Space Is The Place: The Lives And Times Of Sun Ra

Ian Patterson By

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Space Is The Place: The Lives And Times Of Sun Ra
John F. Szwed
512 Pages
ISBN: 978-1-4780-0841-5
Duke University Press

Of all the 20th century jazz figures, perhaps only John Coltrane and Miles Davis have achieved greater cult status than Sun Ra. Unlike Coltrane, Ra lived into old age. And unlike both Coltrane and Davis, Ra is not usually credited with pioneering or leading new directions in jazz. Ra's fame had as much to do with his esoteric views and the sci-fi paraphernalia surrounding the Arkestra—the large ensemble he led for forty years—as it did with his music. And yet, as John F. Szwed's biography reveals, there is evidence to position Ra at the forefront of modal jazz, the electric keyboard, free-jazz, psychedelic music, modern recording conventions, and Afrofuturism.

Szwed's illuminating portrait of one of jazz's most colorful personalities was originally published by Pantheon Books in 1997. This reissue by Duke University Press is welcome, even if the timing seems a little odd. Perhaps 2014, when Ra would have been 100, might have been a more symbolic moment with which to relaunch the Ra debate. The only addition to the original manuscript is the inclusion of a new forward by Szwed—a former Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, African American Studies and Film Studies at Yale University. The new forward, however, amounts to a brilliant essay that brings a fresh overview to Ra's story.

Only when the dust of time has settled can greater historical perspective be brought to bear on people and events. Since 1993, when Ra died at the age of 79, much has happened to invite reconsideration of his life, his considerable body of work, and his legacy. In the intervening years Ra has inspired numerous biographies, collections of his science fiction poetry, collections of his philosophical street-corner leaflets, a beautifully illustrated children's picture book, and an exhaustive—though probably incomplete—847-page discography/concerts listing. As Szwed also points out in the forward, Sun Ra's music has been reworked or sampled by MC5, Thundercat, Moor Mother, Flying Lotus, Idris Ackamoor and the Pyramids, Yo La Tengo, and Lady Gaga, among others.

The main strength of Szwed's biography is that it reflects how Ra's music, his poetry, art and stage shows were all extensions of his world view, or rather his universal view, for Ra saw himself not as an Earthly being, but as a spiritual being -a cosmic messenger sent to this planet from Saturn. His mission was to make people see beyond Earthly concepts of birth, death, space and time, and to sew harmony. His philosophizing/proselytizing drew on a complex weave of Egyptology, science fiction, Biblical interpretations, Afro- Baptist imagery and nature. It's no simple task to disentangle all the threads that fed into Ra's cosmology, and that seems to be the way he wanted it.

Born Herman Poole Blount on May 22, 1914, in Birmingham, Alabama, Ra strove throughout his life to eradicate his past. He claimed he was not born but sent from Saturn, as an emissary of The Creator. In 1952, he legally changed his name to Sony'r Ra. Sun Ra was the practical abbreviation.

Of his adopted name he said: "Sun Ra is not a person, it's a business name...and my business is changing the planet." There would be no going back. Once the Arkestra started touring abroad after 1970 he even registered his passport under the name Sun Ra. Ra's music and beliefs weren't the only things that were difficult to pin down. "Sun Ra refused a fixed identity..." the author says.

Szwed, who like Ra, was raised in Birmingham, Alabama, examines the fixed points of Sun Ra's life, equating them with the complex persona the artist created and nurtured. Szwed spent three years interviewing surviving relatives, Arkestra musicians—with whom he toured—and people who knew and who were influenced by Ra. Quotations from Ra himself are drawn from myriad published sources over decades, many of them translated from other languages.

The author displays an even hand for both telling detail and concise prose. Four-hundred pages of narrative, on a man who recorded around two hundred albums over forty years, hardly seems excessive.

The book's chapters are divided into the main periods of Ra's life; his upbringing in Birmingham, Alabama, and his subsequent periods in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. Ra's early years growing up in the segregated South warrant just fifty pages, but it is perhaps the most important part of the book in terms of revelations.

Herman Blount had a quiet childhood, raised in the Baptist tradition by his maternal grandmother Margaret Jones and his great-aunt Ida Howard. That the author describes a good student who devoured books, or the fact that at age ten Blount joined the American Woodsmen Junior Division—a boy's organisation that taught woodcraft, camping skills, precision marching and oratory—might seem like innocuous biographical detail, until seen in a wider context.

The young Blount was impressed with the American Woodsmen Junior Division's symbols and emblems and its commitment to nature. "They showed me discipline...all about secret orders...and how to be a leader," Ra would recount in later years.

Something else that stayed with Ra was his passion for books and a hunger for knowledge. Years later, when the author was given access to Ra's library, he found the writings of 19th century theosophists who described the healing power of music. There were books on science, Egyptian archaeology, and others that traced all culture to ancient Egypt. There were two alternative versions of The Bible, a Hebrew dictionary, as well books on black folklore, hieroglyphics, etymology and color therapy. As we learn at every step of this biography, this all fed into Ra's cosmology. And if at times his knowledge, or at least his explanations, seemed arcane and confusing, he also comes across as being sincere.

