The Lives and Times of Sun Ra
John F. Szwed
Pantheon Books ($29.95)
by Brad Zellar
The list of jazz figures long overdue for decent biographical treatment is a lengthy one, but there is perhaps no one whose life and career seemed a more promising project for biographer and reader alike than the preternaturally singular Sun Ra. John Szwed's Sun Ra biography, in fact, has been a rumor for many years now, and it has always seemed virtually certain that whatever it turned out to be, it would nonetheless prove worth the wait.
For those unfamiliar with the remarkable and often confounding extravaganza that was Sun Ra and his Arkestra, Space Is the Place is a terrific introduction to a man who pioneered over-the-top and was for more than forty years one of the most fascinating and prodigiously eccentric characters in all of American popular culture. Ra was truly the rarest of birds: an instinctive avant-gardist who harbored impossibly popular aspirations. Even considered apart from the music he created for and with his fiercely loyal and vertiginously wide-ranging Arkestra, Sun Ra remains an urban character every bit the equal of Joseph Mitchell's Joe Gould or the iconic weirdos of Diane Arbus.
Sun Ra was born Herman Poole Blount on May 22, 1914, in Birmingham, Alabama, and was over fifty years old before the project that was his life's work—a very strange melding of (among other things) jazz, Egyptology, primitive electronics, numerology, color theory, intergalactic fascination, and anagrammatic obsession—began to attract any sort of attention outside the neighborhoods in which he and his core group of bandmates lived together and worked, first in Chicago, then in New York, and finally in Philadelphia. Despite appearances on Saturday Night Live and the cover of Rolling Stone, an ambitious reissue campaign by Impulse records in the 1970s and recordings with A& M in the '80s, Ra was always by his very nature obscure; even his frequent and aberrant blips of acclaim in the last twenty-five
years of his life ultimately amounted to little more than exaltations of his essential obscurity.
". . . At the heart of everything that Sun Ra did or said was the claim that he was not born, that he was not from earth, that he was not a man, that he had no family, that his name was not what others said it was," Szwed writes, recounting the early stages of the nearly-archeological project he was undertaking. "For almost fifty years he evaded questions, forgot details, left false trails, and talked in allegories and parables. . . . Sun Ra destroyed his past, and recast himself in a series of roles in a drama he spent his life creating. And in the end he almost succeeded. Files and certificates had been destroyed or disappeared or never existed, photos vanished, and early recordings and compositions were lost in fires or deceased musicians' attics. Gone were most of the family members, school friends, teachers, and musicians who could testify to his past, and the memories of those who were left were reshaped and clouded by his shifting biography. He had succeeded in erasing a third of his earthly life." Given such daunting obstacles, Szwed does a remarkable job of sifting through the many layers of Sun Ra's deliberate obfuscation and piecing together a chronology that takes him from the early lost Birmingham years to the first flower of the Arkestra in Chicago in 1956. Even in Birmingham Ra had assembled and rehearsed bands and "dreamed of owning a house big enough for all of his musicians to live in together, monastically, devoting themselves to the unified study of music, clean living, and spiritual matters." It was in Chicago where Sun Ra began the process of reinventing himself and realizing that dream in earnest. He changed his name officially to Le Sony'r Ra and put together a regular rehearsal band that would soon evolve into the Arkestra, a continually evolving big band that he would manage to keep together in one form or another for more than thirty years. Right up until his death in 1993 Sun Ra remained a tireless proponent of the big band as a laboratory for the demonstration of larger notions of harmony, cooperation, and community.
One of the great mysteries surrounding him has always been how he managed to inspire the lifelong loyalty and devotion of such brilliant sidemen as John Gilmore and Pat Patrick. What did his core group of unflagging loyalists see in him that would keep them with him through the interminable rehearsals and lectures, through the financial droughts and critical neglect and frequent oddball tangents? Who was Sun Ra to the members of the Arkestra, the people with whom he lived and traveled and played for the last three decades of his life? If there is a single obvious flaw in Szwed's book it is the paucity of insight on this question. The voices of many of the more prominent Arkestra members—including Gilmore, Patrick, Marshall Allen, and June Tyson—are oddly absent from the book, and too often in the place of human voices or anecdote we get pages of Sun Ra's baffling poetry or Szwed's often tiresome explication of Ra's numerous arcane obsessions.
Now that Space Is the Place has finally been added to the posthumous embarrassment of riches (virtually all of them worth the wait) with which Sun Ra fans have been blessed in the years since his death, it can also be admitted in hindsight that Szwed's obvious labor of love was almost inevitably doomed from the beginning to be something of a disappointment. How could anyone possibly expect to do complete justice to the sprawling carnival epic of flesh and spirit that was Sun Ra, let alone in a mere 476 pages? Yet despite this, there is finally no denying that Space Is the Place—particularly with its inclusion of an extensive bibliography and Robert L. Campbell's monumental discography—is an essential complement and companion to the beautifully packaged and painstakingly documented Evidence reissues of the Arkestra's Saturn recordings, to Robert Mugge's documentary film Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise, and to the literally dozens and dozens of other recordings scattered across labels all over the world.
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Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 3, Fall (#7) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997