Marshall Allen was born in 1924 in Philadelphia, ten years after his future mentor dropped into Earth’s atmosphere, landing in Birmingham and taking the human form of Herman Poole Blount. Blount and Allen would follow different paths for the next few decades. Allen fought in World War II and remained in Europe afterwards, honing his saxophone chops in a French conservatoire. Blount cut his teeth playing piano in Birmingham clubs, dropped out of Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University after one year, dodged the draft, and was imprisoned when he failed to appear for alternate service. The two men met in Chicago in the ‘50s, after Blount had already been spiritually reborn as Sun Ra, a mystic being from Saturn on a mission to elevate humanity. Allen didn’t understand Ra’s ideology at first but was entranced enough by his musical genius that he helped Blount form the Sun Ra Arkestra—the band Ra led for the rest of his days on Earth.
Ra is considered a pioneer of free improvisation, modal jazz, and electronic experimentation, and his philosophies are essential to the early Afrofuturist canon. With the Arkestra, he released over 100 albums and 1,000 songs, making him one of the most prolific recording artists of all time. The Arkestra left Chicago in 1961 for New York, where they expanded their sound from big band swing and bebop to genre-bending experimentalism. In 1968, they settled in Philadelphia, repurposing Allen’s father’s three-story house into the 24-hour base camp and rehearsal studio they dubbed The Pharaoh’s Den.
When Blount perished of congestive heart failure and stroke in 1993, Sun Ra returned to Saturn, but Allen stayed in Philadelphia to keep his music alive. He’s led the Arkestra for over 20 years now, remaining faithful to Ra’s futuristic vision as he pushes it forward into the new millennium. When I spoke with the nonagenarian Allen on the phone, I wasn’t always positive he understood my questions, but he carried on our conversation with the poise and wisdom of a man whose experience extends far beyond the boundaries of this Earthly realm.
You’re still living in Philadelphia, right?
Yeah, I’m still in Philadelphia, still in Sun Ra’s house.
The Pharaoh’s Den?
That was originally your father’s house, right?
Yeah, he sold it to Sun Ra for a dollar. [Laughs]
Can you tell the story of how that happened?
Sun Ra always needed a place to rehearse. We was in New York until we had to move out. So my father said to me, “I got a house for you,” and I figured I’d come down here and see about it. But it was three floors and my children’s mother said “I ain’t walkin’ up no three flights of steps!” [Laughs] My father had another house over by Temple University—a small house, just two floors—so I went over there with the kids and their mother, and that was alright for her. So my father said “Well, you have this one over here too,” and I knew Sun Ra and the band were looking for somewhere because we had to move. All we had to do was come here a couple months before we moved and clean it up and get it ready, so that’s what I did. I stayed down here about a month cleaning up the house, so when Sun Ra needed a place, this was perfect.
How has the physical space changed, if at all, over the years?
It’s still the same house, same foundation. Just now it’s got all the stuff from when Sun Ra was here. So I just kept the house and built another band because everybody in the first band died off. I had to make a decision about whether I wanted to keep all of this and keep going with Sun Ra’s music. And I didn’t have nothing else to do, so I said, “No, I better do this because I’ve been here long enough and the music’s good and needs to stay out there.”
People talk about Sun Ra’s music, the Arkestra’s music, in phases: There’s the Chicago phase in the ‘50s, when you and John Gilmore joined and you were mostly playing swing and bop; then there’s the New York phase in the ‘60s, where you were doing some of the more out there, experimental stuff—
We expanded the band in New York. We got a bunch of new people, made it larger.
Right. And there’s the Philadelphia phase, from the ‘70s on. Does it make sense to talk about the band in those chapters, or is that just an attempt to box in and intellectualize something that can only be experienced spiritually?
Well, I don’t know. We got all the New York musicians in the ‘60s, and Sun Ra began to expand the music and the band and the amount of musicians we had. And then when we moved out of New York, around ‘68 or ‘69, we came down here and fixed this house so Sun Ra could have a place where he could go to sleep at night if he wanted. It was quieter down here, and we had a backyard and three floors, so he could have the band live with him and rehearse every day. So that’s what we did; we rehearsed Monday through Sunday.
He had that reputation of leading the band like a dictator. There’s the story of a musician getting locked in a closet for drinking, musicians getting stranded abroad without notice when they were kicked out of the band.
