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Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra Paperback – 10 Oct 2000
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"Those who read this book will be spellbound" (The Voice)
a brilliant book, a sprawling, curlicued, swinging account of an
extraordinary man's great adventure with a bunch of ideas that made
sense to him out of a senseless world
"this is the year's best jazz biography" (Evening Standard)
"one of the best books ever written about anything" (The Idler)
"Quite possibly the most inspirational music biography ever written - Essential." (MUZIK)
About the Author
John F. Szwed is Professor of Anthropology, Afro-American Studies,
Music, and American Studies at Yale University. He has written about
music for many publications, including the New York Times, Musician, and the Boston Phoenix. He lives in Trumbull, Connecticut.
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Top customer reviews
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.
The only downside for such a well-received book is that it could do with an editor going over it with a fine toothcomb. It looses a star in my rating because of the very few minor editorial errors I think I found; one quote is repeated in part twice, when listing the various names Arkestra were known under, one name is repeated twice in the list and It seems to me that not every single quote begins and ends with speech marks.
Having said this, I absolutely loved the book; I found out pretty much all I wanted to know about the man and his music. As other reviews have mentioned the author is singing very much from the same hymn sheet as Ra and it is sometimes difficult to tell where Sun Ra's words stop and the authors begin, but I didn't have a problem with that; It's Ra's message that is important and this is what he gives us. It's quite a magical book and is truly in the spirit of Ra for me. All in all, must for Ra fans!
However, the author also seems to share many of Sun Ra's unorthodox beliefs, and in fact there are whole sections of the book which seem to be a blend of Szwed and Ra, and it's impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. While reading the book, I was also struck by the non-chalant way in which Szwed reveals to the reader (en passant) that he too believes that humans have been contacted by alien life-forms many times and that African-Americans are descendants of the original Egyptians, etc.
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