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A Jazz Odyssey

Even without his commander, Marshall Allen orchestrates interplanetary space travel just fine, thank you

Marshall Allen carries himself like a 75-year-old jazzman from the South. He's got an easygoing, benevolent and embracing manner so natural that picturesque images of children at the watering hole and families around the porch pop up at the sight of him. So laid-back is his demeanor that you'd never guess he has spent the last 40 years as the most faithful disciple of the world's only known big-band leader from outer space. Saturn, to be exact.

Allen is one of a handful of musicians (along with John Gilmore, Julian Priester, Pat Patrick and Ronnie Boykins) considered to be the heart of the legendary Sun Ra Arkestra, the last true big band, although by no means a conventional one, of this century. Founded in the early 1950s by pianist Sun Ra, a.k.a. Sonny Blount, the Arkestra (so named after the merging of "orchestra" with the Egyptian god Ra's "ark") was a strong vehicle for Ra to communicate his radical and oftentimes ridiculed belief that Africans would regain their glorious past in the cosmos. Details on Ra's youth are sketchy at best, but it is widely known that his origins lay in Birmingham, Alabama. But Ra disavowed any connection to his family or history there and instead said he came from Saturn and was, in fact, not even human. He felt that he had been placed on Earth to convey a message through his music, that he was, in a sense, an extraterrestrial messiah.

Though the aforementioned musicians were the Arkestra's anchors, Ra continually enhanced the group with additional musicians, vocalists, dancers or whomever he needed to achieve the goal of each performance. (He once attempted to assemble more than 100,000 musicians to perform a piece that would destroy all the Earth's bombs and weapons.) His was a theatrical and groundbreaking group that would confound many but also would earn the admiration of such luminaries as Charles Mingus and John Coltrane. The band precipitated the free-jazz revolution of the 1960s and at times trod the same terrain blazed by 20th-century composers such as John Cage. But Ra didn't consider his work avant-garde. Even Allen says Ra wrote very weird things but also just simple music, swingin' and with nice melodies.

Allen's trip with the Arkestra began as ordinarily as any other musician's with any other big band. The son of a painter, Allen was born in 1924 into a family of eight children in Louisville, Kentucky. He wanted to be in a band and began studying music at the age of nine. Although his instrument of choice was the clarinet, Allen had to settle for the oboe after his school had assigned all of the clarinets to other students.

By age 12, though, Allen got his clarinet when he moved to Philadelphia with his father after his parents separated. He got good enough at the clarinet over the next six years to land a spot with the Army band's 92nd division in Arizona, one of the few career choices available to musicians and certainly to African-Americans handicapped by segregation. Allen played in the Army until 1949, at which time he left the country to study music at the National Conservatory in Paris. During his two years in Paris, Allen remained in the reserves as something to fall back on but was never activated.

Proficient on alto saxophone as well as on clarinet and oboe, Allen returned to the States in 1952 and landed in Chicago, where his mother had moved. Over the next few years he would play with various small groups around town, yet he still wanted to join a big band, like those of Count Basie and Duke Ellington. He would soon learn of a local orchestra led by an eccentric pianist named Sun Ra.

Allen first heard of Ra on a visit to a Chicago record shop, where another customer, local DJ/club owner Joe Siegel, recommended a listen to one of Ra's early releases. Allen loved it. "When I first heard the music," Allen says, "I said, 'Aw man, I'd love to be in that band!' " With his blood pumping, Allen asked around town where he could find the bandleader. He found out they both lived on the South Side. "I found out they was at the ballroom everyday, rehearsin' and all," says Allen. "And so I hung around him, and hung around him, and he kept talkin' and talkin' and talkin', and the next thing you know it's five o'clock in the morning. So I've gotta run home and get cleaned up to go to work, but then I'm back after work the next day."

Marshall Allen eventually joined the Arkestra in 1958, immersing himself in a routine of daily practices and weekly performances with full-time dedication. Though he considered himself a fundamentally sound player, Allen had to essentially relearn his instrument through Ra's instruction. "I went in there thinking that I could play," says Allen, "but I got there with Sun Ra, and everything I played wasn't right. So I started getting frustrated, because everything I'd play, he'd be, like, 'Naw, that's too sentimental,' 'Naw, that ain't right; that's not phrased right. You're playin' it, but you're not.' So I just stayed determined that one day I was gonna show him I could play his music."

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