Szwed demonstrates how Ra's beliefs played out in his music, his art, and in his speech. It translated into Ra's love for plays on words, and his ideas on universal harmony and dissonance. For example, when the Arkestra were on tour, Ra would check out the hotel rooms and assign each musician a specific room according to the vibrations he received from the colors. For Ra, harmony was everything.

After his great-aunt Ida bought the eleven-year-old Blount a piano he quickly learned to play and to read music without lessons. Szwed depicts Birmingham as a city awash with music. He relates how, as a teenager, Blount would slip out of the house and make a beeline for the clubs. From outside he would listen to all the territory bands. "I never missed a band," Ra told Down Beat's Tam Fiofori in 1970, "whether a known or unknown unit. I loved music beyond the state of liking it."

With linear precision the author traces Blount's incremental steps as a gigging musician, and the many hours spent practicing, arranging and reading music. It was the sort of discipline that he would later bring to the Arkestra, whose marathon rehearsal sessions might last up to twelve hours.

Having followed his academic ambitions to Florida A&M, a vocational training college, Blount took his first formal piano lessons with Professor Lula Hopkins Randall, studying many of the great classical composers. It was also where Blount first related his encounter with aliens, who took him, he claimed, to Saturn.

"They would teach me some things that when it looked like the world was going into complete chaos, when there was no hope for nothing, then I could speak, but not until then. I would speak, and the world would listen. That's what they told me." For Blount it was an epiphany. The author soberly interprets Ra's version of events thus: "He was both prophesizing his future and explaining his past with a single act of personal mythology."

Ra's thirst for musical knowledge went beyond transcribing Fletcher Henderson compositions and studying classical music. New sounds intrigued him. He bought one of the first commercially available steel tape recorders in 1937, and a small electric keyboard, the Hammond Solovox, as soon as it came onto the market in 1940. In the mid-1950s the author records, Ra would be one of the first musicians to record with an electric piano. On a trip to check out the new synthesizers at Robert Moog's laboratories in the 1950s, Ra remarked: "Black people are behind on these things, and they've got to catch up."

Music was an obsession, with Blount setting up a rehearsal-only band for the pure joy of making music. Blount's originality, his penchant for unusual chords, the author notes, was recognized by musicians even then. "He did nothing but think and play music, day and night, sometimes all night," the author relates. As a young man Blount developed insomnia and would become notorious in later years for calling his musicians at any time of the night to share new musical ideas or to find someone willing to rehearse.

When America entered World War II Blount avoided the draft as a conscientious objector, though he could not avoid spending thirty-nine days in jail for his failure to report to the Civilian Public Service Camp. When his great-aunt Ida died in 1946 Blount felt he had no reason to stay in Birmingham, and like so many blacks seeking employment and a better life, Blount moved to Chicago.

Chicago proved a fertile musical ground for Blount. He got a six-month gig with Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra at the De Lisa Club, where the floor shows with their comedians and dancers made a lasting impression on him. These sort of variety performances, the author states, were ..."one of the sources for the elaborate 'cosmo dramas' he would later stage with his own band." There was a brief stint playing with Coleman Hawkins, but by 1950 Blount was leading a 12-piece band that included Von Freeman, Wilbur Ware and Vernel Fournier.

Not long after changing his name in October, 1952 (he was now professionally known as Sun Ra), Ra formed The Space Trio, with drummer Robert Barry and in turn, saxophonists Pat Patrick and John Gilmore, both of whom would play in the Sun Ra Arkestra for close to forty years. The Space Trio, however, mostly played strip clubs. Ra expanded the trio to include six horns and a rhythm section, the ensemble going by an ever-changing roster of names: the Cosmic Space Jazz Group; The Myth Science Arkestra; the Intergalactic Research Arkestra; the Omniverse Ultra 21st Century Arkestra; and dozens more besides.

The core band rehearsed every day in Pat Patrick's mother's house, or any other available space. Hand in hand with the music went Ra's lectures and spiritual guidance. There was no distinction between rehearsal and performance, and by taping both, the author notes, "he put incredible responsibility on the players." One musician (Ra preferred to call them "tone scientists") estimated that for every hour on the bandstand the band rehearsed for 180 hours.

This part of the book relating to Ra's philosophy of rehearsing, and playing for audiences, is particularly revealing. The Arkestra's costumes first appeared in 1958, with old cast-offs from an opera. The famous sci-fi/Egyptian regalia of later years, the flowing robes and headgear, were more than just props. "Costumes are music," Ra said. "Colors throw out musical sounds too. Every color throws out vibrations of life."

In 1956 Ra and Alton Abraham—a friend and Ra advocate from Birmingham—set up the record label, El Saturn Research. Ra was determined to control his own music and generate income. As Szwed notes, for any musician in those days, black or white, to control the production and the selling of their own records was ..."so daring, so unprecedented, as to be heroic in the music business."

