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Interviews

Marshall Allen's Muse

By Published: October 18, 2004

All we're doing is for the people, to play music and a joyful noise. Don't forget that you have a gift, and you must use it properly. You want a better world, you've got to create a better music. The people are part of the band, too. If it's by them, it makes a better world too.

Born May 25, 1924 in Louisville, KY, alto saxophonist Marshall Allen has been as much an institution of the Arkestra as Sun Ra himself. Joining the band in 1958 in Chicago, Allen became part of the most important saxophone section since Ellington's - for along with John Gilmore and Pat Patrick, Allen and the Arkestra offered an entirely new approach to the big band in the postwar era, in contexts as diverse as swing, bop and avant-garde. Following Ra's transition in 1993, Marshall Allen has taken the Arkestra in new directions as its director, all the while maintaining his singular voice as one of the most distinguished altoists of his generation.

All About Jazz: Firstly, I wanted to start with how you got into music and playing the alto.

Marshall Allen: I was playing when I was small, you know, and first I played the clarinet and the oboe.

AAJ: This was in Louisville?

MA: Yes. I got the alto saxophone, too, and tried to play that, but it wasn't until I got into the Army that I got in a band. That's where I started to get my training, you know.

AAJ: This was service in Europe, am I right?

MA: Well, I was in the army during the Second World War. I went to Europe in '45 or so. I was playing with [James] Moody and Don Byas, loose gigs with other guys over there. I got out of the army and spent a couple years in the conservatory. Then after that I came home and moved to Chicago.

AAJ: You weren't in Chicago before you went into the Army, were you?

MA: I came into the Army from Philadelphia; I'd moved here by then from Louisville.

AAJ: What made you choose Chicago?

MA: Well, my mother had moved there, so I followed her. I think it was '52 or '53, something like that. And then I heard the Sun Ra band was there, and I heard a demo record of theirs. I bought it and found out the band was playing in the same district I was. I was a near friend of the drummer, stuck around rehearsal one day and followed him around and I was in the band! That was around '57 or so.

AAJ: Before meeting Sun Ra, were you aware of the philosophical implications of the band?

MA: Well, I'd heard those demo tracks, and I thought 'man, these guys sound so weird, and good and different. Boy I'd sure like to be in that band!' The guy at the record shop, Joe Siegel, said they were up on the South Side and I lived there and was looking for a band. That's how it started; never get rid of me!

AAJ: Could you tell me about some of your early experiences with Ra and the Arkestra aside from the music?

MA: I liked the style of the band, the good music we were playing, and I liked the sound. I wanted to be in the band anyway, so it was a pretty good opportunity to try it. I worked around Chicago with my small group, and with anybody else too, but I always wanted to be in a band.

AAJ: Did you hear a bigger sound in your head than the small groups were offering?

MA: I like all those harmonies, sax sections and trumpets, all that. It's not so much the small groups that I like, but the bands, being part of it, you know.

AAJ: Was the group as much of a 'community' at that point?

MA: Everybody was living in Chicago, and me and Sun Ra rehearsed just like we always did. In the old band, some decided to stay in Chicago and some migrated to New York. So everybody was going different directions until there was only a handful of us left - me, John [Gilmore], Ronnie Boykins. That's when we did the small-group thing, '59 or so. We went to Montreal and played a gig with the small group, and we came back down and stopped in New York and met some of the guys there. Next thing you know, we never did get back to Chicago! [laughing] We had a wreck with the car, and that was our transportation. We were waiting to get some money for another one, and a whole year passed! [laughing]

AAJ: It didn't sound like you minded being in New York at all'

MA: It was still [during] my adventure days, you know.

AAJ: Isn't it true that Ronnie Boykins drove the car the whole way from Chicago to Montreal?

MA: Yeah, he drove the whole way, and when he got to the gig he fell out of the car! [laughing] He drove the whole way from Chicago.

AAJ: But I thought the gig in Montreal fell through.

