Marshall Allen Looks Back on Five Decades of Sun Ra Arkestra

Sun Ra Arkestra
Sun Ra Arkestra Courtesy photo
Kevin Arrow is the Miami artist responsible for collecting and preserving the artifacts in the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science's Curious Vault. He's also South Florida's biggest Sun Ra Arkestra fan, having followed the band since the mid-'80s and seen it perform live numerous times. When the Arkestra performs at the North Beach Bandshell as part of Afro Roots Fest, Arrow will provide live film and video projections with support from Obsolete Media Miami (O.M.M.) and Ani Gonzalez. Here, Arrow interviews Sun Ra bandleader Marshall Allen.

I first saw Sun Ra and his Alter-Destiny 21st Century Omniverse Arkestra, one of 22 names under which the band has performed during its existence, perform an all-Duke Ellington tribute set in 1987 at the Bottom Line in New York City. Throughout the life of the band, its tribute shows included Fletcher Henderson, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. (Sun Ra knew the importance of honoring those who came before him.) I also had numerous experiences in which I was imprinted and affected by the Sun Ra Arkestra of the '80s and '90s. It’s amazing to consider that the upward of 15-member Arkestra was able to sustain itself by touring for nearly five decades. Each show was different, largely improvised, and magical in its delivery. Thankfully, they always included South Florida on their tour schedule.

The physical body of Sun Ra is gone, but his musical legacy lives on through the tireless work of the 94-year-old bandleader Marshall Allen. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1924, Allen enlisted in the Army during World War II to get out of his rough neighborhood. He remained abroad, studying music in France, until returning to the States in the early '50s, where he made his home in Chicago. There, he met Sun Ra.

New Times: Can you recall your first meeting with Sonny?
Marshall Allen: There used to be a lot of ballrooms in Chicago, so I found out where Sun Ra’s band would rehearse every night. I just set my horn down and said that I wanted to play. He sat me down and started talking about the Bible and ancient Egypt and all that, and I hung out with him all night, and then I was late for work the next day! So anyway, I went right back there the next night and he had me stand by the piano. I didn’t have a seat in the band yet.

You were a multi-instrumentalist back then, playing the saxophone and clarinet. What did Sun Ra ask you to play?
Yeah, I brought my saxophone. The band was beginning to migrate to New York — there were a lot of musicians, so that’s why I didn’t have a chair. He wanted me by him, standing by the piano and the bass. He asked me if I played flute, and I said no, and he said, “Go buy one.” I said, "I have my clarinet and saxophone," but I had to go and buy a flute because he wanted some different sounds in the band. And then when some of the fellas started leaving for New York, I eventually got a chair.

Speaking of different sounds, please tell us about the Steiner EVI [electronic valve instrument]. When did you first pick it up, and when did it become a part of your setup?
We got those in the '80s. The Crumar Company in Italy was making them for Steiner on consignment. So when they were made, we were some of the first people to get them. They made us a bunch of them. When Sun Ra went to get a Crumar organ from Italy, they gave him seven, so Sun Ra gave the whole front row of the band EVIs.

Were there shows in which the whole front was playing them?
Yeah, we played them right away at a lot of shows at that time... All together that made quite a sound. We played them mostly in New York.

I am often amazed when I realize that there are 50 years of recordings in the Sun Ra universe. I personally enjoy the late-1950s era, transitioning into the 1960s, where I can sense the shift from straight-ahead swing and hard bop to the outside extended improvisational jams. Looking back, do you have a favorite era?
No, each one is a favorite as you go along. I got in the band when they were playing the rhythm, blues, and bebop stuff, and that’s what brought me to the band. That led to the '60s, '70s, '80s on up to the '90s, and then I took it from there.

How do you approach improvisation every day? How do you keep it fresh?
Well, I play the vibrations of the day. I play the vibrations just the way I feel today and the vibrations of the day for the new generation. The music was built for the 21st Century, [but] we were in the 20th Century and we had a long way to go for the children of the 21st Century.

[Allen recites lyrics from Sun Ra's adaptation of the spiritual "There's No Hiding Place Down Here":]

"The space age is here to stay/No place that you can run away/If you run to the rock to hide your face/The rock'll cry out, no hiding place."

All those songs are for the 21st Century of this generation, and the kids of the 21st Century understand it more than they did in the last century. The last century was swing and doo-wop, blues, and country music. It’s still the same, but we had to advance to the 21st Century.

Who are your influences, and where do you look for inspiration?
Well, I’ll tell you, I was born in 1924, so you see I have a great and vast interest in musicians. All the great bands, that’s where my inspiration comes from. I came up on Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, all down the line from that era. And then I run into Sun Ra and he was going another way, in another dimension, so you put all that together and we got a universal band, a world band, a space orchestra, and we play all of those things.

Sun Ra Arkestra. Part of Afro Roots Fest. 7 p.m. Saturday, April 7, at the North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-672-5202; Tickets cost $25 in advance or $30 at the gate.
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