8 August 2014

The incredible Marshall Allen

Around the end of last year, I was in New Zealand working on our house. Every morning I would write for a few hours and do emails, then for the rest of the day I would wash and paint walls, sand window frames and go on missions to hardware stores. It was quite the balanced life, with plenty of stimulation and satisfaction on all levels. I miss it! I took care of most of my interview commitments before I left Melbourne, but there was one very important one I had to do while I was over there: Marshall Allen, the 90 year old saxophonist and bandleader of the Sun Ra Arkestra.

I don’t claim to be an aficionado of Sun Ra and his Arkestra, but I have always been mighty impressed by how way-out and consistent they were/are. For the uninitiated, Sun Ra was an incredibly prolific jazz musician and bandleader who always maintained he was from Saturn. His band, the Arkestra, played seven days a week in Marshall Allen’s house in Philadelphia. Legend has it that Sun Ra would play music all day, every day, though sometimes he would drop off to sleep for a while. When he awoke, he would just pick up where he left off. The Arkestra always wore amazing cosmic costumes onstage, and though they became popular with hippies in the ‘60s, they were always just doing their own thing.

So it was a pretty big honour to be able to interview Marshall Allen, who had been a part of the Arkestra since the ‘50s and had became the bandleader after Sun Ra ‘ascended’ in 1993. I was quite nervous, and I was away from my trusty interviewing room where nothing ever goes wrong. The phone line was scratchy and muffled, and I had to listen to his answers several times to decode them sometimes, but Allen was a generous, funny and very sharp interviewee. Below is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Do you still begin every performance with a space ritual?
Yeah, we love ritual you know? We go back to the ‘20s and stuff and come on up through every genre of music. We mix it all together and it forms a story.

Does the Arkestra still rehearse a lot?
I rehearse on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I’m not like Sun Ra; he liked to rehearse seven days a week. I can’t do that with these guys, not at my age. We got a lot of music that’s only been played in rehearsal. I found a lot of that music written in the (Sun Ra’s) book. So we’ve got that music, and now we can put it all back together again.

So all the Sun Ra music is quite structured, even though it sounds improvised?
Sun Ra wrote all these different keys – simple and complicated. We would put them together, rhythm against rhythm and melody against melody. That’s how his ideas worked; that’s how we got the music. You can play the world with that and see how small it is. You can create a better world. That’s what we do.

You’ve been doing it a long time now.
Yeah, since 1958. It’s a pretty good haul.

How did you meet Sun Ra?
I was in Europe and when I came back in the ‘50s I kept on hearing about this Sun Ra band. One day I went into a record store and a guy in there told me where they’d be practicing in a ballroom every day. So I went up there to see Sun Ra. He had me up all night talking about creation and The Bible, and he asked me to join the band. Then I started rehearsing seven days a week, we played so much music man. You should see how much music he wrote. He’d use parts of traditional music then we’d take it up to the space age. Space age music was chaos and everything else in there, you dig? We have a certain way of playing music.

Is it difficult to stay connected to outer space with Sun Ra ascended?
He said he was from another planet. He was always talking about outer space. He always said we were playing music for the twenty first century.

And here we are.
He was a great composer and music player, and he was a good teacher. He would show you how to play it with your own personality, with the style you have. The way you attack a note and syncopate it. It’s like all the big bands in the old days, they all had a certain style you could tell when you heard it. It’s the way they played the music, you dig?

What music do you listen to?
It’s the vibration of the day. Every day is different. I listen to everything. I play everything too. Do you still live in the Sun Ra house in Philadelphia? I still live there with a saxophone and a piano player. I have a nucleus around me so we can play the music whenever we like. Then the other players come and they can join in.

How many people will be in the Arkestra you bring to Australia?
I usually bring two trumpets, a trombone, maybe five saxophones, guitar, bass, a few on drums, a piano player and a singer. Sometimes I’ll have a dancer with me too.

Can you imagine any other life you could have had?
Well I guess this is it. Being around music, playing all styles of music. I couldn’t find no better band. We play everything, so there you go. We got it all in one.

How do you feel about having fans all over the world?
It was a little slow in the beginning for people to get used to new ideas. But we play all kinds of music so we can please most people. They’ll always find something in there they like.

And you guys still wear the outer space costumes?
It’s projecting the music with the image. Different coloured lights and costumes all project the music. When we first started doing it, not many other bands were doing it. We use electronic instruments and everything. But it’s all about connecting with the music. It’s about connecting with Sun Ra’s style of music: all of music. Creation is different every day. You can play the same tune but you play it different. It’s a new tune every day. You dig?

I can’t wait to hear and see it.
Well that’s good, but I’m playing the music for my wellbeing. If I play the music for my wellbeing and it pleases, then I can inform the people. That’s the purpose.

The Sun Ra Arkestra played at The Forum on January 19, 2014, as guests of the Melbourne Jazz Festival. The Six Burning Questions version of this interview was published in The Sunday Age on January 5, 2014. An online version can be found here.

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