Marshall Allen: Son of Ra

Unflagging at age 92, the saxophonist leads the Arkestra through an explosive era of crossover interest

Marshall Allen and the Arkestra head into Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, home base for the 2016 Vision Festival, following a parade through Washington Square Park
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The Arkestra, including reedists Mike Watson, Allen, Terry Lawson and Knoel Scott (from left), parades through Washington Square Park in June
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During the Arkestra's headlining Vision Festival performance in New York in June, saxophonist Knoel Scott dazzles the crowd by somersaulting from one riser to another and dancing
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In July, Allen and Arkestra vocalist Tara Middleton bring the message of Sun Ra to the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago's Union Park
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At the Sun Ra house and headquarters in Philadelphia's Germantown neighborhood, Allen plays in his study, where he composes
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The main entrance to the Sun Ra house, featuring a panting by David Lawrence, signifies the astral plane within
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The jazz life is not one geared toward retirement. Despite such occupational hazards as late nights and travel often best described as barebones, elder statesmen continue to do good work in and out of town. But few are as enduring as saxophonist Marshall Allen, age 92, or as busy.

In June he led the Sun Ra Arkestra, as he has since 1995, in a quick trip up to the 2016 Vision Festival. Not long after their two-hour drive from Philadelphia to New York, the Arkestra paraded around Washington Square Park, across the street from the festival site at Judson Memorial Church, playing a couple of tunes to a quickly swelling crowd. Later that night came the band’s headlining slot, also featuring a grade-school-aged dancer whom Allen joined out in front of the band at one point. “I had to go out there and help, so I grabbed her and twirled her around and lifted her up,” Allen recalled two days later, at the Sun Ra house and band headquarters in Philly. “I remember thinking, ‘Damn, she’s heavy!’ Between my horn and having to bend my legs down, the old body ain’t what it used to be. But I had a ball, and she sure did it.”

Allen didn’t get home until 5 a.m. and allowed himself to sleep until noon. When I pointed out that he’s at the age where he should be taking it easy, his response was quick: “Ain’t nothing to do when you retire.” One gets the sense that hell or high water, Marshall Allen will depart Planet Earth much as Sun Ra and his longtime saxophonist John Gilmore did-as a member of the Arkestra.

The Sun Ra Arkestra can still pack a venue, despite the fact that its visionary founder and namesake passed to the next astral plane in 1993. Taking over the controls two years later, after Gilmore followed suit, Allen has kept the group on point, which means making sure his musicians are creative, authentic and broadly appealing to those who follow jazz as well as to those who don’t. “We are playing something that young people haven’t heard, or are just not hip to,” says Danny Ray Thompson, who has played baritone saxophone alongside Allen since the late ’60s. “Then they hear it and say, ‘Wow, I really like it.’ But we have some older folks, too, people who have been fans of us from a long time ago who come to the shows.”

The Sun Ra centennial tour of 2014 included 66 live dates, and the Arkestra’s schedule hasn’t been much lighter this year, with shows in Japan and all over the U.S. and Europe, including several high-profile bookings that demonstrate the Arkestra’s still-growing reputation among hipsters whose tastes run directly from indie-rock toward the avant-garde, bypassing the modern jazz mainstream. There was a March set in Knoxville, Tenn., at the Big Ears festival, which featured everything from Anthony Braxton to the drone-metal of Sunn O))). The following month, the band traveled to North Wales for the now-defunct festival series All Tomorrow’s Parties, its name taken from a Velvet Underground song. In Brooklyn in May, the Arkestra shared a stage-in-the-round with Kamasi Washington and Pharoah Sanders, a program sponsored by the Red Bull Music Academy. Among the ensemble’s summer highlights was a slot at the annual Chicago fest thrown by the tastemaking website Pitchfork.

“I think that the Arkestra’s [Pitchfork] appearance is more of a contextual antidote to the excitement-from my point of view, unwarranted excitement-over folks like Kamasi Washington,” drummer-composer Mike Reed writes in an email. Reed is the festival’s founding director, and booked the band at his Chicago space Constellation for a fest after-party.

“Musicians like Marshall Allen and bands like the Arkestra have been at this for a very long time,” Reed continues. “I suppose it’s nice to have jazz [be] a flavor of the moment for pop culture, so I won’t complain about why it made sense this year.” 

