Faced with the prospect of writing 800 words about The Sun Ra Arkestra, my first thought was, “I could use 800 different adjectives that would all be equally appropriate.” Here are a few: mythical, outré, spiritual, futuristic, experimental, unhinged, ecstatic …
The list goes on and on and on — much like the discography of the man born Herman Poole Blount in 1914. It includes more than 100 full-length albums and 1,000 songs. Blount legally changed his name to Sun Ra in 1952, when he began relating a story of traveling to Saturn and back in a moment of spiritual rapture. Henceforth, he became among the more prolific songwriters, keyboardists, and bandleaders of the 20th century, leaving strands of influence on musical improvisation, anti-Judeo-Christian religion, electronic instrumentation, Afrocentric philosophy, extraterrestrial performance, and jazz culture as a whole.
Sun Ra’s legacy lives on in The Arkestra, which was originally formed in the early ’50s and has seen hundreds of musicians ebb and flow from its ranks in the last 60 years. After Ra died in 1993, the Arkestra crown was passed to tenor saxophonist John Gilmore; upon his passing in 1995, alto saxophonist Marshall Allen assumed the throne, and, at age 91, still leads the band today. “After all the legends passed away, I was left standing alone, thinking, ‘Now what am I gonna do?’” Allen tells Folio Weekly Magazine. “I figured I’d have to lead the band myself and show everyone what Sun Ra taught me. He was a beautiful artist who had a lot of gifts.”
Ra’s gifts ranged widely, from an interest in numerology to a passion for Disney show tunes to a gig teaching a class called The Black Man in the Cosmos at University of California, Berkeley to an obsession with self-discipline. Musically speaking, The Arkestra first developed its cosmic jazz style while based in Chicago in the 1950s. During a stint in New York City in the 1960s, it evolved into a much wilder, more experimental outfit, incorporating synthesizers, tape delay, and evolving into a 25-person collective improvisation. Then, in the 1970s, the entire band decamped to Philadelphia, taking over a three-story house that Allen’s father bequeathed them so they could rehearse and interact 24 hours a day.
“Sun Ra didn’t sleep much,” Allen laughs, noting that The Arkestra is still based in the same Philadelphia house today. “He wrote the music, he recruited the musicians, he rehearsed the band, he took care of the business, he watched over everyone and made sure they didn’t do too much running away… He didn’t take much time for himself, and I can see why — he had so much music that it took him 57 years to write it all. In the current version of The Arkestra, we dig into it, but we’ll never get to play all of it.”
Although Sun Ra is gone, The Arkestra still dispenses the same kind of spiritual sonic freak-outs: recruiting ambitious young musicians, writing long-form improvisational pieces, performing marathon sets at Siberian jazz festivals, exploring the intersection between the band’s theatrical legacy and the practice of contemporary art. As the current bandleader, Allen delegates much of the business responsibilities to various Arkestra members. But with the ensemble still touring the world — last year, 26 musicians, singers, and dancers toured throughout Europe, with a 12- or 13-person group scheduled to appear for the Feb. 20 show in Jacksonville — Allen proudly remains in charge of the music and the stage setup.
“This is still a show band,” he says. “All these young guys who come to join, I make sure they can play well. But I also make sure they can sing and dance and perform and create. We play creatively and with intuition, and that means playing outside of the square.” Allen insists that an Arkestra set list is a steadily shifting organism, with songs reflecting America’s musical evolution from the 1930s to the present day: doo-wop, swing, bebop, free jazz, rock, psychedelia. “We’ve got so many different varieties and styles,” he emphasizes. “Most nights, we can’t even make it through the 20 tunes I choose. They change with each gig. It’s important to play to what people like, and I have to feel the audience out to know what that is.”
Nearing the end of the interview with Allen, I hesitantly asked about how sorely Sun Ra was missed by the remaining veteran members of The Arkestra. Surprisingly, Allen laughed and extolled the otherworldly presence of his longtime friend and mentor: “When Sun Ra passed, people were all moaning and groaning and crying and whining. But his spirit is still in the house and with us on stage. Sometimes it even feels like he’s still around — like he was just here yesterday playing music. That’s what I dedicated myself to: continuing that tradition of working hard to see where his music can go. And all these years later, I think it can still keep going.”