I’m laid up with a nasty cold, so I’m resting and re-reading John F. Szwed’s masterful Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (Pantheon, 1997). In his Introduction, Szwed makes a remarkable statement:
This is the biography of a musician who confronted the problems of creating music for an audience who expected nothing more than to be entertained, but who at the same time attempted to be a scholar and a teacher, and to take his audiences beyond the realm of the aesthetic to those of the ethical and the moral. (p. xviii)The realm of the ethical and the moral is a realm that most music criticism tends to avoid, and for good reason I suppose. Szwed’s statement begs a host of questions: Can music be ethical or moral? Or does music rely upon the extra-musical (e.g. biography, texts, performance) to convey ethics and morality? What is an unethical or immoral music? Can ethical or moral music be produced by unethical or immoral persons? Who decides what constitutes ethical ethics and moral morality? These questions are not easy to answer, even in the case of Sun Ra, who explicitly espoused such ethical and moral concerns amidst the afro-cryptic, space-age show-biz trappings; he often stated that he was sent here from Saturn to help people.
In my re-reading, I will be looking closely to see whether Szwed merely asserts the moral and ethical components of Ra’s music or instead seeks to articulate how this realm is manifested in the music itself (beyond, of course, lyrical statements). Personally, I believe that, yes, there is an ethical and moral component that was central to what Sun Ra was attempting to accomplish through his music and that component is audible; to say exactly where and how is another matter altogether.
Or maybe it’s just the Sudafed® talking.