of Frank Schindelbeck
FIRESIDE CHAT WITH MARSHALL ALLEN
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.
JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
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.
When did you make your way back home?
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.
What was your impression of Sun Ra?
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.
What did you two talk about?
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.
I was told that John Gilmore, Pat Patrick, and yourself carried suitcases
filled with music.
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).
That is a lot of baggage to lug.
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.
How many compositions are we talking about?
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.
Sun Ra was prolific in documenting the Arkestra.
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.
Were you guys making any money then?
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.
What prompted you to be so loyal to the man and his music?
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.
Is doesn't seem so strange now.
ALLEN: No (laughing).
FJ: Time caught up with Sun Ra.
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.
Were the dancers and outfits a distraction?
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.
He had a carnival on stage.
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.
What about Sun Ra do you find you miss?
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.
What prompted you to direct the Sun Ra Arkestra?
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.
You sort of fell into it.
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.
It seems like a double-edged sword. You are damned if you do and damned
if you don't.
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.
Let's touch on your collaborations on CIMP with Mark Whitecage and Lou
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.
How do people get their hands on the record?
ALLEN: There is a phone number, 212-932-2725 and the fax is 212-222-0957.
Jung is Jazz Weekly's Editor-In-Chief and actually believes Sun Ra was
from Saturn. Comments? Email