Sun Ra Arkestra’s Marshall Allen on Dedicating His Life to Music

Colin Lenton

Sun Ra – visionary, mystic, poet, angel, pianist and jazz arranger extraordinaire – might have departed this planet over 20 years ago, but his spirit and musical influence still reverberate today. The 25-piece Arkestra, with 90 year old alto saxophonist Marshall Allen at the helm, continues to travel the spaceways playing all around the world and spreading Ra’s myth far and wide. From barber shop harmonies and big band swing, to freeform electronics and New York noise, to Black Panthers, Walt Disney covers, space chants and the original unquantized snare: we’re still just catching up with Sun Ra’s vision. In this excerpt from his recent interview with RBMA Radio, Allen charts his way through the group’s cosmic history.

Sun Ra at the Montreux Jazz Festival, 1976 Andrew Putler / Redferns

I met Sun Ra in 1957, at the Heaven Rehearsal Ballroom. I was told by a friend of mine that Sun Ra is always looking for talent, so I thought to myself, “Oh, he lives in the same district I live on the south side of Chicago,” so I said, “When I get off from work, I’ll go down and see Sun Ra and try to get in his band.” I went to the ballroom with my horn; he was rehearsing, and I got a lecture of my life about everything. Music, ancient Egypt, outer space, the Bible: it lasted a whole afternoon, with him writing music and talking.

After that, we went to the restaurant to eat, and he's still talking: all this philosophy, and truth, about “the lives of the world” – everything. Then he said, “Well, let’s go next door and hear a band play.” By that time it was about 12 or one o’clock in the morning. We came back, went over to a restaurant, and then told me to come back tomorrow. Every day, I would go to see him and I’d get a new lecture about the Bible, ancient Egypt and outer space. I’m kept thinking, “I wonder when I’m going to play.”

I said, “I can’t play on the flute too good,” but he said, “Play it anyway.”

One day, he said, “Come by John Gilmore’s house,” the tenor player, “and I’m going to see what you can do.” I went there with my saxophone, and we practiced a little. He said, “Do you play flute?” I said, “No, I play clarinet.” “No, I don’t need clarinet,” he replied. “John plays clarinet. I need a flute player.” I said, “Well, no, I haven't got a flute.” Then he said, “Well, I need a flute player. Get a flute.” I got my little pay from where I worked and bought a flute, and I said, “Now, I don't know how to play. I got to go get me some lessons.”

I went down a little studio where a teacher from the Chicago Symphony taught. I didn't have much money, because I spent it on a flute, so he made a deal with me: “If you teach the kids about jazz, I’ll give you a free lesson in the evening.” So, in return for teaching the kids how to play the saxophone, around 10 or 11 o’clock, I’d get my flute lesson. Sun Ra would say, “Well, you got it? Come on and play. I said, “I can’t play on the flute too good,” but he said, “Play it anyway.”

“Spontaneous Simplicity” was the first tune he wrote for me. I had to practice all the time, but I learned pretty fast and by then, it was time to get in the band. I didn’t have a seat like everyone else did. There was no space. I had to stand by the piano and the bass, and wait for my one little tune, “Spontaneous Simplicity,” to play. As some of the musicians began to migrate to New York, that left some empty chairs, so I finally got one of my own. That’s how I met Sun Ra.

Sun Ra and his Arkestra - Spontaneous Simplicity

Sun Ra would start rehearsing in the morning and play until the afternoon. Then he'd eat lunch, start playing again, eat dinner, start again… he'd rehearse all day, seven days a week. Sometimes we’d play all night, but certainly every day. If you wanted to go somewhere, you sort of couldn’t because he always had something for you to do. He wrote music like you would write a letter. Every day was a new piece of music, and you had to study it and change it. It would be a special gift. I could see it, and feel it, but I couldn’t always do it because sometimes I just didn’t understand.

I could play, but I couldn’t play like he wanted me to play; it was different, like new brainwash, because it made you grow, expand. Sun Ra talked to us about music, but also about his philosophies. We used to pass pamphlets around Chicago, on different kinds of platforms, particularly religious ones. We’d go to the parks, and these different groups would be hanging out and speaking about civil rights, religion, social issues – everything. Everyone had a platform and that’s where Sun Ra had his, talking about outer space.

He would say, “What you know, I don't want to hear. I want to hear what you don’t know. The thought, the mind, and the spirit.”

Sun Ra was a person with exceptional values. The Arkestra is a show band, so color and light are part of our personalities. When we had all these different colors, they’re part of the music; the blinking lights are globes, representing the planets and the earth... It’s difficult to explain. It’s like a dream now. I wanted to be able to do it, but I didn’t understand everything I was being told and shown. I couldn’t. When Sun Ra wrote his music, it was like it was backwards. I was taught music “straight,” the square way, so with Sun Ra I had to say, “Now what do I do?” He would say, “What you know, I don't want to hear. I want to hear what you don’t know. The thought, the mind, and the spirit.” I’m sitting there saying, “Oh, I don't know nothing.” And he would say, “Well, I want to hear that.”

The Arkestra’s move to New York wasn’t planned. We had an engagement in Montreal – we stayed up there for, I don't know, a month or so – and on the way back we said we’d stop in New York, to see what was happening. On the way, the bass player’s car was hit by a cab. We said, “Oh, goodness, now we don’t have transportation to get home,” so we got the cab company to pay for the damages of the car. We figured, “We'll wait until we get the money for the car, and then either get another car or go home back to Chicago.” We were stranded.

We got a place to stay until the money came in, and we were penny-pinching all along. Next thing you know, a whole year went by before we got the money. By that time, we were working in different spots – coffee houses, any place that we could find – to keep the rent going.

We kept on playing around New York and we started to meet musicians, even building a new band: myself, John Gilmore, Ronnie Boykins on bass, Sun Ra on piano, Billy Mitchell on drums, Walter Strickland on trumpet, and a singer. Then some of them went back to Chicago, so that only left Gilmore, Boykins, Sun Ra and myself. Before they left, though, they gave us a hand with getting gigs: in coffee houses, little places like that, until we finally got a steady gig at Slugs, the famous club that all musicians played at, every Monday night. We had to make our way. We began to add to the band in New York, and we've been adding ever since.

It was better for us in Philadelphia... We all lived together, so we could rehearse 24 hours a day.

The house in New York was small, though, so we had to move out. Sun Ra said, “We’re going to Philadelphia, the first capital of the United States.” My father happened to have a house there that he wanted to give to me, but I didn’t want it at first: it had three floors, and I didn’t want no house that big, but all I know is that we got to move, so I bring the man there, Sun Ra. It was better for us in Philadelphia because it was much quieter. We took that house over, fixed it up and then Sun Ra moved in. We all lived together, so we could rehearse 24 hours a day.

Of course, we also, finally, went to Egypt, and I went (I think) three times with the Arkestra. The first time we went, we took a large band with dancers. We danced on the Sphinx, on the Pyramids, and we played in the Mina House over at the Pyramids. The next time we went, we went into to Pyramids. We traveled out to the desert, which was three or four hours riding on a camel’s back. I couldn’t walk for days after riding that camel. Another time, we travelled out into the middle of the desert in the pitch black, following guides on camels. When we got out there we arrived at this huge tent and played a show, with girls dancing on Persian rugs. It was beautiful.

By Marshall Allen on March 26, 2015

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