Courtesy of Frank Schindelbeck



Sun Ra is a Weekly Hall of Famer. So subsequently, the Roadshow has a seat on the bus for anyone who played alongside the man. Marshall Allen, who was a core member of Sun Ra's inner circle, is the reigning frontman for his Arkestra. So I had to make it a point to sit down with the man and reminisce of his time with Ra. The Roadshow does it all for our loyal readers, as we present Mr. Allen, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

MARSHALL ALLEN: I would hear on the radio all the big bands, Benny Goodman, the vibe player (Lionel Hampton), and I always wanted to play the clarinet. That is where it got started, when I heard the big bands, Fletcher Henderson, Duke, and all those bands at those times. That is when I learned to play clarinet and saxophone. I went to the clarinet first. That is the way I got started. In the school, they didn't have a clarinet and so they gave me a C melody saxophone and so I played that for a while, but then I stopped. Then I went in the Army during World War II and joined the band and played clarinet. I played in the military band. I stayed in that for about seven years and got out and then went to Paris for a while to study at the National Conservatory. I was playing alto by then.

FJ: When did you make your way back home?

MARSHALL ALLEN: Then that was about '51 or '52. I went over to Europe with the band in the Army in '44 or '45. Played the parades in the military band and we had a dance band and that is where I began to play saxophone, in the military dance band. When I was discharged before 1949, then I went to Paris because I was already in Europe and went to the Conservatory and I stayed until 1952 or something, about three years or so. Then I come back to Chicago and I had a small band of my own with a vibe player, a tenor sax, an alto, and vibes. I was hearing about Sun Ra. I got a record with Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, a lot of people were playing on it. And I heard that Sun Ra's band was in town and to go up there and hear these musicians. That was about 1957.

FJ: What was your impression of Sun Ra?

MARSHALL ALLEN: When I heard the music, the music got me, before I even met Sun Ra. It was the music. They had this demo record and he had one or two tunes on it along with other artists. I heard it and I heard the sound and the way he was swinging and I said, "Yeah, I like that." I heard he was uptown and I was living on 65th and he was around 63rd, and I heard he was in rehearsal and looking for musicians and so I went up there to find him. When I seen him, he started talking and talking. I wanted to play his music, but he wanted to talk to me first.

FJ: What did you two talk about?

MARSHALL ALLEN: Some of Sun Ra's things about space and the Bible. He just talked, talked, talked, talked, talked, like Sun Ra does talk, his philosophy and things. It was kind of strange for me, but it was intriguing, but I loved that band and then I wanted to play in it. I had my little saxophone. I had a raggedy instrument at that time. I had my instrument stolen. A guy broke into my house and stole my new one and so I got me an old one. So I started playing and he said, "No, no. You're writing, but you're not writing. I'm going to try you for the flute." So he told me to buy a flute. That is when he started to give me lessons on the flute. Of course, we had a full saxophone section, so there wasn't much room in that for me. But with a flute, I could get in the band. So that is when I got the flute and I was playing mostly flute then, around 1958. After that, I think the band left Sun Ra. Most of the members migrated to New York and then he let me play saxophone because it was a smaller band and I could play saxophone and flute. That is how I met Sun Ra. He was intriguing. It was a challenge. I wanted to play saxophone in the section, but he always had me standing up by the piano by him all the time and I never did get a chair right away.

FJ: I was told that John Gilmore, Pat Patrick, and yourself carried suitcases filled with music.

MARSHALL ALLEN: Well, yeah, Fred, because I've got five of them. I'm going on six cases now. He was always carrying a big suitcase of music because you never know what he was going to play. And then I played saxophone. I played flute. I played clarinet and I carried those things around. He had John Gilmore. He played better clarinet than I did. So he gave me a bass clarinet and so I was carrying around my saxophone, my flute, a bass clarinet, and the music (laughing).

FJ: That is a lot of baggage to lug.

MARSHALL ALLEN: But he thought I should do more so sometimes he would give me a bunch of bells, clavier, and I would play those in the band.

