Photograph by Jorg Brecker ©
MARSHALL ALLEN, the Maestro
As a young man in Philadelphia….. Marshall B. Allen loved Jazz, dancing and women. This is borne out by a picture of the dapper Allen dancing with a beautiful young woman at a ballroom dance with Charlie Parker playing on stage some time round 1942.
During the Second World War Marshall enlisted in the 92nd Infantry Division and was stationed in France. Marshall is one of the last surviving Buffalo Soldiers as he was a member of the famed Black Calvary unit when it was converted to mechanized during WW11
While a soldier, Marshall took up intense study of the clarinet and played the saxophone even directing several small music units to entertain troops during the war.
Before his return to the states after the war Allen continued study on clarinet under the GI bill at the Paris conservatory under Delacloise . Staying a couple of years in Europe, Marshal played saxophone and toured throughout Europe with Art Simmons and James Moody as well as performing with his own small groups. He was good friends with the great Don Byas who called him ‘Red ‘and elements of his playing reflect that. His tenure with the James Moody orchestra was recorded on LP.
In a recent feature interview in Jazz Times Magazine with Tad Hendrickson, just two months into his 92nd year on planet Earth, Marshall Belford Allen discusses his introduction into the Heliocentric world of Sun Ra.
Allen first met Sun Ra in the mid-1950s in Chicago, where the young saxophonist had moved to be with his mother and sisters following his military discharge. At a local record shop, a sales clerk passed him a Sun Ra demo, telling Allen that the bandleader was always looking for players. According to Allen, “I had heard of him, so I said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll take it home.’ It was ‘Superblonde’ or one of those other swinging tunes. I heard it and thought, ‘Man, I’d like to be in that band. I love that sound they’re getting.’”
He went back to the store the next day and found out that Sun Ra rehearsed every day on the South Side at Cottage Grove and 63rd Street. It was only a few blocks from where he lived, so Allen and a musician friend decided to walk down there and check it out. “Sun Ra was sitting at a table writing and the band was rehearsing. We got to talking,” he recalls. “He was talking about Egypt, outer space, the Bible and stuff. I was sitting there thinking I was coming to play, but it wasn’t like that. He was trying to figure out what kind of guy I was. I was sitting there listening to all these different stories. I thought to myself, ‘Man, I’m gonna stay put because I need to get into this band.’ After rehearsal, he invited me to get something to eat in the club next door. Jug [Gene Ammons] was playing.”
It got late, but Sun Ra kept talking. Eventually Allen, who had a day job at a camera shop, went home to sleep, but he kept coming back every night, even though he’d yet to perform a note with the band. Finally Sun Ra invited him over to John Gilmore’s house to play. Despite the fact that Allen had no training on flute, Sun Ra told the young musician he needed him to play the instrument. Eventually Allen was able to join the band onstage as a guest, standing alongside the rhythm section all night but only playing on “Spontaneous Simplicity,” which came from the sessions at Gilmore’s house. Although there was no chair for him, Allen was happy to be there. He officially joined the band in 1958…………..’
This began an association which would last 44years, until Sun Ra’s ascension to worlds beyond in 1993………and continue another 23 years and counting as ‘Maestro’ Allen enters his 21st year as Director of the Sun Ra Arkestra.
My introduction to Maestro Allens musical personality commenced occurred during my first Sun Ra concert at the Beacon Theatre in NYC in 1978.
Marshall was one of the first to enter the stage..and began playing west african multistringed instrument called a Kora, which he constructed himself…..indistinguishable from the traditional koras of Mali. Along with the muliple percussions of the Arkestra members he set a moo and tone of Celestial root vibration augmented by the improvisations of different Arkestra members.
Upon the grand entrance of the Sun Ra, resplete in his muti coloured sequined robes and Egyptian spaceman headgear….marshall switched to alto and upon Sun Ra’s gesture , rose to bombard the audience and myself with sonic riffs which defied the physics of saxophone elocution. I wash totally amazed to experience the most dazzling display of pyrotechnics and sheer energy ever produced out of the alto saxophone and entire level beyond that of the great Eric Dolphy. Indeed, musicologicaly speaking it would appear that Dolphy was the link between Charlie Parker and Marshall Allen.
