In certain ways, Marshall Allen has passed the time during the pandemic like most of us have. He leaves his house just to take quick strolls around the neighborhood for some fresh air and exercise. As month after month passes, many of us have understandably grown bored during quarantine. But Allen — the 96-year-old jazz legend who for the past quarter-century has served as the leader of one of the genre’s most essential groups, the Sun Ra Arkestra — has embraced the current situation by spending hours each day playing music. If he hasn’t gotten bored after 80 years of that, he’s not about to start now.
Allen remains wondrously optimistic, always eager to find new possibilities in every note. Using this time to stay sharp on an orchestra’s worth of instruments, he further hones the skills that have made him one of the most enduring figures in jazz.
“I’ve got 15 to 20 instruments I gotta play,” Allen says with great exuberance during a phone conversation in late August. “Oboe, flute, piccolo, trumpet, trombone, tenor sax, baritone, three or four altos, soprano. . . . I even got my kora to play during the day,” he says of the traditional West African string instrument, which he happily starts plucking at one point. “I’ve got enough instruments to keep me busy 24 hours a day.”
The work Allen has already done makes him a venerated elder statesman. He’s recorded hundreds of albums as both leader and sideman and performed thousands of concerts touching all parts of the world, dating back to the 1940s. Few can match his lifetime’s worth of stories, which he can still recall, such as one from his four years with Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji.
“I was playing this great big bell: bang, bang, bang, ba-bang, bang, bang, di-di-di-di,” Allen says while vocalizing the bell’s rhythmic patterns. “Standing right over there next to Olatunji, with that great big ol’ giant drum that he played: bam, bam . . . oh yeah! If I missed a beat, then ‘bam,’ he’d [take] a swing at me!” he says, laughing, of the musician who died in 2003.
Of course, the act Allen is most associated with is the Sun Ra Arkestra. The eponymous leader of the Arkestra was a self-proclaimed celestial being who was one of the most visionary jazz musicians of the 20th century, championing individualism and expression over precision and perfection. It is no exaggeration to say that Sun Ra redefined the limits of what was possible for the music, and since his death in 1993, Allen has carried on that legacy. “Swirling,” the Sun Ra Arkestra’s first new album since 1999, shows that Allen’s work is far from done.
“Like the virus going on right now, it don’t bother me,” Allen says. “I’m used to staying in the house, doing the work, because I have much work to do to keep Sun Ra’s music alive.”
Born in 1924 in Louisville, Allen eventually moved to Philadelphia and at 18 enlisted in the military, which is where his career as a musician began and also where he joined his first legendary group. He played clarinet and alto saxophone in the 17th Division Special Service Band as part of the Army’s 92nd Infantry Division, popularly known as the Buffalo Soldiers. Allen is one of the last surviving members of the famed Black cavalry.
While stationed in Paris, Allen performed with the likes of pianist Art Simmons, saxophonist Don Byas and alto reedist James Moody. After he was honorably discharged, Allen enrolled at the Paris Conservatory, where he studied clarinet with musician and educator Ulysse Delécluse. After nearly a decade away from the States, Allen returned in 1951. His father was still in Philadelphia, but his mother was living in Chicago, which is where Allen ended up upon his return.
“When I came back home, after staying two or three years at the conservatory, I passed [through] Philadelphia because they had my ticket written to Chicago instead of Philadelphia,” he recalls of the fluke decision that changed the course of his life.
After a few years of playing with local bands in Chicago, Allen heard that Sun Ra, who rehearsed at a nearby ballroom every night and was becoming a force in the city’s jazz scene, was in search of musicians. Eager to join his band, Allen met Sun Ra after work one day and stayed up with him all night.
“He was talking about the Bible, ancient history and all these different things,” Allen remembers about the long-ago meeting. “You know, and music and stuff. And I’m just standing there listening. Every night, I get off from work, I’d go over there and practice.”
Eventually, Sun Ra told Allen to meet him at the home of saxophonist John Gilmore. There was another instruction: Bring your flute.
“All I got is a clarinet and an alto,” he recalled. Allen quickly went downtown to buy a flute, but soon realized that he couldn’t play it: “I didn’t have the embouchure. I knew the keys and everything, but I didn’t have the chops.”
Allen found an instructor at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra who also ran a music school for children, and the two cut a deal. “‘I’ll give you lessons and you give lessons to the children to pay for your lessons,’ ” Allen remembers being told. “That’s what I did every day for a couple of weeks, and I got my chops up, a little bit.”