FJ: How many compositions are we talking about?

MARSHALL ALLEN: I don't know, Fred. I've got thousands of them here. I've got so many, some I've forgot, but I've got about five cases or six cases of music and I've got all the stuff from way back there. I've got all them charts I was playing. He was writing and he was writing. He was writing all the time. He wrote all the time. I've got so many charts that some of them I can play and some of them I have trouble with.

FJ: Sun Ra was prolific in documenting the Arkestra.

MARSHALL ALLEN: Well, that is all we did. All we did seven days a week was rehearse, even if you had a job or not. Sun Ra would be rehearsing and he would rehearse at night, if you had a job and he would rehearse in the day with other guys in the band. He was always rehearsing and writing, all the time. He constantly started creating tunes. He would write tunes like he was writing a letter. Everyday he had new tunes. And then he began to change the forms. Little by little by little by little, he began to add all the exotic instruments, all these from other parts of the world. That was it and we started doing that. He began to get more sounds and then he had a clarinet that he used to play and being at the organ and all the sounds that you could make on that. He would tell us to practice and duplicate the sounds of electronic drums and all this electronics.

FJ: Were you guys making any money then?

MARSHALL ALLEN: No, then, I had jobs. I was working at a camera company. I was working jobs. I would rehearse and then go to my jobs and then rehearse Sun Ra's music until late and then go home and go to bed and go to work and come back and do that.

FJ: What prompted you to be so loyal to the man and his music?

MARSHALL ALLEN: It was the band and the sound of his arranging and writing. I was in love with the band because I had been in the band in the Army and I had been on the bandstand and played a lot of Count Basie's music and Duke, but when I heard his music, it was just swinging. It was a challenge. He would write music, the concept, I couldn't understand, but I could read it. The concept wasn't right. He would say things about the pyramids and he had to bring my attention to the Bible and everything, all his philosophies and all these strange things. That was strange at the time.

FJ: Is doesn't seem so strange now.

MARSHALL ALLEN: No (laughing).

FJ: Time caught up with Sun Ra.

MARSHALL ALLEN: Right, because he was talking about going to the moon and in those days, going to the moon? Nobody was going to the moon. It was kind of hard to believe back then. After a while, they put the Sputnik up and somebody was going towards the moon. So I began to see that he was kind of looking to the future.

FJ: Were the dancers and outfits a distraction?

MARSHALL ALLEN: We had all these dancers. Sun Ra would have many people, dancers and things. We had a lot of girls. We had maybe six, seven, eight, nine dancers. We had the African guys.

FJ: He had a carnival on stage.

MARSHALL ALLEN: Right, he would gather all these. He would gather together the drums and then he started using percussions and all kind of gongs and then he would go down into Chinatown and buy some Chinese string instruments and we would go and we would play that. We would go to Europe and we would find all these different instruments that they played and then he would give them to us for us to play them. He would tell us to practice them and learn it. I looked around and I got like ten different instruments around me that I've got to play. I said, "Oh, boy, I've got some studying to do." We rehearsed everyday. He said, "I'm playing you for rehearsing." You see, Fred, everyday, he would have a new tune. Everyday, he would have more than one, but you could bet he had one. That alone made him a master at what he do and then he had all these strange ideas that he wanted everybody colorful because he said that sight and sound. We used to use back in Chicago in the early days, these guys made this light machine with colors and strobe lights and stuff. He knew the electronic age was coming in and he wanted us to take the saxophone and sound like the violin or sound like a trumpet and sound like everything, saxophone plus. So I had to do a lot of studying. That was what I was doing everyday. Seven days a week, I was practicing. I liked the challenge. I looked like I could never catch up. Every time I would catch up on one thing, he would have something else going. He kept putting these things out and I kept challenging them and I am still here doing it now.

FJ: What about Sun Ra do you find you miss?

