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Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra [Kindle Edition]

John F. Szwed
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)

Print List Price: $21.00
Kindle Price: $11.99
You Save: $9.01 (43%)
Sold by: Random House LLC

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Book Description

Always riveting, Space Is the Place is the definitive biography of "one of the great big-band leaders, pianists, and surrealists of jazz"  (The 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.


Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Born Herman Poole Blount in Alabama in 1914, he reinvented himself in the 1950s as Sun Ra, the great surrealist of jazz whose free-form performances with his Arkestra amply justified the description "'jspace music." His mystical beliefs were equally avant-garde; Yale professor John Szwed sympathetically explains some fairly far-out notions as "driven by a hunger for totality that only music could express." Szwed recovers the biographical facts Sun Ra was often at pains to obscure, without losing sight of the overriding role imagination played in this visionary life.

Review

... Szwed has produced a rare jazz biography--one that takes full account of the history that shaped the music and its central personalities. An anthropologist, historian and musicologist who teaches at Yale, Szwed brings an impressive array of skills to this job. He needs them all to track down a subject whose every word seems intended to protect him from scrutiny. -- The New York Times Book Review, Brent Staples

One of America's most prolific and daring musicians, Sun Ra located himself in outer space, beyond both the geographical limits of the United States and the ideological limits of Jim Crow and the Cold War. Such views, spliced with a homegrown Egyptology, earned Sun Ra a reputation as an Afro-eccentric charlatan-genius in the tradition of Marcus Garvey and Elijah Muhammad, and kept his"Arkestra" below the radar of concert halls and record companies. This biography charts Sun Ra's career, showing how he defied critics' periodization schemes, pioneering free jazz and electronic music in the 1940s and reviving big bands in the 1970s. Szwed presents Sun Ra's neoplatonic philosophizing as serious scholarship, however, rather than the charismatic myth-making and -unmaking that it clearly was. The book's treatment of his music--a joyful noise authorized by biblical prophecy, rooted in his native Birmingham's African-American fraternal, club, and society dance orchestras of the 1930s, and branching out into the heavenly spheres--suffers by comparison. Perhaps this late romantic jazz totalist, who shunned sex and drugs, rejected modern notions of race and nation, and took his merry band of"tone scientists" on shoestring-and-bootstrap world tours, will never be brought down to earth.
Copyright © 1996, Boston Review. All rights reserved. -- From The Boston Review