Marshall whipped and strummed his saxophone like a Jimi Hendrix played his guitar, his fingers sculpting lines and rapid fire notes as clear and fast as the sound of a machine gun. Hitting partials and harmonics that would of sent the great Sigurd Rasher himself back into the woodshed and made Oliver Nelson write a whole ‘nother saxophone study.
To my further amazement he was then joined in his barrage of cosmic blasts by his alto twin Danny Davis, who matched the sheer ferocity of the Maestro….. though leaning a bit more toward the intervallic approach of Dolphy….matching Marshalls expubience much as Pat Patrick would match the virtuosity of Charles Davis.
These two alto demons played avant garde with the total ease of expression and virtuoisity that Pat and Charles displayed in playing Bebop and beyond.
Later that night sun Ra would feature Marshall on the song Cocktails for Two and you would hear the ‘deputy (Gilmores name for Marshall) conjure Johnny Hodges (Duke Ellington’s great altoist) and transport that great sound and concept into the space age, crafting beautiful lines augmented by cosmic swirls that painted pictures of solar systems and galaxies of worlds beyond.
Then Sun Ra called his 12 tone row composition…shadow world.and John and marshall would scupt a shapeshifting melody together with a oneness that ignored the impossible speed and intervallic agility of phrase timing like a multilayered laser/phaser.
I wondered and dreamed of ever bcominge a part of such a gathering of Tone scientists commaned by the Captain of the Space Ship Earth………………… Sun Ra.
Yet a year later.Sun Ra recruited me at Warren Smiths Studio WIS, then immediately recorded me at variety Arts studio on 42nd St. where he was in the midst of a long term residency of recording which produced his classic nuclear war, sleeping beauty, strange celestial Road and 10 to 15 more Lp..many of them released on his Saturn record label
In between the long sessions at the studio.sun Ra would have me transported to Philadelphia where I would rehearse with the nucleus of the Arkestra as \sun ra tailor made my muisc parts.
He would lecture and tutor us in the true jazz history that never made it into books as well as the phraseology of his mentor Fletcher Henderson.. the articulations and rhythmic phrasing of Fletcher was different from Basie or any other big band so Sonny would turn me over to Marshall when I was slow at grasping his rhythmical concepts (which I was) Marshall would explain to me that Sun Ra’s concept was not as tight as the ridged rules of Bop and that I would have to open my ears beyond the tonalities and rhythms associated with the music of Bird ( whom I considered myself a disciple of ) albeit Marshall and johns patience with me, I admit I did not internalize these concepts until years later, and wanted to quit every night, disgusted at my inability to keep up with these masters.
It was Marshall who took the time to patiently demonstrate the Ra concept of phrasing as well as Fletcher Henderson’s… upon which it was actually based. Along with his his buddy and road mate, trumpeter Michael Ray, the two of them unfailingly offered me counsel and assisted my practical understanding of Sun Ra and his music whenever they could..
Marshall was Sonny’s taskmaster and if you just couldn’t catch on to a concept or articulation fast enough he would turn you over to Marshall.
Marshall had another buddy. Guitarist/lyricist Joseph Holley and they created the prototypes for a number of Marshall’s compositions…jamming and recording themselves together over the years.
Upon Joes passing it was chiefly myself along with vocalist Art Jenkins and Michael Ray who would be there to assist Marshall once the mantle of the Ra legacy was placed in his hands.
It was under Marshall lead alto that Down Beat magazine awarded Sun Ra and his Arkestra #1 Big band for 1988 and 1989.
Sun Ra left the planet in 1993 and his successor john Gilmore followed him in 1995.
The Arkestra now out from under the shadow of sun Ra’s larger than life persona now found itself having to fend off hostile takeovers and critics who did not see the band as credible without Sun Ra and John.
