With The Sun Ra Arkestra, Marshall Allen has been propelling music into the future for nearly 60 years – firstly as a member, and now as the leader.
Born in Kentucky in 1924, Allen first met Sun Ra in Chicago in the late 1950s and soon joined the visionary’s collective of musicians as alto-saxophone, flute and oboe player. The Arkestra’s experimental approach to jazz, which mixed big band with avant-garde compositions, alongside Sun Ra’s claim to be of an “angel race” from Saturn, blazed a trail in jazz music and pioneered the ideology of afrofuturism, influencing artists ranging from George Clinton to techno in- novators such as Derrick May. At 91 years old, Allen’s remarkable energy is still intact, and he continues to lead the Arkestra around the world, spreading the word from outer space.
1930s: Discovering jazz
They used to have what they call beer gardens; they’d have bands at the beer garden and all the people there drinking beer and the band would be jamming, so we’d stand outside the fence and listen. We’d try and sneak in and hear them any time we could. That was way back in the 30s, when I was a young guy. That’s the way I fell in love with jazz.
1957: Meeting Sun Ra and joining the Arkestra in Chicago
I heard the music before I met Sun Ra, and oh the music! I thought there’s something in there that just… I feel. And a friend of mine told me where Sun Ra could be found, rehearsing with the band, and so I went up there with my horn to investigate if they could use me. It’s like anything else, you don’t just take somebody in, you see where they’re at first, y’know, talk with them and hang out with them and see what they’re talking about. So I guess he was checking to see if I was sincere or not, that’s what he was looking for – somebody who he could deal his ideas with. All he needed was somebody with enough distance to stay in one place and be taught by him. And I said, well I’m gonna quit running and looking for bands – I found one. So that was it.
"￼Sun Ra had a futuristic view of things. All the things that happened, he already knew was gonna happen"
1960 – 1968: Moving the Arkestra to New York
We were gonna stop in New York for a little bit and check out different people, cause a lot of members of the old band was there. But then a cab hit our transportation. We couldn’t get back, and then the money got funny. We had to work in the coffee houses for a meal and not too much money. So that was that, but then we began to build a new band. Musicians [from] all over the world were in New York. It was like the hub, so that was the right place to be. Sun Ra picked the type of musician that he figured could choose to learn what he was trying to do. We was going back to Chicago and never did get back, so we got a band in New York and we just stayed for 10 years.
1995: Leading the Arkestra after Sun Ra’s passing
It was not something I chose, it was something that was handed down. There was nobody left that knows how to do this stuff but me – how to get his music going right – so either I just let it go or take it on. All them years and all that hard work and all that beautiful music, I’m not gonna let it go to waste, y’know? I had to get some more musicians, some of them had been with Sun Ra before, some of them was new. I had to mix them and train everybody the way to phrase, the way I was taught to phrase music and make it alive.
2014: Sun Ra’s centenary
The music’s for the people of the 21st century. So in other words, he was right on time with the circuit change. Our songs are about the same thing – greetings from cen- tury 21. Sun Ra… he had a futuristic view of things, of what’s to come. All the things that happen he already knew was gonna happen, you see. So he was preparing for now and for the people in the next generation because that century was a training ground. So we have something for everyone, those who like the music from the old, and those who like music from the future.
2015: Looking towards the future
It’s like, all of man that was, that passed on, their music is still alive. So that’s the same with Sun Ra, he had some songs that will be down in history, in the songbooks, and then every generation can play them. They left those things and we’re playing those. And then we play Sun Ra and that expands the programme. All the songwriters who wrote their songs are still alive, with every new generation playing them.
To Those Of Earth… and Other Worlds: Gilles Peterson Presents Sun Ra and His Arkestra is released 30 October via Strut