MA: No, we played it. We played there for a few weeks or whatever. We played in little coffeehouses too, and a couple of resorts. We had a few little things going, but on the way back [to Chicago], we stopped in New York, and we really stopped because a taxicab hit the car. It didn't hurt anybody too much, but Ronnie had to wait to get the money from the taxi company. We started getting gigs wherever we could get a gig, meeting up with some of the fellas that were in the band before. This was around '62.

AAJ: When you got to New York, did you feel the environment was better musically than Chicago, or was it different?

MA: Well, no, because the guys that were in Chicago were [now] in New York. Since we couldn't get home right away, we made our way there.

AAJ: What about audiences? Were they any different in New York than Chicago?

MA: Not really, people always listened to us in Chicago. We did a lot of swingin' and stuff back then, and when we got to New York, we started to change a little. More of the "Spaceways" stuff, you know.

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.

AAJ: Do you think the Arkestra was a big push and an influence on things like the Guild and the AACM?

MA: Oh yeah, he was moving and putting things on, getting formulas together for the music. He had a style that sounded chaotic sometimes, but it was together, and of course it was an influence on different groups. We were swingin', and we played all kinds of music from all over the world. Everything I wanted to play, I could play in the band. I could do the same things in this band and more.

AAJ: It sounds like you had an influence, as did everybody, on the direction the music would go.

MA: I did what I thought he wanted me to do, so he was bringing out the best in me and all the rest of us. You find yourself way out of line and you listen to some of each other's things and get yourself together. Have some discipline and study, all those things that we need. Sometimes you didn't understand everything he'd say, especially when you're grown - if you're younger, your parents tell you things, but when you're grown, it's kinda hard. You want to go on and do what you want to do.

AAJ: It sounds like it was metaphorically a way of teaching people that they can learn.

MA: He was teaching us how to play music, be creative, and do it for a reason, not just for fun. In order to do that, you had to isolate yourself, discipline yourself and study, study, study. When you do come out, you have everything for the 21st century. We're talking about 'what are we going to do now' when we're still in the middle of the other one. "This is for tomorrow." But we're thinking 'what about now? Tomorrow?'

AAJ: Well, now that you're in tomorrow'

MA: Then I've got Tomorrow [laughing]! He started making all these poems and everything, "Tomorrow never comes / Never comes tomorrow" and stuff like that. Everything is tomorrow; he's doing it for the 21st Century and here we are in the 21st Century still doing it. The next generation will accept things better than the last one, so it moves like that. That's part of what he meant too, take time to develop and be ready when the 21st Century comes.

AAJ: Do you find that in the climate now, both among other musicians and listeners, that they are still as 'on the cusp' as they were a few years ago?

MA: A lot of musicians are not here anymore, but new ones are coming up and getting it together, but it's just like when we were coming up, we didn't have a big band - everybody wanted to be an individual or something. Everybody wanted to learn their horns, and we have to take the knowledge of the old school and teach from there.

AAJ: Right, because people are coming to the Arkestra already knowing what it is or was about.

MA: That's right, because before we had a different style and were talking about space and a better world and things, doing the music from the spiritual side of it as well as the physical, and all those things, and attention should be brought to the music. We try to move along with the times and the music of the people. When I first got into the band, we had a swing style, a dance band style, and we played a lot of the dances. So I said 'I'm gonna start like that too!', because I never had a band before. I said I could do one thing, and that's writing some melodies and having a dance band too. It's my turn to get busy and contribute to [its growth].

AAJ: Was there ever any doubt that you would take on the group after Sun Ra made his transition?

MA: No, you know, you don't think like that. Everything's going along fine, and you're not thinking about taking over. It was a necessity that somebody do something because everybody was passing away or going on. I said well, I don't know what to do, so I'll just do the best that I can. I never had to worry about being the leader because I just did my job as a sideman. Then, all of a sudden, I have to do all the stuff and I'm like 'whoa, uh oh!', taking everything on. But I try, may as well keep going on and do what we're doing and keep developing.