Well, you know how musicians do and how they act. We had some ones that acted up, and Sun Ra said, “A man cannot learn without discipline.” He had his discipline and his way. We had to slow down the things we was doing: running around and this and that. There was more structure to the music, and that was good. We had musicians that liked to do a lot of things, but they held back and got their music together first. He said, “This music is for the 21st century,” and I said “Dog, that’s a lot of years!” [Laughs] But he had to pass away before we made it there.
You kept it alive, though.
But he wrote enough music, every day, all day—aw, man, more music than I’ve seen anybody write. Yeah, man, I got stacks and stacks of music that he wrote. He was another kind of person, you know? Sometimes in your life, you meet a genius, a person with ideas that flow so fast you can’t keep up with them; that’s the way he was with the music. He was always changing it. When [another musician would join the Arkestra], he’d change your part. You worked hard to get that part, and now you gotta stay in the house and not run the streets anywhere and try to get the new part! [Laughs] So he had his little restrictions and disciplines, and if you messed up his music, he’d get heartless mad. Yeah, he don’t play that. He’d have you working day and night. We had rehearsal all day, go upstairs at night in the rooms and rehearse some more, go over the music. We was always busy. We had to keep up with him because we knew come next rehearsal, something’s gonna change again. He just had those creative ideas. Really, it was good for us, though. But when we moved from New York, we had to get some Philadelphia musicians because a lot of musicians from New York couldn’t travel down.
Was it harder to find musicians who could play at that level outside New York?
No, no. There was a lot of musicians. Some come and some stayed. Some left, some come back. It was on and off all the way through. But I have enough musicians so if these guys take a vacation or have to be somewhere else or something, I can get my substitutes. Same principle as Sun Ra. I always keep more musicians rehearsing, whether they work or not, so I can have them take the place of others who go different directions sometimes. But all the people who played in the band, they weren’t fired or anything. They come on they own, they leave on they own, they come back on they own when they through doing they thing.
Even when they got stranded from the rest of the band on tour?
All the funny things that happen to musicians on road trips, they happened to us: going the wrong direction, getting lost on the road, having flat tires, having wrecks. Aw, man, everything. We went through all the series of things on the road, but we always made the gig and played it.
People think of jazz as a very intellectual, extremely serious pursuit. Sun Ra famously rebelled against that notion by adding some humor and levity into the mix, and by moving away from some of jazz’s traditional structures and forms.
Every band has a distinctive style—how they play the notes and how they play the music. That’s why you can distinguish different bands by the way they play. This band has one too. They’re good musicians—they read and all that stuff—but they have to get this technique of how we play a tune, how we attack notes. So that comes out of the rehearsal. We constantly move. We don’t have a set. We have arrangements, but we create spaces in it, and those change every night. What’s written is done, but now you’ve heard the music and studied the music this way, now you put your creative ideas in.
“Sometimes in your life, you meet a genius, a person with ideas that flow so fast you can’t keep up”
So there’s a balance between dedication to the written music and free expression.
Keep them busy and keep them interested. They know the songs, but they don’t know all of it, so they have to come rehearse to get the other part. You can’t get complacent and go, “Oh, I know the music,” because you know some of it, and the rest of it’s going in another direction. So they have to come to see what that is by rehearsing. We rehearse on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday. Sun Ra demanded the whole 24-hour thing. But these musicians I got now like to do other things, so I said, “How many rehearsals?” They said “Three rehearsals. I said, “Well, OK, three rehearsals. What day?” They said “Monday, Wednesday and Saturday.” They gave me their word. I don’t have to worry about them coming when I want ‘em. If they make their own schedule then they have to live up to it.
You’ve said in other interviews that you don’t miss Sun Ra’s physical presence because his spirit has stayed on with with the Arkestra. Do you feel like his guiding light is still leading the way?
Yeah, I’m not grieving. The spirit of him in this house is still here and everybody feed off of it. Everybody always feel better when they come to rehearsal and play Sun Ra’s music.
You’ve been in charge for over 20 years now. In that time, have you made any changes to the music or written any of your own music for the Arkestra?
