PRINT November 1997


Sun Ra

When SUN RA first came to New York and walked into the Five Spot, Charles Mingus asked him, “What are you doing down here, Sunny?” Sun Ra answered, “I come down to the Village a lot.” “No,” said Mingus, “I mean what are you doing down here on Earth!”

Quite a few of our best musical minds are of interplanetary origin—Alexander Scriabin, Moondog, Albert Ayler, and Captain Beefheart. With good fortune, those of us with longstanding Earth roots may be privy to the cosmic philosophies of these otherwordly artists. Sun Ra believed man a victim of confounded histories and that truth was to be located in the lower strata of daily life. He chose musicians for their talent and their antisocial, downtrodden dispositions, and created a cult of mystic dialogue, sophisticated artistry, and disciplined ritual.

John F. Szwed, a professor of anthropology and Afro-American studies at Yale, has a keen and scholarly interest in linguistics, specifically the arcane and obscure. This may be the most fascinating aspect of Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (Pantheon), as we fall into studies of ancient knowledge with which Sun Ra enlightens himself and others to what he has always known. The subgenres of Egyptology, world theology, and race theory discovered through Szwed’s research into Sun Ra’s vast reading history are dizzying and profound. We follow Sun Ra throughout the ’50s and ’60s as he integrates and develops a musical theater of concepts derived from “antique” black teachings, a musical theater that references cosmology and philosophy through the traditional American swing of Fletcher Henderson. By all accounts, Sun Ra and his Arkestra’s radical fire music performances in New York City during the late ’60s and early ’70s were the most beautiful and heavy moments of a truly transcendent avantgarde. Amiri Baraka claimed him to be an intellectual visionary of black art. John Coltrane moved into dimensions of playing admittedly influenced by Sun Ra, an authentic outsider always speaking in gentle, cryptic terms. He and his coterie walked the streets living hand to mouth and wearing space robes and glitter. They were completely and utterly hip.

For reasons only his publisher may know Szwed spends a bit too much time researching the fact that Sun Ra was raised within an Earth family (residence: Birmingham, Alabama—the Magic City, of course), and christened Herman Blount. It is obvious and inconsequential to the true nature of Sun Ra’s call: man’s right to liberation through space travel and cosmic tones. “Some call me Mr. Ra, some call me Mr. Re, you may call me Mr. Mystery.

Aside from a few instances of denigration of and cluelessness about rock music, Szwed does seem to know the real deal. The book’s epigraph comes from Louis Armstrong: “Our music is a Secret Order.” Either you believe or you don’t.

Thurston Moore