The Arkestra’s energy has always been infectious and undeniable, whether the band is performing classic originals, forgotten gems, exact recreations of Fletcher Henderson arrangements or parading through the crowd. And its across-the-board appeal has carried over to fellow musicians through the decades, from landmark Motor City groups like Parliament-Funkadelic and MC5, to rockers Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth, to singer and model Solange Knowles, sister of Beyoncé, who hired the band for the launch event of her ecommerce site at the SXSW festival in March. (She even requested a favorite song.) Another group that has long straddled the divide between jazz and popular appeal, Medeski Martin & Wood, has had Arkestra members sit in over the years. “We love the innovators, uncompromising artists who actually contribute a lot more to society than one might think,” says drummer Billy Martin. “Medeski played Sun Ra records quite a lot back when we were touring in our camper. We collectively were under the spell of Sun Ra’s philosophy and mythology towards music and the outer-space ways of existence, and Marshall carries that on now.” 

A player with unique abilities on and an imaginative approach to alto saxophone, flute and the electronic valve instrument, or EVI, Allen is easily recognizable amongst the dozen-plus voices that usually make up the Arkestra. Sometimes beautifully soft and melodic, he is able to turn hard and sharp to rise above the fray. “He’s gotten more intense,” Thompson says. “He grabs that horn and his hands are just flailing. Don’t give him a wireless mic, which he likes, because he’ll go all over the place onstage.”

“I’m doing music for my well being, really,” Allen explains. “It keeps me busy; it keeps me pretty healthy; it keeps my spirits up. I’m saying what I want to say, good or bad, playing music. Music is the language.”

The combination of Allen’s willingness to be creative and his unflagging work ethic has served him well over his 70-plus years as a musician and bandleader. “It’s not impossible to replicate this music,” he points out. “I do it. I’m not a Sun Ra; I do what I do. Projecting good stuff out into the world, I can’t do that while I’m sitting here. I got to be doing it, turning it into vibrations.”

Allen first met Sun Ra in the mid-1950s in Chicago, where the young saxophonist had moved to be with his mother and sisters following his military discharge. At a local record shop, a sales clerk passed him a Sun Ra demo, telling Allen that the bandleader was always looking for players. According to Allen, “I had heard of him, so I said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll take it home.’ It was ‘Superblonde’ or one of those other swinging tunes. I heard it and thought, ‘Man, I’d like to be in that band. I love that sound they’re getting.'”

He went back to the store the next day and found out that Sun Ra rehearsed every day on the South Side at Cottage Grove and 63rd Street. It was only a few blocks from where he lived, so Allen and a musician friend decided to walk down there and check it out. “Sun Ra was sitting at a table writing and the band was rehearsing. We got to talking,” he recalls. “He was talking about Egypt, outer space, the Bible and stuff. I was sitting there thinking I was coming to play, but it wasn’t like that. He was trying to figure out what kind of guy I was. I was sitting there listening to all these different stories. I thought to myself, ‘Man, I’m gonna stay put because I need to get into this band.’ After rehearsal, he invited me to get something to eat in the club next door. Jug [Gene Ammons] was playing.”

It got late, but Sun Ra kept talking. Eventually Allen, who had a day job at a camera shop, went home to sleep, but he kept coming back every night, even though he’d yet to perform a note with the band. Finally Sun Ra invited him over to John Gilmore’s house to play. Despite the fact that Allen had no training on flute, Sun Ra told the young musician he needed him to play the instrument. Eventually Allen was able to join the band onstage as a guest, standing alongside the rhythm section all night but only playing on “Spontaneous Simplicity,” which came from the sessions at Gilmore’s house. Although there was no chair for him, Allen was happy to be there. He officially joined the band in 1958.

Working his way into Sun Ra’s band wasn’t the first challenge Allen encountered as a musician. His family left Louisville, Ky., in 1937 and moved to North Philadelphia. Looking for a way out, he volunteered for the Army in 1942 when he turned 18, briefly becoming a member of the 92nd Infantry (famously nicknamed the Buffalo Soldiers). “I got scared,” he recalls with a laugh. “Being in the infantry meant falling down in the mud and stuff, and I didn’t want no part of that.”

He soon met a drummer from Pittsburgh who told him the Army was looking for musicians for a band. Allen could already play scales on clarinet, so he figured that was good enough, plus they were short on musicians. The first sergeant gave him a few weeks to prep for his audition, and he was lucky enough to find a more experienced clarinetist to take lessons from. “I practiced clarinet 24 hours a day,” Allen recalls. “I was studying at night under the covers. I played fourth clarinet parts, which weren’t too complicated, and I played them pretty good, so they kept me in the band.”

