Always riveting, Space Is the Place is the definitive biography of “one of the great big-band leaders, pianists, and surrealists of jazz” (The New York Times)—unparalleled for his purposeful outlandishness, a man who exerted a powerful influence over a vast array of artists.
Sun Ra—a/k/a Herman Poole “Sonny Blount—was born in Alabama on May 22, 1914. But like Father Divine and Elijah Muhammad, he made a lifelong effort to obscure many of the facts of his early life. After years as a rehearsal pianist for nightclub revues and in blues and swing bands, including Wynonie Harris’s and Fletcher Henderson’s, Sun Ra set out in the 1950s to find a way to impart his views about the galaxy, black people, and spiritual matters through the various incarnations of the Intergalactic Arkestra. His repertoire ranging from boogie-woogie, swing, and bebop to free form, fusion, and whatever, Sun Ra was above all a paragon of contradictions: profundity and vaudeville; technical pianistic virtuosity and irony; assiduous attention to arrangements and encouragement of collective improvisation; respect for tradition and celebration of the fresh.
Some might have been bemused by his Afro-Platonic neo-hermeticism; others might have laughed at his egregious excesses. But Sun Ra was at once one of the great avant-gardists of the latter half of the twentieth century and a black cultural nationalist who extended Afrocentrism from ancient Egypt to the heavens.
About John F. Szwed
John F. Szwed is Musser 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.