AAJ: What I was asking was whether there was any thought given to discontinuing the Arkestra.

MA: Well, everything goes through your mind when it's all on your shoulders. You're used to being around but you weren't the one to do it. You always had help from somebody, and with Sun Ra, it was always up to him. I did what I was told and went about my business. But now, I had to pull the stuff together, and I had to get the ones that knew about it and ask for their help. People were helping me keep it together, and I'd learn the ways, how to be a bandleader.

AAJ: Which you were watching the whole time.

MA: I'd been watching the whole time, so I'd go back and see all the things that Sun Ra had done and kept some of them, others I threw out. It's my way to keep things going, but it's kind of frightening to have everything in your lap all of a sudden. You say 'what am I going to do - should I do this, should I do that?' I thought I may as well stick it out and get some fellas that know something about this band, and maybe it wouldn't be so hard. I've got some help there, taking care of business - I wouldn't be able to do all this myself, you know, it's too hard.

AAJ: You need to delegate it to other people.

MA: Some people are qualified in this job or that one, and 'you got it,' you know. I just stuck with the music end of it, keeping the music going and writing in my melody book. Keep all the parts together, and that's enough to keep you busy. You book the gigs and you've got to be the pay collector and all of that, keep the books, and people are always bothering you. I said 'no, no, let me do the music and keep it quiet.' Let 'em have the business end because some people can do it better than others. My mind is on the music, not the business.

AAJ: The Arkestra was one of the first bands to be self-reliant, from a business perspective.

MA: That's the thing Ra'd always say to us - we've got to run our own business, run our own [record] company, and take care of business as well. You've got a lot to learn and a lot to do, so you don't have time to be so free. You've got to run around and not waste time. We're always working toward the next century, so you've got to have it ready by that time.

AAJ: You've got to have a goal in mind and work toward that goal. That's always been uncommon, even in some larger groups.

MA: You get musicians who are going your way, and you can do things. Like any organization, you get the core and you can take care of business. If you care about the music, what you're doing, the people, and all those things - it's a big job. You expect people to like the music, so you've got to be on top of the music, because you affect people's destiny. You've got to do it right to help people, and to help yourself. I keep that in mind, the spirit of things, and that's better than knowing everything - I don't know everything. Don't put me in the limelight; I'll just stay in the shadows and do my job. That's more beneficial to me and everybody else than putting out good product.

AAJ: There were a ton of recordings released over the Arkestra's history, but things have slowed down recently in terms of putting out records.

MA: There are a lot of concerts, but not many albums now. There are really about two or three hundred - I don't know, I really can't count - of our albums out there, and I released two in ten years. One was a concert, and I did a couple of sessions in the studios. I've got enough stuff to do four, five, six albums more. All I'm doing is to keep writing in my melody book and stuff, so I'll get around to it. A lot of it is in concert, and the last album we put out was a concert we did in Switzerland.

AAJ: Do you feel that there is less of a need to document the process now than there was in previous periods?

MA: You do the same things you always do, you document things and talk about them, and other people document things, you know. When you get it all as a whole, you get a good picture. It gives people an idea of what the band is doing, where they live, how they do things. When you put all that together, some people write books about different people in the band, and each member has his own story. We've got cats that remember a lot more things than I do, so they can remember a lot of events. Each person has their own story, like in Space is the Place (John Szwed, 1997).

AAJ: And out of the contradictions, you can get an idea of the whole.

MA: The whole picture was for the musicians to get together and give people what they need for a changing world. You have this talent that must be used properly, so you use spiritual things too, so the music can be pure and when something comes from you that's beautiful, I can get some of it and it will enhance me. But if you've got other things coming into the music, it might not be as good. All we're doing is for the people, to play music and a joyful noise. Don't forget that you have a gift, and you must use it properly. You want a better world, you've got to create a better music. The people are part of the band, too. If it's by them, it makes a better world too.

