I bought this biography in spite of another review on this page and was deeply gratified to find a huge amount of interest and insight in the work.
I can't help but wonder if there's much point in reading about an artist's life with "one goal in mind". It would be like listening to 'Space Is The Place', the album, with a singular intention.
From reading the biography and listening to the music of Sun Ra it is patently obvious that, as an artist, Sonny valued communal creativity and a catholic approach to learning at an absolute premium. This is a man who, we discover, used to read at all hours of the day, spurn sleep, and follow up any lead that might expand his understanding and awareness on a myriad of different subjects. A man who used to recruit untrained musicians in the hope that they might improve and grow, and that his prodigious talent might develop from their raw spirit and intuitive errors. Playing the wrong notes.
Does playing the wrong notes sound like a familiar concept? It was a very familiar concept when the first wave of critics sharpened their knives at Miles Davis's modal jazz. John Szwed is a very accomplished biographer, and it is no coincidence that he has since tackled the towering jazz legend of Miles himself. The two biographies in comparison show the real nuances of Szwed's craft. Is there something massively personal about the music of Sun Ra? No, it's difficult to argue that viewpoint, and Sun Ra made it impossible to deconstruct himself as a man. Szwed doesn't, hence, dabble in pointless hypothesis about "what drove him", because it would be entirely conjecture. It would work against the myth that makes the music. Is there something massively personal about the music of Miles Davis? Yes, absolutely. He was very aware of himself as a 'star', he was very egomaniacal in his personal life and creativity. Szwed provides considerable insight into Davis's battles with heroin, his many lovers, his rejection of family life and so on.
A comparison of these two works suggests that Szwed the biographer is far from a one-trick pony, and certainly not cashing in on a simple Sun Ra obsession. Furthermore, to suggest that he is uncomfortable outside the boundaries of jazz conveniently neglects the fact that he is not just an historian of jazz, but also of the African American. His Miles biography develops an awareness of Norman Mailer's 'The White Negro', theories of the black hipster, discussions of the Black Panthers, and many other such facets of a culture in transition. Similarly, in 'Space Is The Place' we get a strong impression of Sun Ra as a theorist of the black race and his significance during the decades of the civil rights movement. His life maps some of the territory of black theorizing at a crucial juncture in American history.
I listen to Sun Ra with much more PLEASURE now as a result, because I understand what he believed in. I can't pick apart his every note, but I'm not sure what could be gained from that. To suggest that Sun Ra the musician is no longer influential would be to disregard the re-release of the feature film 'Space Is The Place' for a start. It would also disregard the JAZZ that was born of his influence (apologies that he can't claim to have spawned Pink Floyd, but I'm not sure that's a claim he would ever have made). It would also disregard his massive influence in hip-hop/ jazz fusion. A glance at the sleeve for the very fine 'Sun Ra Dedication' on Kindred Spirits should explain as much: tributes by Theo Parrish, Madlib, Build An Ark and many others. A sound and spirit that has inspired hip-hoppers, jazzists, micro house knob-twidlers, minimalist obsessives. All sorts in fact. This is not a fact that Szwed overly publicizes, and perhaps this could be a relevant criticism of the biography.
But to criticize the biography for not being what you want it to be, to criticize Sun Ra for not influencing the artists you expect him to have influenced, and to criticize John Szwed for not 'explaining' a certain track or dissecting a man who you've already decided not to like... well, it seems to miss the point.
And getting in an oblique cheap shot at Sun Ra for his testicular deformity is as spineless and ungrounded as claiming that Lance Armstrong lacks true soul or joie de vivre.