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."
While some Arkestra members were involved periodically (due to families and work), and others (such as John Gilmore) would take small sabbaticals to perform with other groups, Allen centered his focus entirely on Ra's music and rarely played with anyone else. "Because I always wanted to play in a big band," he says, "so when I got the chance to be in this band, that was it. And I stuck right with it." This devotion found Allen, along with Gilmore and others, transplanted with the Arkestra to New York City in 1961, a move that was crucial to the group's development.
Ra died in 1993, at the age of 79. A series of strokes had left him partially paralyzed and weakened, only to be claimed eventually by pneumonia. The Arkestra continued on briefly under the direction of John Gilmore, his health impaired by emphysema. Gilmore died in 1995. But Marshall Allen still resides at the Arkestra's Morton Street one-time commune in Philadelphia, alongside his surviving Arkestra allies. Now, with the Arkestra, billed as Marshall Allen and the Sun Ra Arkestra, Allen finds himself in the unenviable position of having to redirect what is arguably the most stridently original band of all time. If it's a role he finds difficult to fill, Allen doesn't let on. "We're still playin' Sun Ra's music and playin' space stuff," he says. "But then I have to get in there and write things myself. When I first got in the band, one of the albums we did was that dance album [Holiday for Soul Dance], and it was nice arrangements, so that's what I'm doin' now. It's more like a dance thing, nothin' too way-out."
The Allen-led dance Arkestra will release its first record this summer, a collection of standards, Ra compositions and Allen's newly written works. The band still makes regular live appearances, including a scheduled performance at this year's Vision Festival in New York, and retains its theatrical grandeur of years past. Throughout the interim Allen has kept himself busy with numerous projects and guest appearances. He has teamed with New Orleans musician Michael Rey on several occasions, among them a guest spot with the rock group Phish. And recently the CIMP label released two albums of material recorded by the Marshall Allen Quartet, a group also featuring Mark Whitecage (saxophone, clarinet) and Dominic Duval (bass). These recordings, entitled Monday and Tuesday, were done completely on the fly and at the behest of Duval. But a true gem from Marshall Allen's post-Sun Ra work is Out of the Box, another CIMP release recorded with trombonist Tyrone Hill, bassist Jason Oettel and drummer Samarai Celestial. Recorded over two days in the summer of 1997, Out of the Box brings out much of Ra's mystique, as the band performs several Ra classics and displays the great bandleader's influence on original works.
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The band's version of Ra's "Angels and Demons At Play" is pure swing that begins with the echoed chant -- another Sun Ra gimmick -- "If you're not a myth, whose reality are you? And if you're not a reality, whose myth are you? Whose myth are you?" Then the group explodes with a squelching introduction that eventually subsides into an infectiously smooth, repetitive bass line. Allen and Hill mirror each other over the top of it, what with Hill's muted trombone supplying a nearly vocalized melody. "Angels" gives way to "Celestial's Galactic Dance," which follows the same principle formula as "Angels," though Allen and Hill opt to slightly trail each other on the melody, which creates a natural reverberation. The standard "My One and Only Love" consists merely of a duet between Hill and Oettel, in which again Hill uses a mute to add tremolo to the trombone. "Journey to Birmingham" builds slowly around a percussionistic gymnastics routine by Celestial, involving slow cymbal scraping and Hill's fast-approaching howl. Allen makes his appearance on a solo that fluctuates between quiet restraint and unhinged expressionism before the group calms down and kicks up another dance groove.
The band also takes on a stripped-down version of Ra's beautiful, melancholic "Interstellar Lowways," as well as Hill's classic "Your Guess Is as Good as Mine," a short and pummeling rhythmic exercise that, with the exception of one short solo section, maintains a repetitive, boxing-style tempo owing as much to James Brown as to Mingus. The album closes with a faithful, contained take on Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" and, fittingly enough, Ra's "Discipline 27," one part of his Discipline series that was to involve over 100 different compositions. Here the players deviate somewhat from Ra's original intention, playing each part strictly on a two- or three-note pattern, but they maintain their focus on simplicity, and the result is a colorful, vibrant swing so inviting that the ending chant of "We're waiting for you" seems too good an offer to pass up.
Allen and Hill will team up again for Allen's first trip to Texas sans Arkestra. The group, rounded out by drummer Luqman Ali and various regional musicians, may not be the dramatic equivalent of a gargantuan Arkestra exhibition, but it succeeds in presenting Sun Ra's style of music in the manner in which Allen sees it. That is, when distilled from the fantasy, it stands as some of the most beautiful and, yes, danceable music ever created, sitting alongside the works of Ellington, Basie and Mingus. It's a sound Marshall Allen always dreamed of creating. It just took the forces of Saturn to help make it happen.
The Marshall Allen/Tyrone Hill/Luqman Ali Group performs Friday, April 9, at MECA, 1900 Kane, at 8 p.m. For ticket information, call (713)666-5555.