Product Details

  • File Size: 2469 KB
  • Print Length: 476 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; 1st edition (July 25, 2012)
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B008GO3YRI
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #380,094 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
41 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Must Reading for Sun Ra Fans February 16, 2001
Format:Paperback
First let me say that I am a bigtime Sun Ra fan. If someone did not like Sun Ra's music, this book would probably not be as much fun, but it still might be interesting - say, a three-star rating instead of a five.
Ra has made much of his swing era big band background, having arranged for and performed with Fletcher Henderson ca. 1947, during that band leader's years of decline. This book documents something much less obvious: Ra's indebtedness to doo wop, R&B and even mood music. Who would have guessed the resemblance to Les Baxter? I now hear both Ra and Baxter with new ears. Starting in the first chapter, the book provides important background available nowhere else, such as detailed description of the 1930s Birmingham social clubs, a little known musical scene.
About two thirds of the way through, the narration freezes and the book gets bogged down in describing Ra as a philosopher and poet. This is rather thin soup. Szwed tosses out twenty-dollar terms like "gnosticism" without giving any clear evidence that he, or Ra for that matter, really understands them. Fact is that Ra's genius was largely intuitive, and his uses of Egyptian history and futuristic technophilia were largely metaphorical posturing. Ra's philosophy and poetry are valuable only because he was a musical genius. Students of the music should remember that the programmatic content was used ritually in performance but in no way validates his music or makes it better.
The chapters covering the 1930s through 1960s are fairly detailed. In contrast, the narration about Ra's last 15 years (1977-92) is curtailed (perhaps by a deadline), and we get barely one page per year of activity.
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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fine Explanation of a Complex Phenomenon June 10, 2002
Format:Paperback
The book is well-written and does what it sets out to do - explain who Sun Ra was and what he was doing. This is no mean feat. Sun Ra was a man of many interests and beliefs, of whom many misconceptions exist. Even most of his fans (I've been listening to Ra's music for about 10 years now) will probably learn much and gain tremendous perspective on him from this book (I certainly did).
The book's story is one of a man with artistic genius within him, who probably could have been a millionaire and musical "star" - who chose to do other things instead. Here is the unusual story of what he did and why he did it.
There is room for another book in the world on Ra's discography, that traces the patterns, forms, and themes of his vast catalogue of recorded music. There is room in the world for a book that tells the stories of the members of Ra's Arkestra. But this is not those books, this is the first logical step in studies : an explanation of Sun Ra himself. It's a difficult job very well done.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Definitive Biography of "Mr. Mystery" December 16, 2000
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
John Szwed's "Space is the Place" is a monumental achievement. Sun Ra is arguably the most difficult figure on whom a person could possibly write a biography, since throughout his life he denied that he was even from Earth. This makes Szwed's careful analysis of his formative years in Alabama, replete with factual details, all the more compelling and welcome. What soon becomes apparent is that Sun Ra was often a misunderstood musician and composer who was one of the few artists in jazz history that encompassed every generic possibility of jazz in his art. In Ra's music, you heard everything from swing, be-bop, hard-bop, free-jazz, and even traces and significations of more popular musical forms (i.e., doo-wop, blues, and even disco in the late-70s). And he not only drew from these genres, but in many ways helped to shape them, by forming new and revising old musical trends. One can only hope that the world will eventually be graced with biographies of Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor that are as carefully researched as Szwed's study of Sun Ra.
Szwed's book also delves deeply into the space-influenced philosophy of Sun Ra and its emphasis on "discipline" and "precision." While Szwed features direct quotes when possible, he also paraphrases the philosophy of Sun Ra frequently. His analysis could have gone much farther into Ra's critique of Christianity and his use of language. At one point, he mentions that both Ra and Nietzsche "unflinchingly assaulted received Christianity" (p.383), but he does not extend his analysis further. (It would have been interesting to compare how both artists used the theme of "overcoming" in their art, or perhaps a discussion of the similarities in their critiques of democracy.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A stunning masterpiece May 9, 2004
Format:Paperback
This is, simply put, the greatest jazz biography I have ever read. Sun Ra is a complex and fascinating character, and Szwed's narrative more than lives up to the challenge. The most impressive thing about this book is that Szwed places Ra's, shall we say, bizarre beliefs in a context that makes him seem brilliant, lonely, compassionate, and vulnerable--in a word, human. Interwoven with the facts of Ra's life, his childhood, his musical development, his status as 60s cult icon, Szwed goes into long, fascinating digressions on the roots of Ra's beliefs--from ancient Egyptian mythology to the Bible. After reading this book, it was as if a whole world had been opened to me, and I now enjoy and appreciate Ra's art so much more. I wish I could convey how much this book moved me...it is more than the best jazz biography I have ever read, it is one of the best biographies I have ever read, period. If you are at all interested in Sun Ra, experimental jazz, or modern mythmaking, then DO NOT hesitate to pick this book up.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Great detail, fascinating.
Published 17 days ago by someguy
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
The book was in perfect condition when it arrived.
Published 3 months ago by Amy
5.0 out of 5 stars One of music's most complex creators explained
A well done examination of Sonny Blount, a.k.a. Sun Ra that offers a path to understanding the complex reasoning behind the music Sun Ra created. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Dick Cooper
5.0 out of 5 stars A book as unique as its subject
Space Is The Place is John F. Szwed's remarkably well-researched biography of Sun Ra. Speaking as a professional jazz musician, I appreciated the compelling insights into the... Read more
Published 14 months ago by Mark S. Williams
4.0 out of 5 stars The sky is a sea of darkness when there is no SUN to light the way!
I've always loved SUN RA. I own about 20 Sun Ra CDs and already knew a bit about him. But this book really makes you appreciate the ARTIST. Read more
Published 17 months ago by michael moodgroove
5.0 out of 5 stars infinite heart centered connection in the music and life of sun ra
The author of this book was most successful in conveying the feeling of inspiration which fuels the artistry in Sun Ra's music. Read more
Published on September 8, 2012 by Thomas M. Galla
4.0 out of 5 stars great condition
This book was in mint condition! I was greatly impressed with the quality of it. I had to buy this book for a college class but it is a great read for those interested in Sun Ra. Read more
Published on March 9, 2012 by tinkabinka
5.0 out of 5 stars Space is the Place!
I always found Sun Ra's music and off the wall worldview/persona interesting. I thought it was more or less a put on but from what I get out of this book apparently it wasn't. Read more
Published on December 14, 2009 by Cwn_Annwn
5.0 out of 5 stars The Sun Shines Brightly
Sun Ra has remained one of the most misunderstood musicians of our time. And in the case of many music geniuses, Sun Ra would keep the critics and fans at arm's length, but welcome... Read more
Published on November 5, 2006 by Best Of All
4.0 out of 5 stars An erudite effort for a daunting task
Frankly, Sun Ra seemed to go out of his way to make a biography pretty much impossible. Professor Szwed is to be commended for his effort, though I think at times the professor... Read more
Published on May 31, 2006 by Thomas G. Bramhall
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