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Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra

4.19  ·  Rating details ·  1,051 ratings  ·  49 reviews
Sun Ra, a.k.a. Herman Poole "Sonny" Blount (1914–1993), has been hailed as "one of the great big-band leaders, pianists, and surrealists of jazz" (New York Times) and as "the missing link between Duke Ellington and Public Enemy" (Rolling Stone). Composer, keyboardist, bandleader, philosopher, poet, and self-proclaimed extraterrestrial from Saturn, Sun Ra led his "Intergala ...more
Paperback, 496 pages
Published August 22nd 1998 by Da Capo Press (first published 1997)
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Average rating 4.19  · 
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 ·  1,051 ratings  ·  49 reviews

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Jan 29, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography, music
I grew up in Baltimore. Sun Ra was based in Philly during alotof of my adult yrs there. He played in Baltimore fairly often. There was a club on N Charles St called the Famous Ballroom. Sun Ra & the Arkestra played there. It was dark, w/ one of those "disco balls" - those multi-faceted things that spin & have light reflecting off them. It wasn't a big place but the stage cd manage to hold the Arkestra. I have a very fond memory (that must be around 30+ yrs old by now) of sitting at the Ballroom ...more
Eddie Watkins
May 21, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: music, biography
Sun Ra was fascinating and inspiring (and more than a little weird, though not as weird as his persona might proclaim, which is to say for all his cosmic out-thereness he was grounded), and this book gives a nicely detailed view into how he managed to keep a marginal big band jazz outfit alive and thriving for forty years or more. It also provides lots of information on his particular philosophy and how he developed it.

Sun Ra was like an alien Duke Ellington in tinsel who managed, through luck o
Aug 20, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: intergalactic jazz fans
Shelves: jazznbeats
I don't know if this book de-mystifies Sun Ra or confirms his weirdness, but one thing's for certain: this is a great book that entertains like only the best jazz can. Many members of his big band remained loyal to him for over thirty years, and its easy to see why.
Sun Ra started out emulating Duke Ellington until he got hooked into the Martin Denny lounge groove while constantly experimenting with (then)new keyboards and exotic arrangements ; his movie "Space Is The Place" was a combination of
Sep 20, 2011 rated it it was amazing
"His first UK performance... was one of the most spectacular concerts ever held in this country. Not spectacular so much in terms of effects, which were low on budget but high on strange atmosphere; spectacular in terms of presenting a complete world view, so occult, so other, to all of us in the audience that the only possible responses were outright dismissal or complete intuitive empathy with a man who had chosen to discard all possibilities of a normal life, even a normal jazz life, in favor ...more
Wes Freeman
Jan 18, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Certainly the best biography of an unbiographiable person, maybe the best biography of a musician ever. Telling the story of a man who spent his adulthood trying to outdistance his own humanity is a tall order. The most concrete things Swzed has to go on are government documents, Ra's notebooks (the parsing of same requiring at the very least a slide rule, etymological dictionary and a library of pre-Civil Rights era books on Black Nationalism), and offhanded comments from the man that might hin ...more
Feb 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Very well done biography on a difficult and enigmatic subject. One slight disappointment is that the later years of Ra's life (esp. last 15 years, much of which he spent touring Europe) are treated quite tersely compared to the earlier years, with fewer insights added by the author. And, maybe it's just my opinion, but I would have liked to see more interviews with Arkestra musicians explaining why they stayed with Ra despite low remuneration, rigorous practice sessions, etc. For instance, there ...more
Mister Mank
Apr 11, 2015 rated it really liked it
On the final page of this biography, Szwed calls Sun Ra "difficult to follow and hard to believe," and that pretty much sums him up. Sun Ra resists definition — a black nationalist who was evicted from a Black Panthers-owned house, a theologist who undermined religion, an avant-garde composer who paid homage to big band swing, a serious intellectual (who lectured at UC Berkeley) with a gift for humor and word play. Reading this book won't answer too many questions about what Sun Ra was actually ...more
Jan 23, 2008 rated it it was amazing
The most inspiring book I've read while unemployed and feeling completely uncreative. Very glad somebody with a background in Afro-American cultural studies wrote a book about Le'Sony Ra. Instead of exoticizing Herman P. Blount like most of the musical world has, Szwed contextualizes Sun Ra in a continuum of Black American occult and futurist philosophers, authors, musicians, and artists.
Phil Overeem
Feb 15, 2008 rated it really liked it
Quite a bio. Szwed has the task of taking a musician who was certifiably half genius and half lunatic and portraying him with understanding and dignity, not to mention illuminating him. Plus, it serves as an underground history of African-American 20th century consciousness and puts Ra's messy discography in order.
Dec 21, 2008 rated it really liked it
it's after the end of the world - don't you know that yet?
Kate Priest
Jul 29, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: music
Very close to hagiography in most chapters. The fact that all other Arkestra members are relegated to background characters (even John Gilmore, somehow!) was very telling. Discipline is a word repeatedly used in the book to describe the regimens that Sun Ra put his musicians through. The word is sufficiently vague enough to not directly allude to mental and physical abuse, though it can nonetheless imply such behaviour.

