually selecting what I'll spend my time and money on, I go with my gut, word on the street, prior experiences with the artist, samples on Amazon, etc. more than anything.

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    I enjoyed Space is the Place overall, but I ultimately wasn't very interested in some of the detailed discussion of Sun Ra's occult ideas or equations. Probably the most fascinating parts of the book for me were the discussions of what Sun Ra said to the Arkestra, and had them do, in order to maximize their creativity. Some of his trickster approach in this department (e.g., rehearsing for long periods of time with one arrangement, only to drastically switch it around at the last minute; giving Arkestra members zen-like commands such as, "Play this apple I am holding") sounds like an application of things he may have learned in his esoteric studies. (Much of his behavior reminds me of what I've read in accouonts of zen masters, or Gurdjieff, or more dubious figures such as Rajneesh/Osho.)

  9. #9
    Rahsaanaholic
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    A great book. Period.

  10. #10
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    I, too, hold Sunny in awe and reverence.
    I first heard the Arkestra in 1968, and I was transfixed and transformed. That experience redirected my life and started a thirty year odyssey of research, broadcasting and writing about jazz.
    I really enjoyed Szwed's effort. I had many conversations with Ra over the years (not difficult to do; he'd talk to anybody) and Szwed's book really resonates with what I heard first hand.
    I thought his insights into Ra's life, behavior and concepts were thoughtful and thought-provoking.

  11. #11
    Rahsaanaholic
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    Sunny's at his favorite fishin' hole now, lookin' down (or up, or over) at all of us.

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