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Marshall Allen's Muse

By Published: October 18, 2004

AAJ: Right, and that's when collective improvisation became more apparent.

MA: Yeah, you got it.

AAJ: As a band, you bought or rented a living space for the entire group, right?

MA: Well, there were only about four of us at that time, so it wasn't a big deal. We were the nucleus, and the other guys had their own places. We were down in the East Village, lived over there a few years, and then we moved uptown Manhattan. We'd catch the subway together and ride down to the gigs in the Village or wherever, coffeehouses and stuff like that.

AAJ: As freedom entered more and more into the Arkestra, did you have any ideas of playing that way before meeting Sun Ra?

MA: With that, you have to play whatever everyone else is playing. In '55 everybody was listening to Charlie Parker. But Sun Ra was always doing something different, and he had to train the musicians. He started getting a pool of musicians in New York, and he started stretching out and stretching the music out too. He was always rehearsing; you lived rehearsing seven days a week. We lived in New York about ten years and decided we needed a bigger house, so we came down to Philadelphia.

AAJ: More because of economic reasons, then?

MA: Yeah, and it was a little quieter. New York was always going 24 hours. So we've lived, toured and made music here since the early '70s. We've got trees, houses, we go to bed early - not like New York, we'd be up all night there! [laughing] Much better to study, you know. So that's where we built the band, musicians coming and going, and we had a pretty big pool of musicians.

AAJ: With all the musicians passing through, some staying only a few months or a year, they weren't always able to reconcile the philosophy with the music. Could you explain this a bit?

MA: It's like anything else - you're used to doing what you're doing, and you go somewhere and they change it up, you've got to adjust yourself. You're trying to understand what Ra's saying, and you don't understand every bit of it but you're listening, and you've got to have a lot of discipline to listen to things you don't understand. He'd tell you to play a certain way and you didn't understand that either, changing the way you thought you should be practicing all your life. He'd tell me to play something and I'd play it, and he'd say 'that's right, but not right.' You started getting like 'damn, what is he talking about? What does he want me to do?' When I'd do something Sun Ra would think is wrong, he'd say that's good. I'd say 'what?!?' In other words, he was trying to bring out something in me and everybody else, and it's kind of hard to absorb a new system.

AAJ: And the intensity of the situation, too.

MA: The music kept me going and was always interesting, and I liked that.

AAJ: Well, you've been writing your own tunes for quite a while, too.

MA: Well, no, I used to write little tunes and sometimes they'd put one or two of them in the band, but I'd just keep writing, and put them in my little pile of my own stuff. So when he passed in '93, I thought I had to get some more music. I had to redo some of the stuff we'd been doing, and I had to go write up my melody book. I spent most of my time writing melodies; I couldn't write like Sun Ra, you know! [laughing] But I could write my melodies, and we've got all kinds of different styles of music in the band, so it all fits into the package. Sun Ra helped me, and it's lasted quite a while. You kinda forget how some of them go every day, so you check them and try and remember what you can, or think of something different and play them as close to the Sun Ra style as you can. We've been down here since the '70s, obviously different musicians, used a lot of guys from New York. Everywhere we go we have someone who wants to play, and they get recruits that way.

AAJ: It sounds like there is still a wealth of people who want to play in the Arkestra.

MA: Yeah, yeah, if they want to play, we tell them to play, or sometimes they come on their own. We have the band, and dancers, and all different kinds of show people, singers, the whole thing, all the different drummers. One time we played in Central Park, I think we had a hundred musicians - our guys, other guys, all the New York musicians - we had it at the band shell. We were playing so hard it stopped the rain - it was raining and [when we played] it wouldn't rain on the shell. This was back in the '60s, you know. We'd give a lot of concerts and play in the clubs and all that.

AAJ: How was it that, as a collective yourself, you were involved with the Jazz Composers' Guild, sort of a collective within a collective?

MA: Well, they got the Guild together, and all these guys were in it, and Sun Ra was in it for a minute himself. It was just part of the things that were going on.

AAJ: Through that, you made some recordings with Paul Bley, too [ Barrage , ESP 1008, 1964].

MA: He gave me a nice gig, I needed it. At that time, I thought that was good. I got other gigs, surviving, you know.

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