MARSHALL ALLEN: Well, Sun Ra was a friend. I mean, really a friend for one thing. He was a master and he knew what he was doing. He was like my family, close, like my family. He did so many things. When he accepted me, I come up there and he said to me, "Come on, get your horn." And then, I went and got my horn and then he took me out all night long in a restaurant. When the musicians come out, they had a little hangout in a restaurant and I sat there all night long waiting to play my horn and he was telling me stories about Egypt and stories about space and all this and I would stay up all night with him and then go to work at eight in the morning. He done a lot of things for me. I figured he knew so much and had plenty of experience about music and on the history of it.

FJ: What prompted you to direct the Sun Ra Arkestra?

MARSHALL ALLEN: I didn't decide that at all, Fred. I was standing in the background all the time because I didn't have to have that responsibility, but I had the section. I was always part of leading the section. I never even thought, I admired Sun Ra so much, I wouldn't think about him ever leaving. So I wasn't thinking about being a leader of a band, of his band or any other band. This was a constant challenge all the time. He was coming up with all these different ideas that he wanted to do. Around time that he started getting sick, I figured that somebody else would be in line before me, but it just happened that all the ones in line to take the band and carry it on died themselves, and so that left nobody but me. The other members, the old members, they were busy going in another direction in their life and I was stuck here with the legacy of Sun Ra and his music. So I said, "Well, I've got to keep it going." I had Jackson (James Jackson) with me and then for a couple of years we were running the band together and then he died in '98 and that left me by myself. I said, "Well, I will be dedicated and carry on and go other directions. What Sun Ra has done all these years, I've got to keep it going." That is how I got in it. I didn't want to do it.

FJ: You sort of fell into it.

MARSHALL ALLEN: (Laughing) Yeah, it was kind of thrown in my lap. When I am playing Sun Ra's music, the audience is looking at me and, "What can he do? What is he doing?" So I had to compose some compositions myself and write in the style of Sun Ra's writing. I am not a Sun Ra, but I write in that style and is influenced by him. I write some uneven bar melodies and all, sounds and things. I had to do that because Sun Ra was gone. We have got so many albums out there with all this music, they wanted to see what I was doing.

FJ: It seems like a double-edged sword. You are damned if you do and damned if you don't.

MARSHALL ALLEN: Damned if you don't, right. So I said, "Well, I will take it on and keep the music going and I began to gather the older numbers to go out and have support and a couple of new ones too. We kept right on going. I began to compose music because when Sun Ra passed, it looked like the bottom dropped out of me and so I began to play on the piano, which I never did do that except for practicing scales and things. I got to the piano and started writing music and making new compositions. I've got me almost a hundred that I wrote and then I had one of the trumpet players arrange it. He moved out of the band down to Alabama and he was so busy with the youth orchestra that he couldn't arrange it for me and so I started writing them myself and now I am putting on all those tunes, I am putting the arrangements on them and I mix them with our older songs. Then I found some of the old stuff that Sun Ra didn't play out in public and some of them, he just started. They have eighteen, sixteen, thirty-two bars and just some melodies and I found some of his melodies dated 1940. I seen it in the book. It has been in there all the time and I tried this and then I put an arrangement on it and it is swinging (laughing). He showed me how to use the spirit and use what you don't know and to quit blocking yourself from knowing.

FJ: Let's touch on your collaborations on CIMP with Mark Whitecage and Lou Grassi.

MARSHALL ALLEN: This guy, Duval (Dominic Duval), the bass player and Whitecage and myself and the drummer, he asked me to make one with him and so I went and made one with him. I did one with the trombone player, Tyrone (Tyrone Hill). He had a little quartet and he asked me to do one with him. I did one with Whitecage. And then, later on, Lou Grassi and his group, he asked me to make one with him and I went and made one with him. I have also recorded an album on El Ra label in New York.

FJ: How do people get their hands on the record?

MARSHALL ALLEN: There is a phone number, 212-932-2725 and the fax is 212-222-0957.

Fred Jung is Jazz Weekly's Editor-In-Chief and actually believes Sun Ra was from Saturn. Comments?  Email Fred.