Marshall Allen: The Marshall Plan

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Marshall Allen and the Sun Ra Arkestra
By Shawn Brackbill
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Marshall Allen
By Shawn Brackbill
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Marshall Allen
By Shawn Brackbill
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Marshall Allen
By Shawn Brackbill

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As the Sun Ra Arkestra prepares for a performance, a casual observer might not be able to tell who leads the band. Without their namesake there to provide direction, the players share responsibilities. Percussionist Elson Nascimento serves as band manager, making sure things are in order for the show. Alto saxophonist Noel Scott rifles through the briefcase filled with music, pulling out possible selections for the evening’s two sets.

“‘Sunology,’ ‘Big John Special,’ ‘Sleepy Time Gal,’” he says. “We haven’t played ‘Sophisticated Lady’ in a long time.”

“No, you’re adding too much,” baritone saxophonist Rey Scott kids as he warms up his horn.

Later this evening, Scott will be the member of the band making the occasional introductions between songs.

But as the soundcheck begins in earnest, and the band runs through a few tunes, alto saxophonist Marshall Allen clearly becomes the center of attention.

Allen leads the Arkestra through a version of “Somebody Else’s World,” a Ra tune from 1969 with a philosophical lyric. Although Art Jenkins could handle the singing, the vocal is skipped. The band is adjusting to the acoustics of Pittsburgh’s Hazlett Theatre, so the sound doesn’t click right away anyway.

“That sounds too funny; it gets on my nerves,” Allen says, regarding the monitor mix. Junie Booth’s bass is getting lost in the high-ceiling room—normally the site of theater and dance productions—so Allen tells him to play more pizzicato. As tenor saxophonist Ya Ya Abdul Majid solos, Allen whispers into his ear to coach him.

At 78, Allen retains a dark orange-red color to his full, closely trimmed beard. Dressed at the moment in a baseball cap, slacks and a yellow T-shirt that reveals his slight frame, he’s the only member of the 12-piece band besides Booth who stands, so the soloists can seen his physical cues. Situated in the front row, among the saxophonists, he takes his work seriously but maintains a casual air.

It’s only when his bandmates and the soundman misunderstand problems with his microphone level that Allen seems rattled. After repeated suggestions to turn up his microphone, he unleashes a loud honk to illustrate what he won’t be doing throughout the concert. “If I need to do that, I’ll stand back,” he says.

Later that evening, when the band marches onstage in procession singing Sun Ra’s “Planet Earth,” they’ve exchanged their T-shirts and baseball caps for black outfits, topped off by what look like shirts of mail done in sparkly red, blue and gold lamé colors. Several of them wear glittery fezzes. Allen stands out from the rest, in an outfit that looks like an interstellar choir robe, topped off by an elasticized fez with a picture of the planet Saturn, Sun Ra’s claimed birthplace. Combined with his weathered face, the outfit gives him the look and authority of a leader who can continue traversing Sun Ra’s spaceways.

When Sun Ra (born Herman “Sonny” Blount) died in 1993, he left behind a musical legacy that incorporated elements from both traditional swing and the furthest out avant-garde wailings. The members of the Arkestra—which often amended its name with adjectives such as Myth-Science, Astro-Infinity and Intergalactic—followed their leader’s unorthodox methods and philosophies, some living in the same house with him in West Philadelphia.

The Arkestra’s onstage attire represented their belief in outer space travel, capped by the leader’s insistence on his planet of birth. Ra would prompt the band with the question, “If we came from nowhere here, why can’t we go somewhere there?” A stage show could include dancers and underground films. Original pieces—some with dates serving as titles, others as “Disciplines”—could show up in the set lists, as well as interpretations of Disney music or chestnuts like “Over the Rainbow” and “Gone With the Wind.” A skilled pianist, Ra was also one of the first jazz musicians to experiment with electronic keyboards in the ’60s.

John Szwed, author of the 1997 biography Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (and the new So What: The Life of Miles Davis), says the bandleader was unique in that he seemed to be both ahead of and behind the times, playing pre-1932 swing three decades after it originated and a decade before repertory groups revived it in the 1970s. “To be ahead, I think, particularly required a leader with a lot of potential for organizing what was happening on the spot,” Szwed says. “And having a few outstanding soloists that you could count on and some incredible drummers.”