Ra's music gradually became more adventurous and he attracted a great number of musicians. The combination of rock 'n' roll and a recession, however, meant that gigs were hard to come by for the Arkestra, while the press remained largely indifferent. It was almost an inevitability, when in 1961, Ra took his band to New York, where they would stay for seven years, living communally. Szwed describes Ra as "the father of a motherless family, forced to play both play parental roles."

Out of necessity The Arkestra began to play non-traditional jazz venues, becoming part of the bohemian East Village scene in the process. It was a time of great experiment in the arts, although most critics were wary of the Sun Ra Arkestra at best, and not infrequently, hostile.

Many musicians, however, began to sit up and take notice of Ra's music, particularly after the Arkestra began its Monday-night residency in Slug's saloon -a run that lasted from March 1966 until February 1972. Jazz royalty like Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey turned up to see the Arkestra's shows, as would painters and poets of the day. The shows typically ran from 9pm until 4am, and included dancers, poets, projected film, processions through the audience, light manipulation and raps. Ra drew from the traditions of vaudeville, tent shows, black cabaret and mythology. The author quotes Michael Zwerin, writing in the Village Voice in 1967, who described a typical performance as "pagan, religious, simple, complex, and almost everything else at the same time."

Some identified the Sun Ra Arkestra with free-jazz, but Ra saw the inability of much free-jazz to connect with people. He also rejected the notion of freedom. "My music is the music of precision...I have in my mind a complete image of my work, on all different levels: melody, harmony and rhythm."

Homemade instruments and vast array of instruments from around the world featured in the Arkestra's performances, though Ra saw the musicians as his instruments. Undoubtedly, some of Ra's most striking music was recorded in this period. For the author, Strange Strings (Saturn, 1967), an experiment in textures played on instruments foreign to the musicians, represents: ..."perhaps the most completely improvised but organic piece in the history of jazz."

Szwed could never be accused of hagiography, quoting those who were either non-plussed or else downright dismissive of Ra's music and stage presentation. Betty Carter, for example saw Sun Ra's whole space shtick as a sham: "It's supposed to have something to do with stars and Mars," Carter told Art Taylor in an early 1980s interview, "but it's nothing but bullshit. Sun Ra has got whitey going for it. He couldn't go uptown and do that to blackie. He would be chased off the stage in Harlem or Bedford-Stuyvesant."

When their landlord put the house up for sale in 1968, Ra and his core musicians moved to Philadelphia, where Marshall Allen's father rented them a brownstone house. Philadelphia at that time only had a couple of jazz clubs, and the Arkestra wasn't well known, so the band continued to commute to New York for its Monday- night residency at Slug's until 1972.

A major change in the band's fortunes came in 1970. Willis Conover, who reached significant audiences across Europe with his Voice of America Jazz Hour, had been urging Ra to tour Europe. When an invitation came from France, Ra accepted. A lengthier European tour followed later that year. The shows boasted all the Arkestra's kaleidoscopic theatricality. In his book Oceans of Sound (Michael Faber, 2018), David Troop, who described the London show on November 9th as "one of the most spectacular concerts ever held in this country," noted: "But those who concentrated solely on the music ignored Ra's role as a political messenger."

What comes across clearly in Szwed's book is that Ra's messages—he scattered his thoughts like seeds in the wind—were not only difficult to divine, they also changed over the years, much like his music. What was consistent was his stance for a re-examination of black history, a reinterpretation of the Bible, and a re-awakening of black consciousness.

Nevertheless, Ra stood apart from the more radical black nationalism espoused by the Nation of Islam or The Black Panthers. Ra preached harmony and love. Not for nothing did so many of his musicians stay with him for decades. The high esteem in which many of Ra's musicians held him, for both his musical knowledge and for his spiritual guidance, is a recurring theme of the book.

The Arkestra's first European dates brought the band recognition at home and launched the band globally. They recorded more than ever, with nine records coming out in 1979 alone. The touring schedule was demanding. In 1990, when Ra was seventy-six, the Arkestra made no fewer than six trips to Europe. In the latter years, the author comments, the music was becoming "less mysterious, less threatening...," which is perhaps unsurprising given the relentless, grueling touring.

Even after a series of strokes in November 1990, Ra was back on the road three months later, though he was not his former self, unable or unwilling to speak with his audiences. A further stroke stopped Ra though not the band, who he told to continue without him. In January 1993, Ra went back to Birmingham to be cared for by his family. He died on May 30th, 1993.

Space is The Place is an exhaustive, fascinating and ultimately humanizing account of Sun Ra's life. Ra comes across as a complex and sometimes divisive figure, but it is impossible to ignore the impact he made on several generations of musicians, both during and beyond his lifetime. This is a very cogent history of the near mythical, self-mythologizing figure that was Sun Ra—one of the most singular figures in the history of American culture.

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