Sun Ra's music challenges listeners to approach it with no preconceptions of right and wrong; Sun Ra himself challenges the biographer in the same manner. Sun Ra thought in ways that run counter to how a majority of society conceives of life. To start with, how should we respond when he claims that he was not really born, that he just appeared on this planet as a representative of Saturn? That claim stops most people from listening to him, let alone his provocative music. In his biography Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra
by John Szwed sets the example of how one should approach this jazz icon/oclast and his music: accept the man and his music on its terms and insight will follow.
At the close of the book Szwed himself acknowledges the challenge that Ra presents: "Sun Ra refused to accept a fixed identity, or a locatable historical position; he resisted closure.” This statement, as Szwed reminds us, applies equally to all elements of Ra's life: his music resists any attempt to trace its evolution; his discography is a haphazard jumble of self-pressings, re-issues and unreliable personnel information; his biographical data has been intentionally obscured by Ra himself; and his ideas are maddeningly incomplete: full of half-formed concepts and esoteric reasoning. Ironically, Szwed meets this chaotic challenge in the traditional biographer's manner and in the process creates a fascinating, multi-faceted image of this enigmatic being.
He recounts Ra's life chronologically, following him from Alabama to Chicago, from New York to Philadelphia, all over and eventually out of this world. Szwed re-creates Ra's life by using a rich variety of interviews, first person accounts and rehearsal tapes. The latter combined with Arkestra member interviews provide some of the most valuable insights into Ra's music, method and mind. From the outside the Arkestra seems to many to have been a kind of musical cult, but Ra held a different view: he would tell them "you’re not musicians, you're tone scientists." James Jacson recounts how Ra told them to "Play an apple" or "Play the warmth of the Sun." Szwed makes clear through numerous such accounts that Ra was working to inspire spiritual creativity, not intellectual creativity, in his musicians as well as the world at large. In turn, these accounts help us as listeners to stop approaching Ra's music intellectually and to instead let it move our spirits.
Szwed shows how badly some attempts to intellectualize Ra's music have failed when he includes a sizable excerpt of some French critics discoursing on Ra's music. They posture on about Ra's "deconstruction of music", his "drugstore-styled Africa" and yes, even a "double deconstruction". The critics do identify important elements in his music and performances, but in the end they succeed mostly in robbing both of their essential joy. Szwed makes room for other contemporary critical accounts, but he always gives Ra’s words the most weight. Here is Ra's own advice about how to listen:
Pure music is what you must face
If you limit, if you reject, if you do not consider
If you are selfish-earthly bound,
Pure music is your nemesis.
Many critics and fans have attempted to pigeonhole Ra in other manners, saying he derived his philosophy as a response to racism, or that he simply played a vaudevillian mix of free jazz and big band swing. Both perspectives hold some truth, but Szwed points out that Ra's musical and philosophical roots ran deeper and illustrates how Ra transcended the musical and social revolutions of his time. Instead of being a product of the times, Ra created his own time, his own Afro-Cosmos mythology, inventing past and future simultaneously. Szwed puts Ra in an earlier, forgotten philosophical tradition, that of Plato, Pythagoras, turn-of-the-century theosophists and the Sacred Cosmos of the Afro-Baptist church. Musically, we learn that Ra gained inspiration from musical visionaries like Scriabin and Wagner, as well as the Hollywood exotica of Lee Baxter and Martin Denny. Bebop was a minor development for Ra, as were the ‘freedom’ experiments of the 60s' New Music. Ra looked to earlier models, the orchestras of Ellington and Henderson, where he saw the models of unity and discipline he felt music and the world lacked.
Szwed drives home the idea that Ra intentionally travelled beyond the barriers of the expected. "And since everything that is possible has been tried, we need to try the impossible" was an oft permutated statement of Ra's and it explains why Ra was so obsessed with space travel and mystical ideas. Ra obsessively searched out obscure books and practiced his own kinds of numerology and word play, and from these he developed his own unique belief system. In two long sections Szwed paraphrases Ra's beliefs, assuming a voice that might have been Ra's own. (Szwed actually explains in the notes that he is paraphrasing Ra's own words, culled from hours of interviews.) This technique, while not convincing at first, becomes valuable after examining exactly why Szwed chose it. Readers can feel that they are hearing Ra's own voice, therefore strengthening the words' impact and authenticity. Secondly, by paraphrasing Ra's often-convoluted speech, Szwed distills his ideas to their essence, thereby granting us earthbound beings access to the spaced-out meaning. Some might see all this as crackpot mysticism, or worse, insane ramblings, yet Szwed's paraphrasing shows us that Ra was continually revising history in order to revise the future. He was hopefully trying to show us the impossible in ourselves and in society.
What does all of this detailed chronology and extended paraphrasing do to the style of book, though? Szwed writes in an unadorned, straightforward style that often gets a bit tedious to read. He seems intent on including as many facts and ideas as possible from the mountain of research he probably has on this subject. And the long paraphrasing sections often seem inserted at random points in the chronology, as we jump from Ra’s life to Ra’s ideas seemingly without warning. But overall, Szwed’s style fits his subject perfectly-Ra’s life was so colourful that we do not need his biographer to add even more shades.
Szwed succeeds most in Space is the Place by not falling into the post-modern trap many critics fall into: he doesn't try to graft some new meaning onto Ra's music. Ironically, this is what Ra was most into, this re-writing of history and the future. Danny Thompson, long-time Arkestra member, says "Sun Ra didn't say you had to believe; you should just check it out for yourself." Szwed's duty here was not to re-write Ra himself-his duty was to help us understand this mysterious being from another place. And by going along for the ride, he helps us glimpse and even understand Ra's positive, inspiring vision of tomorrow's world.
By John F. Szwed
DaCapo Press (September 1998)