Why was Sun Ra's maltreatment of his band never addressed in any clear way?
Allen Houston
Dec 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating peek behind the curtain at Sun Ra's music and the philosophy that drove his beliefs.
Mar 01, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
John F. Szwed's superbly researched biography of Sun Ra brings a sense of chronological order to the ears and mind long fascinated by the persona and massive recorded output of the man from Saturn. Szwed manages to add another dimension of insight into this already colorful character.

The evolutionary development of Ra was particularly interesting. I hadn't realized that his house rehearsal habits had already begun before he'd left Birmingham. The experiences that shaped him on his course from Ch
Dec 07, 2009 rated it it was amazing
I always found Sun Ra's music and off the wall worldview/persona interesting. I thought it was more or less a put on but from what I get out of this book apparently it wasn't. He was a fanatical reader who cobbled together Afrocentricism/Black Nationalism with a mish mash of UFology, numerology, science fiction, Egyptian Paganism, Kabbalism, Freemasonry and various other odd influences. What he believed was total non sense but he was the type of guy that would have made a greatly entertaining gu ...more
Peter Landau
May 19, 2014 rated it really liked it
Are you depressed, uncomfortable, feel imprisoned on this green jailhouse? That’s because space is the place, and while we might be on a journey through the solar system on this global ship, the trip is like driving with one of our four tires missing -- we’re going in circles. But there is hope, one-hundred years ago, Earth arrival time, came Sun Ra, and with him the promise that striving for the possible is a waste of time. Anybody can do the possible. Achieve the impossible, that’s the real ac ...more
Shane Bordoli
Aug 19, 2014 rated it really liked it
A great book, a page-turner and something that really helped put Ra's work in perspective for me. Every period of Ra's life and music is well documented. From looking around this seems to be the definitive book on Sun Ra and I couldn't get enough of it!

The only downside for such a well-received book is that it could do with an editor going over it with a fine toothcomb. It looses a star in my rating because of the very few minor editorial errors I think I found; one quote is repeated in part tw
Dec 10, 2008 rated it it was ok
Great subject exhaustive book, exhausting book, I can usually power through these for the parts about recording sessions or crazy shows, but it seemed like this book covered every musician who'd ever been in the same room with him and every book, pamphlet, or tract that he'd read. This may be the one I'd say to skip the book and watch the movie of the same name, low budget brilliance in which Mr. Ra blows up a saloon by playing dissonant stride piano so he can play the devil in a chess game, in ...more
Jonathan Nall
Jan 26, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, music
The story of Herman Blount is the story of one of the twentieth century's greatest musicians. From the corner taverns of Calumet City, Indiana to Alphabet City in Manhattan, Sun Ra's story is an incredible read. Admittedly, this is not for everyone, but if you like music history and jazz, this biography is a super fun read. Rolling Stone magazine called him the missing link between Duke Ellington and Public Enemy. Sounds far-out? Well it is.
Feb 09, 2016 rated it liked it
Read this well over 15 years ago, have to take it down off the shelf and dust it off. From memory Swzed is good on the early life of Sonny Blount as a youth in Alabama, his musical roots, his piano playing and some interesting facts as a conscription objector and finally his entry into music as Sun Ra. The other parts of the book I could not get into and skipped a few chapters on cosmic hokum, but its a good read for any fans of the this legendary figure in African American music.
Aug 18, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: jazz, biography
Story of a great American (Saturnian?) musical innovator -- which I got a taste of in "Blutopia". Another great biography, by a good writer/historian with a deep knowledge and love of subject -- reaffirming my general avoidance of modern long fiction when there are so many compelling "real" stories not to be missed!
Jan 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
So it seems that my main man Charles Mingus ran into Ra in New York's Greenwich Village in the mid '60s.
Mingus: What are you doing down here?
Ra: Well, I often come down to the Village...
Mingus: No, I mean, what are you doing down here on Earth?

Ra to a journalist, late '70s: Did you see Star Wars? It was very realistic.
Raymond Wright
Jan 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
An excellent biography of the being from Saturn
May 14, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: everyone who likes Sun-Ra
I had no idea just how complicated and exciting Sun-Ra's life was until I read this book. It tought me a lot about him, his music, his band and music in general. He was hardcore DIY 20 or 30 years before the term even existed.
Apr 25, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: aliens
Sun Ra lived and made music on his own terms. He dreamt of a planet where African Americans could get away from white people. His music is startlingly original and his life is a paragon of ingenious eccentricity. Read! Listen!
Oct 20, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: music-books
The definitive book on Sun Ra -- if there is any justice at all the world will be recognized as one of the great artists of our time. Szwed does a wonderful job of honoring him with the concrete details of his life and music.
Kirsten Kowalczyk
Dec 14, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in jazz music or the history of jazz. It describes in detail the life of one of the greatest avant-garde musicians of all time. From his childhood to him and his Arkestra, this book goes into great depth about his life.
Colin Masso
Jun 21, 2013 rated it it was amazing
All other music biographies will be judged by me in comparison with this from now on. You don't have to be a fan of Sun Ra's music to appreciate this book, but I'm sure that it helps. Highly recommended.
Jun 27, 2007 rated it it was amazing
I am the alter destiny, the presence of the living myth.
Jun 08, 2008 rated it liked it
This is a good one for hard core fans of Sun Ra and jazz history. I skipped around a bit instead of reading it straight through.
Jul 30, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: music, jazz, favorites
John Szwed does it again! But how can you go wrong with such a fascinating, enigmatic, and colorful subject?
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