The 17th Division Special Service Band played parades and marches as well as jazz for the troops, even performing at the V-E Day parade in Reims, France, for Eisenhower, to celebrate Germany signing surrender papers. Armed Forces Radio work followed, as did more touring around Europe. Allen started playing baritone saxophone and later picked up alto because he wanted to sound like Johnny Hodges. “He had such a beautiful tone, man,” Allen says of his hero, and he ending up playing a crucial role in the Arkestra not unlike Hodges’ duties in the Ellington band. “The way he played ballads and things was so pretty. So I started playing it in the band and kept right on going. I kept developing and practicing the band music and the jazz-band music.”

Music has since taken Allen all the way from Germany to Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood, where the Sun Ra house and band headquarters has been located for the past 47 years, following the Arkestra’s seven years in New York. With its roughhewn gray stone façade, it appears at first blush similar to its neighboring mid-19th-century row houses. But the front door, with its Afrofuturist painting by David Lawrence, is a not-so-subtle hint that this space is the place.

The first-floor parlor and practice room contains a small black-and-white photo of Allen and a few folk-art-style portrait paintings on the wall. Old wooden chairs, music stands, drums and an organ fill out the room. Water used to put out a fire in one of the house’s upstairs rooms has damaged the walls and ceiling, giving the space a rundown quality that somehow enhances its feeling of comfort. It was home. When he was younger, Allen was more active with the decorating, but he’s smart enough to stay off ladders these days.

When I arrived for our appointment, I interrupted Allen as he was listening to tapes, trying to decide what the band should release next. There are hours and hours of unreleased recordings, as well as a rich bounty of sheet music and notes.

The greatly expanded second edition of The Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra is 850 pages long. And while it documents hundreds of recorded and unrecorded pieces as well as collaborations with musicians outside the Arkestra’s orbit, chances are good that more lost or forgotten material is out there. Some of it has been carted off by scholars, musicians or labels claiming to have contracts with Sun Ra, but luckily Allen is a packrat who has been known to pull out charts so old the staff paper has turned brown. “I got lots of stuff that Sun Ra never played,” he explains. “There are also different parts that were moved around within the same song. Some of them, I can’t remember the different combinations, but the songs are there. There’s enough of an arrangement for the band, and I can put different stuff in. I’m carrying a book like this right now [he holds up a battered briefcase, stuffed full], and I got several more. Sixty years of music, man. We have a large repertoire.”

“Large repertoire” would be an understatement. The unruly Sun Ra catalogue often arrived in small, out-of-print, self-financed pressings. Sometimes the albums went untitled; sometimes the same album would go by a different title, or composition titles would change from record to record. Other labels also put out material, and their recordkeeping often wasn’t much clearer than Sun Ra’s, though The Earthly Recordings has helped clear up some matters.

One thing was and is very clear: Sun Ra was zealous about rehearsals. He claimed he’d rather miss a performance than a practice, and the house sometimes seemed like a sort of prison, as the imperious bandleader punished those who showed an interest in anything outside the music. While Allen isn’t as strict he is still committed, holding rehearsals Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays from 3 to 6 p.m., though sometimes they go longer. “If you come to rehearsal you get the code for the day,” Allen says. “If you come the next day, we may be playing the same songs but they will be different. We went and changed things. I change it on the stand. It’s the same tune but a different arrangement. So if they don’t come to rehearsal, they don’t know what I’m doing.”

If Allen doesn’t like a tune called by someone else onstage during a performance, he’ll veto it. And when he calls the tune, players need to race through their book to find the chart just as they did for Sun Ra. Ready or not, band members are expected to start when Allen cues them, or he may get impatient and call a different tune, just as Sun Ra did. “I found the answer, which is to learn the book by heart,” he points out. “That means I had to study on my time, after rehearsal, to memorize the music. And you see the book we got and you ask, ‘How can you possibly do that?’ I was able to do it, so they should be able to do it. If they are paying attention. I’m not looking out anywhere; I’m looking at the band members, listening to what they are doing and responding to that.”

As impossible as it might sound, it comes down to focus and discipline. Marshall Allen had 35 years under an exacting master, and he keeps Sun Ra’s music alive using the lessons gained from that experience. This gives him the ability to create something new. If one is playing with the spirit of Sun Ra, there’s no problem. But if they play what Allen considers inside the lines, it’s wrong. These standards are not something Allen takes lightly, then or now, for good reason.

“There’s a lot of hell out there in the world, and we are here to provide some relief,” he says. “People in the front row are sitting there crying because what we are doing is so emotional. And what they are reacting to wasn’t even on the paper. They get captivated, and then all their worries just disappear. They leave happy, and they stop to shake your hand when they go. That’s what people need. That’s what I heard when I first heard that demo in Chicago. I said to myself, ‘That’s it!'”

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