Space Is the Place

The Lives and Times of Sun Ra

Space Is the Place

Learn more about Robert Mugge's documentary on Sun Ra at The New Yorker.
Book Pages: 512 Illustrations: 20 illustrations Published: May 2020

Author: John Szwed

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, General Interest > Biography, Letters, Memoirs, Music

Considered by many to be a founder of Afrofuturism, Sun Ra—aka Herman Blount—was a composer, keyboardist, bandleader, philosopher, entrepreneur, poet, and self-proclaimed extraterrestrial from Saturn. He recorded over 200 albums with his Arkestra, which, dressed in Egypto-space costumes, played everything from boogie-woogie and swing to fusion and free jazz. John Szwed's Space is the Place is the definitive biography of this musical polymath, who was one of the twentieth century's greatest avant-garde artists and intellectuals. Charting the whole of Sun Ra's life and career, Szwed outlines how after years in Chicago as a blues and swing band pianist, Sun Ra set out in the 1950s to impart his views about the galaxy, black people, and spiritual matters by performing music with the Arkestra that was as vital and innovative as it was mercurial and confounding. Szwed's readers—whether they are just discovering Sun Ra or are among the legion of poets, artists, intellectuals, and musicians who consider him a spiritual godfather—will find that, indeed, space is the place.


“One of the great jazz biographies.” — Val Wilmer, The Guardian

"Szwed has produced a rare jazz biography—one that takes full account of the history that shaped the music and its central personalities.” — Brent Staples, New York Times

“[Szwed] succeeds in prying open countless enigmas within enigmas, revealing much that has eluded historians until now.” — Stuart Nicholson, Observer

“[An] extraordinary biography.” — Chris Morris, Billboard

“The story of the experimental jazz composer, keyboardist and band leader Sun Ra . . . is told with brilliance and grace by the Yale anthropologist John Szwed in this deeply simpatico new biography. . . . The achievement of this biography is that it carefully articulates such views of life and art at the same time that it provides hard data and analysis to locate Sun Ra's theories in historical context.” — Robert G. O’Meally, Washington Post

“Against the odds, Szwed carves out a central image of Sun Ra as a man whose sincerity was unquestioned, whose heart was pure. Essential reading for the millennium.” — David Toop, Village Voice

“Szwed also makes a strong case for Sun Ra as creative genius.” — Kirkus Reviews

“The book consistently succeeds in making the idiosyncrasies of [Sun Ra] much less strange by placing them within the mainstreams of African American culture. . . . Szwed is especially convincing when he documents the origins of Sonny's unique blend of mysticism, Egyptology, Afrocentrism, and nonsense. . . . Thanks to Sun Ra, and to this extraordinary book by John Szwed, jazz must be conceived as something much richer than an austere art music.” — Krin Gabbard, American Music

“Compelling.” — Lloyd Sachs, Chicago Sun-Times

“A brilliant book, a sprawling, curlicued, swinging account of an extraordinary man's great adventure with a bunch of ideas that made sense to him out of a senseless world.” — Nick Coleman, The Independent

“Szwed has unearthed a treasure trove of Ra data . . . [and ] through extensive personal interviews and archival materials, Szwed fills in the murky blanks of Ra's early years. . . . Szwed's portrait of Ra is both scholarly and affectionate. While many fans would often put brackets around aspects of Ra's persona, perhaps turning a blind eye to his convoluted philosophies or his space gypsy stage shows, Szwed embraces them, contradictions and all.” — John Diliberto, Billboard

“Through deft writing and detailed chronology, Yale professor and music critic Szwed manages to make the seemingly unintelligible, shiny-turbaned pioneer of big-band free jazz more accessible to society at large.” — Publishers Weekly

"Alongside Szwed's absorbing musical chronicle, the biographer tackles the more contentious subject of the vast framework of Sun Ra's poetry, theology, and philosophy, and makes a miraculous effort at synthesizing that massive body of often deliberately contradictory statements and beliefs. . . . While he brings academic rigor to his research, however, he writes with an easy flow and peppers the investigation with many memorable anecdotes recalling Sun Ra's idiosyncrasies. Szwed's book is as absorbing an account of Sun Ra's fascinatingly unorthodox life and times as we are ever likely to see.” — Kenny Mathieson, Scotsman

“Through collating practically everything written or known about his subject, Szwed doesn't diminish the singularity of Ra’s musical achievement, he enhances it. . . . There's an inspirational quality to Szwed's revelations as he demonstrates Ra's commitment to a course that could only be his own, with rewards that make money and fame seem paltry in comparison.” — Don McLeese, Austin American-Statesman

“John Szwed's excellent 1997 biography Space is the Place traces the in-depth study that lay behind Ra's fascination with Ancient Egypt, etymology and space, while making a case for the idea that Ra's Afrocentric cosmology not only reflected the tumult of the 1950s and 1960s, but transcended it.” — Mike Hobart, Financial Times

“Szwed is the best music biographer in the business.” — Greg Burk, LA Weekly

"The new forward . . . amounts to a brilliant essay that brings a fresh overview to Ra's story. . . . Space Is the Place is an exhaustive, fascinating and ultimately humanizing account of Sun Ra's life." — Ian Patterson, All About Jazz


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Price: $24.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

John Szwed is Adjunct Senior Research Scholar in the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth; So What: The Life of Miles Davis; and Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  xiii
Preface  xvii
Introduction  xxxi
Space is the Place  1
Notes  389
Selected Bibliography  409
Discography by Robert L. Campbell  427
Index  449
Sales/Territorial Rights: North America

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Paper ISBN: 978-1-4780-0841-5