Alto saxophonist Allen was one such incredible soloist who became synonymous with the Arkestra, along with saxophonists John Gilmore and Laurdine “Pat” Patrick and vocalist June Tyson. Today, he is the only living member of the core group. (John Gilmore led the group briefly before he became too sick and died two years after Sun Ra.) Allen still resides in the Arkestra’s house in West Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood. Arkestra saxophonists Noel Scott and Ya Ya Abdul Majid and drummer Luqman Ali live with him. The rest of the band is spread out between Philadelphia and New York.

Allen never intended to be a bandleader, let alone one that took over for a personality as dynamic as Sun Ra. But he rose to occasion when the opportunity presented itself. “This is a guy who had never taken this kind of role and just leaped into it,” Szwed says. “I can’t stress that enough. He was just a musician who did what he was told. Then suddenly, he was a leader. Usually, you get some kind of transition or you’re not ever good at it.”

Like his flamboyant predecessor, Allen too evokes a series of contradictions, speaking fondly of Johnny Hodges’ rich tone before a show, only to emit some Braxtonesque shrieks mid-performance. He expresses the need for the Arkestra to swing but thinks nothing of repeatedly leading them into a “space chord,” where the Arkestra emits a collective loud, atonal blast that nevertheless expresses joy.

“There’s no way I can stress enough what a nightmarish change that is: A person who ran an orchestra entirely on charisma and entirely on a kind of majesty has to be replaced,” Szwed says. “It’s absurd. You can’t copy the person. And, of course, he didn’t.”

Ask Marshall Allen for his fondest memory of his late band-leader Sun Ra, and the saxophonist can’t think of it.

“I played with somebody for 35, 40 years—hey, what can I say,” Allen cracks, his gravelly voice breaking into a chuckle. “There’s been the ups and the downs and the arounds, but everything as a whole is—I’m still here. So that’s my fondest memory—I miss him.”

At this point, Allen’s voice turns a little more somber. “I have to do the things now, and it seemed like it was so easy for him to do it that I catch a little trouble trying to do it,” he says, laughing again. “But when I get down to business, I come up with something, because I don’t give up or nothing. I want to carry on his music and his ideas as best I can.”

Allen was working for the Revere Camera Company in Chicago in the late 1950s, when he heard a Sun Ra demo in a record store. At that time, the Arkestra was playing in a style that combined swing charts with postbop harmonies, and Allen still swoons as he talks about it. “That band got all these different sounds,” he says, drawing out the last word. “I like the way it sounded, the songs he wrote, the feeling, and all of that. And I said, ‘Yeah.’”

When Allen found out the band practiced about six blocks from his house, he made it his mission to join them, no matter how long it took. “I would not take no for an answer,” Allen says. “I kept on hanging around to be of some kind of use, until [Sun Ra] gave me chance to come in and play with him privately so he could see what I was doing and what my feeling was, and he could fit me in.”

He didn’t realize it, but his saxophone playing was only part of the audition. In fact, the topic of music was hardly a part of his initial conversations with the eccentric pianist. Ra talked extensively about philosophy, ancient history and his own poetry, which dealt with travel beyond the stars. A musician’s ability to understand Ra’s perspective was equally as important as his chops. “That way, he was seeing if you were really sincere and had some discipline in order to understand the music he was writing,” Allen says.

In the early days, Allen says Sun Ra never wrote out music for his bands, preferring to teach it to them by ear. His instructions weren’t always greeted warmly. “He’d say, ‘I want you to sound like a violin.’ I play the saxophone. I don’t want to sound like no violin,” Allen says, still feeling the indignation. “But it was the concept. You could do anything if you put your mind to it. I had to figure out, ‘Well, how do you do that?’”

Eventually, it became obvious that Allen would have to rethink his approach to music. Ra “told us to not play what we knew, which was hard because we studied,” he says. “But we played things we didn’t know without even realizing we’re playing them. I played things I didn’t understand, but I did it from my heart and therefore, I did understand it.”