Sometimes it isn't all about the money, you know. I used to dream about that too, but you've got to have a good product first. Sometimes money just floats, but that doesn't stop things - it just gives you more experience in how to be sensitive and keep steppin' and survive like everything else.

AAJ: It's been a real test of survival for everybody involved.

MA: That's true. So we've got to get something that works.

AAJ: If the group hadn't had those trials, it might not have worked so successfully.

MA: I'm still at it, and I'm still picking musicians who have been in the band to help out. Like Sunny used to say, it's a creative band, so people come to the band, not me. He wants to do it, so he's come here to do it.

AAJ: By this point, there probably isn't a need to recruit, though.

MA: I'm still looking for those who come through and want to do it - I don't stop anybody. If they really want to be in this band, they can come and be in it. When we go on road trips and to gigs, sometimes I can have more pieces than other times. If we make a travel band, it's always cut down for expenses. If we're playing in town, I can add five, six, seven people to the band. That's the way it's always been, anyway.

AAJ: And that dictates what's going to be played, I'm sure.

MA: I'm always open for new people to come this way. I say 'come on in' and fill up their desire to do it, and it's wonderful that way. I've got a band of people who want to be in the band, and I didn't have to go out and recruit any of them. Everybody knows the kind of money and living they make, and they still want to be in it - they've just got to do other things to make money, too. As long as we keep the rent going'!

AAJ: You've done some things on your own recently, too, apart from the Arkestra.

MA: That's right, I put them together and use them well. Take care of things properly to survive and produce music that's of worth. I've played jobs where there was no money - we played in a coffeehouse for a good hot meal and coffee, and that was better than sitting at home with no money, no coffee, and no meal! It's part of the thing; you don't always make money, but you produce good jobs and do your best. There are still days where we don't make money; you've got to have your disses, and you can't make money all the time.

AAJ: If it were about that, you'd be a different band anyway. But is there anything else you'd like to talk about?

MA: The general thing that I'm doing is work, work, work and prepare to do the best that I can do. Keep the band intact, keep things in order, and keep the music flowing. That's a lifetime job, and it's not so difficult - these are the simplicities. People aren't all that complicated about everything; that's why you have all these different kinds of music. Keep it very simple and with feeling and the things that people need, you know. I say, well, I can do the same thing. I take what I've got, keep it going, and do some more on my own. I'll make a songbook with as many songs as the creator gives me the spirit to write. I just keep writing and they keep coming out. I've always got a challenge and I'm always learning. I never know so much as I think I know.

AAJ: I think that's the best bandleader philosophy that I've ever heard.

MA: Simplicity, it's for real and it's me [laughing].

AAJ: Just keep learning and keep growing'

MA: Keep trying and do something yourself. I had others doing it, and I have to do it myself now. I welcome anybody's arrangements or anybody's songs that they want to put in the band, you know, and play that too. That's the idea I was always taught - sound, sight, feeling, and all these things you try to use colors, lights, like they do in big show bands to project and present to the people. That's all part of the music, you can understand it with certain costumes or lighting, and it brings what you're doing out. Show bands play everything, with dancing and all the things that people do.

AAJ: It's the whole experience, not just one facet.

MA: You have nice lighting and costumes to present the personality of the musician and the music.

AAJ: So the costumes are designed with the specific individual in mind, right?

MA: Right, mostly, and there is the whole project of color schemes, which Sun Ra used to do. You know, getting the right vibrations with the right costumes.

AAJ: When did that exactly come into use?

MA: We used to get costumes from the opera house in Chicago, William Tell and all that [laughing], nice colors and everything. We used to redo the material a bit and they were real nice. Then we also had bowties and red jackets, blue jackets, and all that stuff. We went from the original standard way you see musicians to the costumes, and we tried an African thing, moving on and on like that until we get something that's us. You get a better picture of what the musicians are doing [through dress].

There's so much stuff and you get so many directions with different people, but this is part of what I'm doing.

Visit Marshall Allen on the web at www.elrarecords.com .

Photo Credit
Darek Pietak (color)
Frank Schindelbeck (black & white)



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