Between 1995 and 1999 with the focus upon reconstructing the Arkestra to carry on sun Ra’s legacy Marshall Allen, having accepted the directorship after john Gilmore began honing the remnants of sun Ra’s Arkestra into a tight disciplined musical unit that could not be denied. Starting off with myself, Bruce Edwards, John Ore, Charles Davis, Yah Ya Abdul Majid, Luqman Ali, Craig Haynes, Tyrone Hill, Michael Ray and Fred Adams with Elson Nasciamento as manager this nucleus brought forth their 1997 post Sun Ra release A SONG FOR THE SUN.
The release of ‘A Song for the Sun’ on the Arkestras newly created El Ra Records label also debuted the great arranging and compositional skills of Maestro Allen as well as the reformulation of rarely or unheard Sun Ra compositions all arranged by Marshall.
Marshall was by this time really developing his skill at using the EVI (electronic Valve instrument) to manifest the Space element in the Arkestras music much as Sun Ra utilized the Moog and mini-moog synthesizer.
With re-energized interest in the Arkestra and the discovery of Sun Ra by young people all over the world. The Arkestra returned to a busy Tour schedule introducing a third generation of music fans and space cadets to the music of Sun Ra.
Marshall reinstituted the piano chair in the Arkestra with his recruitment of piano virtuoso Farid Barron. His ability to marshall great instrumentalists and instruct them in Sun Ra’s musical precepts has spawned a new generation of Ra adherents including Dave Hotep guitar, Tara Middleton vocals, Dave Davis trombone, James Stewart on tenor sax and Wayne A Smith Jr on Drums
Resultantly Marshall is sought out all over the world for Lectures and Master classes on Sun Ra and his musical precepts.
That Sun Ra Arkestra released its second El Ra release Music for the 21st Century in 2009 including further explorations into the EVI by Marshall Allen
Various awards and accolades have be bestowed upon Meastro Marshall Allen not the least of which was a PEW fellowship award in 2012.
The Sun Ra centennial tour of 2014 included 66 live dates, and the Arkestra’s schedule hasn’t been much lighter this year, with shows in Japan and all over the U.S. and Europe, including several high-profile bookings that demonstrate the Arkestra’s still-growing reputation among hipsters whose tastes run directly from indie-rock toward the avant-garde, bypassing the modern jazz mainstream….Jazz Times
It surley appears that Marshall owns the distingsion of being Sun Ra greatest student.. As he explained in the Jazz Times article……..
“I got lots of stuff that Sun Ra never played,” he explains. “There are also different parts that were moved around within the same song. Some of them, I can’t remember the different combinations, but the songs are there. There’s enough of an arrangement for the band, and I can put different stuff in. I’m carrying a book like this right now [he holds up a battered briefcase, stuffed full], and I got several more. Sixty years of music, man. We have a large repertoire.”
And Marshall has had the discipline, perseverance and tireless dedication and commitment to continue the study, perseveration and reconstruction of Sun Ra’s volumes of music of which a great deal was only played at his legendary marathon rehearsals…..Marshall himself always codified the ‘tailor made ‘parts Sun Ra gave him after each rehearsal was finally over. And now those parts are crucial in his reconstruction of Sun Ras compositions and arrangements. It is this dedication and commitment which has propelled the Arkestra through the 21St Century.
While Sun Ra ruled the Arkestra on and off the bandstand demanding a total commitment without ‘distractions’ from Arkestra members .
Marshall merely looks for sincerity and a willingness to commit to the truth of the music, alone.
‘The music has to do YOU some good…if the music doesn’t help you. How can it be of use to anyone else.
Marshall tells us repeatedly
‘I play this music for my own well-being…….. is Marshalls credo
Much as…………… ‘This is the music of the Creator. Was Sun Ra’s.
The co relation between the two is obvious when you witness 92 year old Allen standing, jumping and emphatically directing the entire Arkestra for the entire concert rarely sitting………….possessing as much energy as the entire Arkestra combined. Playing with a vitality unseen amongst his age group.
This is a man driven
A man totally committed to the music.
Surely this man has tapped into the Divine source. And that source is Sun Ra.
And this man is Marshall Allen, the Maestro.
Knoel Scott 11/15/2016 London
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