Sun Ra also believed that the addition of even one new musician could change the face of the song, so he often rearranged tunes at a moment’s notice. Players came to expect these curve balls. “I’d think, ‘I’ve got my part, but he’ll probably get up there and change it five minutes before we’re going to play it,’” Allen says. “And that was a challenge. I was used to [the approach where you] learn your part and then you go play it. But this kept me on my toes. I couldn’t sit back and relax.”

After nearly a year of going to practices with the Arkestra, Allen became a full-fledged member, playing flute—and oboe on rare occasions—in addition to alto. The extended apprenticeship fostered a deep appreciation for Ra’s technique. “If you’d be tall enough for the things he was teaching and the stories he was telling and the histories, then you’d begin to tune into the leader and get on his vibrations,” he says. “And he’d guide you to many different angles and ideas and tell you to do them, whether you understood them or not.”

The level of preparedness continues with the current Arkestra. Allen never figures out a set list prior to a performance, preferring to call out tunes as he figures out the mood as the set proceeds. He also reworks an arrangement if additional musicians sit in. “We’d still do the numbers, but there’d be something different about it,” he explains. “You have to go with another arrangement, add and subtract things. That doesn’t bother me. All I want them to do is understand it, try to hear each other.”

With so many of Sun Ra’s compositions and arrangements at their disposal, the band has never really run the risk of becoming a ghost band that trots out the “greatest hits.” A version of “Over the Rainbow,” full of multiple key signatures and voicings overlapping, probably won’t get old anyway. But Allen has also written more than 50 of his own tunes, and many of them have made it into the repertoire. In 1999, the Arkestra released A Song for the Sun, the band’s first recording since the pianist passed away. It maintained the spirit, swing and humor of the Arkestra’s past work and struck a balance between compositions by Ra and Allen, with fresh versions of old warhorses “The Way You Look Tonight” and “There Will Never Be Another You.”

Maintaining a large band poses its own unique challenges—practices and personalities among them—but Allen doesn’t feel any undue pressure to fill the void left by his late boss. They don’t use any keyboard players, and the only electronics come from Allen’s electronic valve instrument, which sounds like a primitive theremin.

Allen feels like he’s still discovering the methods that Sun Ra taught him. “I’m not Sun Ra, but I’m going to take these things, his influences. I’m carrying on and trying to understand these things that I used to not be able to understand quite well. After years and years, sometimes it just comes to me.”

One thing that separates the saxophonist from Ra is their temperament: where Ra could lash out in an adverse situation, Allen rolls with it. At the Hazlett Theatre, the desire to play music obviously outweighs any acoustical setbacks. “We’ve played all kind of places: places that had bad acoustics, we played cellars, we played penthouses, inside, outside,” he casually mentions. “But each place, you have to adjust yourself, and you’ve got to listen to hear how we’re going to play in this hall. It’s different every time.”

Szwed isn’t surprised to hear about his mellow approach. “Marshall is a distinct character,” he says. “He’s always been the kind of guy who will be rehearsing and then go over and fix a leaking roof at another house, and come back again, finish up and then take care of his grandkids.” It’s a far cry from the Arkestra’s first concert in Los Angeles, where Sun Ra put a curse on the city after the stage lights accidentally went off in the middle of a performance.

The Arkestra has an endless catalog of albums documenting their legacy, thanks partly to the reissues of dozens of CDs originally released on Ra’s own Saturn label. This hasn’t resulted in great financial rewards for someone like Allen, but again, his modest attitude puts the music before personal gain. “I already made up my mind: It’d be nice to have some money, but that’s wishful thinking,” he says. “You ain’t supposed to stop because you don’t have none. You do the best you can with what you got. We’re surviving, and we’re trying to produce the best music we can. It don’t cost you no money to be sincere about what you’re doing.”

As far as Mr. Blount’s hailing from the sixth planet from the sun, as opposed to Alabama, Allen isn’t about to disprove it. “He could be from where he said he was,” Allen says. “I don’t know. It don’t matter.”

Keeping a philosophical look on his face, he opines with the question that he’ll ask onstage a few hours later: “We came from nowhere here, why can’t we go somewhere there? Then we’ll know.”

Originally published in December 2002

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