Star Child

John F. Szwed
Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra
Pantheon

ONE CAN IMAGINE the late Sun Ra shaking his ornamented head over our planet's latest space stories: Russia's Mir debacle, in which a cosmonaut with a bad driving record trashes a space station, not to mention those sneaker-loving Hale-Bopp pilgrims. It seems the infinite mysteries of the cosmos have been reduced to just another vehicle for projecting our neuroses, shortcomings, and general bad mojo. Witness the flood of dopey Hollywood thrillers and bookstore fodder like the best-selling Day After Roswell, where a retired CIA man recounts the "history" of our country's most famous extraterrestrial encounter as a pitch for continuing Star Wars-style defense spending. The Cold War may be over, but hey--aliens are still aliens.

It wasn't always like this, as John Szwed demonstrates in his essential biography on the late composer, bandleader, pianist, and sometimes alien Sonny Blount: a.k.a. Sun Ra. In addition to making some of the most visionary music of the late 20th century, Sun Ra also often suggested he was not from Earth, but from Saturn instead. As John Szwed explains, this was part showmanship, part Afrocentric theosophy, and part wishful thinking. As a black artist and intellectual who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, when it was still known as the most segregated city in the nation, and whose musical achievements were ignored or ridiculed through much of his career, Ra didn't think much of our planet's standard-issue humanity. So he imagined--and then created--his way out of it. In a passage that appears both on the dust jacket and in the book's final paragraph, Szwed quotes Amiri Baraka, one of many black artists influenced by the composer's work. "Sun Ra's consistent statement," Baraka writes, "musically and spoken, is that this is a primitive world. Its practices, beliefs, religions, are uneducated, unenlightened, savage, destructive, already in the past." Thus Ra looked beyond--to the future, and to space.

As suggested above, one of the most laudable aspects of Space is the Place is how it uncovers the earthly roots of Ra's cosmic views, which have often been taken even less seriously than his music. Szwed is a professor of anthropology, American and African American studies, and music at Yale, and he gamely re-creates Ra's mostly auto-didactic trail, through his voracious readings on history, religion, art, music, and science, and his parallel obsessions with electronics, Egyptology, space travel, and the Bible. Sometimes Szwed's academic instincts get the better of him (as with his close readings of Ra's poetry and late-'60s lectures at Berkeley) and the narrative bogs down. But otherwise he effectively places Ra's views within those of a great American tradition of inspired renegades whose ideas have come to assume huge cultural resonance, including John Cage (whose one musical encounter with Ra is described here) and Elijah Muhammad (whose theology Ra may well have informed during his years in Chicago).

Ra's galactic mythology and sense of Afrofuturist spectacle (his group the Arkestra would almost always perform in "space costumes") has long since seeped into the pop world: See George Clinton and P-Funk, Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force, and most recently Dr. Octagon. But his music, always hard to find, has remained on the periphery. What makes Space is the Place such an important book from a musicological standpoint is how it works to confirm Ra's standing in a jazz tradition that had long refused to accept him. His pioneering use of electronic keyboards and unconventional instruments, his experiments with tape manipulation and studio tricks, his weird safaris through standard harmony, and his wild theatricality were all anathema to jazz purists.

But Ra was a musical polyglot who could play anything. In his early years he developed a mastery of Western classical music; he played with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, backed Gene Ammons and Billie Holiday when they came through town, helped create arrangements for B.B. King and Dakota Staton, and shared ideas with Duke Ellington. With the Arkestra, his rotating-cast musical commune, he went on to mentor jazz innovators like Pharoah Sanders and John Gilmore, and influence the likes of Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

At its best, Ra's music reflects all of this experience. As Szwed shows in descriptions that are precise but never labored, the chaos of Ra's compositions was thoughtful and carefully controlled. Space is the Place had me hearing its subject's recorded music in wholly different ways. In effect, it helps provide some of the missing visuals to what was, live, a very multimedia experience: the costumes, the marching-band routines, the instrumental acrobatics. And it works to remind the reader that unlike many so-called avant-garders, Ra was above all an entertainer, and therein--for all his doubts as to our earthly enterprises--lay his deep humanism.

Years back, I recall watching in some awe as he loosely conducted what was billed as his "100-piece Arkestra" (I only counted 76, but why split hairs?) in an old East Village theater for an audience of jazz freaks and neighborhood kids, the latter of whom were allowed to sneak in through an open fire door. The kids all danced, and if any aliens happened by, I suppose they would have, too.

 
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