No. He’s got so much music, it’s overwhelming, really. When he passed on and went to another planet in the ‘90s, I could remember all these different approaches he had to the music and all these different courses he used—how he mixed the music and how he mixed other songs into it. So I got busy and cleaned up the music and found all the parts, and we played it. There’s so much music, I’ve forgotten through the years how to put the combination together. But either way, I can take ‘em one at a time and use ‘em that way. So that’s the way I keep the band interested: it’s a little bit different every night we play—different place, different vibrations, different way you feel… Some days, I’ll wake up like: Man, why are you playing this music? And then I’ll go: Oh, I’m playing it for Sun Ra and myself and all the fellas that devoted their time and energy and spirit to it. So I’m playing the music for my well-being. If I feel good and stay up on it for my well-being, then when I play for people, I’ll give them some. I play the music because it makes me feel good. I don’t fool around and slop over the music.
Outside the Arkestra, what other contemporary music have you been listening to lately?
I play with other bands, amateurs, professionals, all of them. The other night, I played with two fellas that played electronic boards with all these different sounds. I played with them and created music and ideas and things. I go with the youths and play with them. I play with a lot of people; I don’t care who they are or what talents they have. I be out there. That’s what I do.
Is there anyone, in particular, who you see as especially innovative in jazz today?
Oh yeah, a lot of young musicians nice. They really play good, and they understand what they have to do. I’m always playing with ‘em. If they need somebody to play, they call me. I won’t say no. I’ll go right out there and play that stuff they got and put my thing in it. I don’t like to be sitting around, not playing with nobody, not including people, not going out and seeing what the young people are doing, what other bands are doing. Hundreds and hundreds of musicians been through this band. They’re scattered all over the world and all over America, so a lot of times, going to other places, I get a couple of ‘em that used to play with us, and they fit right in. I like to have a big band: four, five saxophones, four or five brass, singers, dancers, full rhythm [section]. Sometimes I have to go without people. Ain’t no perfect thing.
Sun Ra is credited as a pioneer of Afrofuturism, which is seeing a resurgence today in pop culture, especially this year, with Black Panther coming out.
Well, we were back there with all them people. I come from the old school. I seen all the old bands—bands that you never heard of that played good. I was in the army, playing in the army band. And then I got out of that and went to Chicago in the ‘50s, and that’s when I joined Sun Ra. I heard his band, and it did something to me. I heard a tune and I said, “What?” I heard something that woke me up, so I went and found Sun Ra rehearsing in a ballroom. Sun Ra was going in a different direction. I couldn’t understand it. I thought I knew something, but I didn’t. I said, “Wow! Where he come up with this stuff?” It was different. I said, “That’s a real teacher.” It’s like teachers in school: you find some good ones in there who go a different direction. His direction was the future. So I said, “Well, I’ll stick there,” and he was testing me out to see if I would stick. He was doing everything he possibly could to find out where I’m at, what kind of person I was. So I just took all that stuff and kept on steppin’. I was determined to play his music because it was different from what I was doing. That’s the way it is today, the same way.
This show at The Music Box will be your first show in New Orleans in 15 years. Can you tell me a little about the Arkestra’s history with New Orleans? I wasn’t able to find much about your past performances here, other than a few clips.
We used to play down there all the time. One of my musicians moved down there, and he would invite me and a couple more fellas to play with him down there. I was just down there with what’s-his-name’s sister, down on the Mississippi River barge. I was doing some movie shots. There was alligators and everything. I was hoping I didn’t fall off. [Laughs]
Later in Sun Ra’s life, he was playing a lot more traditional jazz. Did he have more of a relationship with New Orleans during that time period, near the end?
There’s a lot of historians in the band, guys who remember all the stories and details and people. But me, I don’t do that. I got these guys who know about everybody—Danny Thompson, Knoel Scott; these guys remember all the little details. Me, I do my one thing. I don’t manage or do any of that. All I do is concentrate on Sun Ra’s music. I hire the other ones who got good memories to count money and do business. Let them do their job and I’ll do mine, which is sitting up here with music stacked up all the way to my shoulders, sitting in the middle of it picking out tunes. I don’t have any other job.
Marshall Allen will direct the Sun Ra Arkestra at The Music Box Village (4557 N. Rampart St.) on Friday, 11/16 and Saturday, 11/17. Both shows will be preceded by a Q&A session with Allen. For more news on the Arkestra, visit SunRaArkestra.com.
illustrations by SLY WATTS