He later met Sun Ra for a gig and they played together on their first tune, “Spontaneous Simplicity.” After playing it, note for note, Sun Ra asked Allen to play it again, just from feeling. “You did something right, now make wrong right,” was something he learned that night and would continue to remind himself of for years to come. That’s how Allen first joined the band in 1957 — thus, the planets were forever aligned.
Among the many lessons that Allen learned during his more than 35 years playing alongside Sun Ra, discipline was one of the most important. Not just in terms of developing one’s craft or honing one’s voice, but also by putting the greater good before one’s needs or ambitions. Similar to Gilmore, the group’s other onetime leader, this helps explain why Allen chose to perform almost exclusively with the Arkestra over the course of his career, straddling the roles of leader, educator and, ultimately, gatekeeper.
“He stayed on my case to keep my discipline up,” Allen says. “[Sun Ra] rehearsed every day, seven days a week. That kind of put a dent on me ’cause I was kind of wild in [those] days. I would be mad, because I couldn’t run and he would keep me at it — music, music, rehearse, rehearse . . . every day. So I’d finally give up and say, ‘Oh, I may as well go on and do it, and try to do it right.’ ”
“Swirling” marks the first studio release from the Sun Ra Arkestra since 1999’s “A Song for the Sun.” Recorded at Rittenhouse Soundworks in Philadelphia, Allen didn’t just play on the album but also aided in its mixing, engineering, production and rearrangements of several Arkestra classics. With the sense of doom that has persisted throughout much of 2020, it’s hard to imagine a better time for Sun Ra’s message — that humans need to evolve to a more spiritual plane, to be welcomed and embraced with open arms.
“I first became aware of Sun Ra, just from his [album] covers,” said Vincent Chancey, 70, longtime French hornist for the Arkestra who began playing with the group in 1976. “I was interested in a lot of Eastern philosophy and mystical readings. I was [also] interested in ancient Egypt and its relationship to the African diaspora and our history.”
With more than a dozen members in the Arkestra’s current roster, Allen leads it today much like Sun Ra led him more than 60 years ago. “He used to tell me, ‘Oh, you play nice’ or ‘You got a nice tone, but it’s not what I want,’ ” Allen says.
“He didn’t want you to play what you know in your head, but the real feeling, the soul, the heart,” Allen says. “I would always get confused by that, but really, he just wanted me to play from my heart. When I began to quit fighting him over that ‘what I know’ stuff, I began to please him a little better.”
The majority of the Arkestra members (including Allen) are classically trained, and though most of the original charts are on hand, they often eschew notes on the page in search of a feeling — a constant reminder that this music is being passed down “aurally” and is also a rich part of oral tradition.
“It was definitely like baptism by fire,” says violist Melanie Dyer, founder of WeFreeStrings, who joined the Arkestra in 2019. “As a string player, I wasn’t able to learn from a whole lot of charts. Even if [alto saxophonist] Knoel [Scott] gave me a chart, it didn’t necessarily mean that that chart was going to be played that night,” she says, laughing. “So I’ve had to learn a lot on the bandstand and that’s been really an old-school kind of process.”
The gravity of being both a colleague and pupil of Allen’s, whose experiences in music rival those of any living musician, are not lost on the band’s current members. “When you try to think about talking about Marshall, because it’s so personal, it really gives me a moment to kind of think about what could I say or how do I express that more than just, ‘Oh, he’s a great guy,’ ” says Arkestra vocalist and violinist Tara Middleton, a member since 2012.
“It’s so much deeper than that,” she says.
“To have the opportunity to be in that inner circle and learn from someone who is a legend, who’s an innovator of music, of this avant-garde saxophone, of something that no one else is doing. And also from someone who effects change, like Sun Ra effected change in music, he effected change in his mind, he effected change socially. Marshall has a way of being able to effect such change. If you think about creating an art form — and Sun Ra created an art form — something that no one else was doing. Marshall has created a sound and a style, something that no one else was doing at the time.”
Just days before the election, Allen, Chancey and several other current and former members of the Arkestra will gather in Philadelphia and rehearse in advance of playing live on election night as part of a citywide series of impromptu performances at polling sites. At its very core, the Arkestra is a tightknit collective of musicians who are in constant search of the truth through music, and this offers a rare chance in 2020 to harness its powers to perhaps effect change once again. It’s yet another lesson that Marshall Allen continues to impart to his many disciples.
“I’m not a Sun Ra, but I know one thing,” Allen says. “I want them to pay attention and I want them [to] when I say play, play.”