Alto saxophonist Marshall Allen has been on a worldwide 95th birthday celebration tour since January, blasting off to Stockholm, London, Jersey City, Budapest, Paris, and other dazzling ports of call. His Musically Manned Orbiting Vehicle (MMOV) containing the Sun Ra Arkestra will land in Philly on Thursday, June 13, at Union Transfer. The evening will also feature a reunion appearance of the newly rediscovered Sounds of Liberation band and percussionist Eli Keszler.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1924, Allen started early on the clarinet. He enlisted in World War II at age 18 with the Buffalo Soldiers, who liberated Italy, and went on to play with the Special Services entertainment division in Paris. This young alto player quickly got attention from saxophonists Don Byas and Coleman Hawkins, and this association ultimately evolved into a tour (and recording) with James Moody’s Boptet, leading to Allen’s sojourn at the Paris Conservatory of Music.
A life transformed
Then he met Sun Ra in the early 1950s, and his life was transformed. Ra’s mystical world and mission of human elevation changed Allen’s ideas about what music could inspire and do for spiritual uplift. So the alto saxophonist stayed and a unique movement was born.
In 1968, the Sun Ra Arkestra moved from New York City into a rowhome in Philadelphia they called “The Pharaoh’s Den” or “Saturn’s House” (depending who you talk to). Allen helped Sun Ra run the band “rehearsing Monday through Sunday” until Ra’s death in 1993, and he has led the Arkestra ever since, constantly exploring and reexploring the immense musical output of the late pioneer of Afrofuturism.
As Allen remembered of Sun Ra in Antigravity magazine, “he wrote enough music, every day, all day—aw, man, more music than I’ve seen anybody write. Yeah, man, I got stacks and stacks of music that he wrote. He was another kind of person, you know? Sometimes in your life, you meet a genius, a person with ideas that flow so fast you can’t keep up with them; that’s the way he was with the music. He was always changing it."
Celebrating Marshall Allen
I did some outreach, and the tributes stream in by the day for this complex musician in his 10th decade of life—this keeper of the interstellar flame.
Biographer John F. Szwed, author of Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, the definitive book on the band, tells me that “Marshall is a jazz deity, a superhero, a cosmic adventurer, and the man who kept Sun Ra's music alive. But lest we forget, he paid his dues many times over. All praises are due him!”
King Britt, whose mother introduced him to Sun Ra’s musical philosophy, which inspired him in his career as a performer and composer, says, “Marshall Allen is the living embodiment of transcending the time and space construct. A multi-dimensional being who is the epitome of what a true artist is and will eternally be. Happy solar return, Mr. Allen.”
Trumpeter Michael Ray, who joined the Arkestra in 1978 and was mentored by the great saxophonist John Gilmore and Allen, adds that “Marshall was my roommate and took me under his wing. He has been an unlimited reservoir of information, music and love. He has always said, ‘PLAY WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW.’ To this day, I’m learning to play what I don’t know. HAPPY ARRIVAL DAY WITH SPACE AGE GREETINGS!”
Dr. Diane Turner, curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, says "Marshall Allen’s longevity is no little thing. He is unsurpassed in keeping the true spirit of Sun Ra alive through music that moves us to the heavens. In the African tradition, he is a Jali, who has a breadth of knowledge about jazz and the Sun Ra Arkestra that is unparalleled."
Get your umbrella
Many musicians have been influenced by this music, from John Coltrane to Frank Zappa to Solange to Sonic Youth. Even Lady Gaga sampled “Rocket Number 9” by Sun Ra on her single “Venus,” and the list will only continue to increase as the message flows outward to the rest of the cosmos.
Marshall Allen has spoken about how Sun Ra’s concept of the “spirit of the day” isn’t an abstraction, and the idea says a lot about creative longevity. Artists must leave preconceived notions of idiom and genres behind to express what is happening now in the world. It means to find your own instrumentation, your own ways of playing an old or new composition, to explode your musical vocabulary and discover atypical rhythms of surprise.
Allen, now in his 96th year (his birthday is May 25), understands how this philosophy keeps him young enough to play, young enough to lead a big band, and young enough to find another original musical thought that speaks to the world in the very next moment.
“It’s like life,” says Allen. “You do the same things, but you do them differently because of the situation. If it’s raining, you get your umbrella and keep on going.”