Home » Jazz Articles » Profile » Marshall Allen: A Century of Joyful Noise


Marshall Allen: A Century of Joyful Noise


Sign in to view read count
Sixty-seven years in the service of one band is a remarkable feat, and possibly unique in the history of popular music.
Marshall Allen turned 100 years old on May 25, 2024. Back in 1995, when Allen inherited the leadership of the Sun Ra Arkestra at the age of 71, you would have got pretty good odds that he would not be holding the chair nearly thirty years hence. But the cosmology of the Sun Ra Arkestra, and all who sail in her, is nothing if not strange.

His international touring days may be behind him, but Allen, who has dedicated himself almost exclusively to the Sun Ra Arkestra since 1957, remains the guiding light of the band—still leading, conducting, teaching and mentoring.

It was the natural order of things that the Sun Ra Arkestra should celebrate Allen's 100th birthday (a day early on May 24th) with a gig in Philadelphia. The Sun Ra Arkestra has had several spiritual homes: Chicago, New York and most importantly Philadelphia, where since 1968, members of the Arkestra have lived and rehearsed in The Ark—as the Germantown property once owned by Allen's parents is known.

In his Sun Ra biography, Space Is The Place: The Lives And Times Of Sun Ra (Payback Press, 1997), John F. Szwed described Allen as "perhaps the most devoted musician that Sun Ra would ever have..." There is no "perhaps" about it. Sixty-seven years in the service of one band is a remarkable feat and possibly unique in the history of popular music.

When Sun Ra died in 1993, the Arkestra reins passed to tenor saxophonist John Gilmore, a Sun Ra collaborator since the early 1950s. Two years later, in 1995, Gilmore's own passing saw Allen inherit the task of keeping the show on the road. That he has done so until the age of 100 is a testament, above all else, to his unerring commitment to Sun Ra's musical vision.

Having played on almost every Sun Ra album since Jazz in Silhouette (Saturn, 1959), Allen inherited an enormous musical legacy on that day in 1995. Entrusted to his care were five suitcases stuffed full of Sun Ra's scores and musical sketches.

"Sun Ra left us a strong basis on which a huge musical structure could be built," Allen told German cultural anthropologist and journalist Sybille Zerr, for her book Picture Infinity: Marshall Allen & The Sun Ra Arkestra (Self Published, 2011). "We have only just begun to build on it. That is why the Arkestra and the music of Sun Ra will survive."

During his lifetime Sun Ra recorded over a hundred albums—though it feels like many more—and wrote at least a thousand compositions. With such a wealth of music to mine, it is perhaps no surprise that the Arkestra under Allen has not been similarly prolific.

The first post-Ra-era album came in 1999 with A Song for the Sun (Elra), with seven of the ten compositions penned by Allen. A couple of live albums followed, but it would be twenty-one years before another studio album was released, 2020's Swirling (Strut Records), which featured new arrangements of old Ra warhorses.

It did not take quite so long for the second post-Sun Ra studio album, with Living Sky (Omni Sound) following in 2022, with Allen contributing several new compositions.

Allen's commitment to the Sun Ra cause has arguably come at the expense of a solo career. His first recording foray outside the Arkestra came with Paul Bley on the pianist's Barrage (ESP Disk, 1965). But it was not until 1998, nearly fifty years after making his recording debut with James Moody in post-war Paris, that Allen released a solo album as leader—two, in fact: Mark-n-Marshall: Monday (CIMP, 1998) and Mark-n-Marshall: Tuesday (CIMP, 1998) were recorded over two days in New York with multi-reedist Mark Whitecage, bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Luqman Ali.

A joyous cocktail of free improvisation and swing, these two albums once more underlined Allen's inherent ability to play in and out—typically on the same song. As caressingly lyrical as Lester Young or Johnny Hodges, as visceral and thrill-seeking as any of the free-jazz practitioners, Allen's sound has always been such sweet thunder.

Since the mid-'90s, Allen has recorded more widely in collaborative settings. There was a fine duo outing with Terry Adams, Ten By Two (Edison, 2005)—a live album recorded in '96 and '97. Medeski Martin & Wood called on Allen's service for The Dropper (Blue Note Records, 2000). Other notable collaborations in the 2000s have included recordings with Hamid Drake, William Parker, Matthew Shipp, Odean Pope and Roscoe Mitchell.

But it is the Sun Ra Arkestra under his direction that still gets him out of bed in the mornings. For Allen, leading the world's most famous living jazz band is still a question of service. He shared his philosophy with All About Jazz in a 2004 interview: "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."




For the Love of Jazz
Get the Jazz Near You newsletter All About Jazz has been a pillar of jazz since 1995, championing it as an art form and, more importantly, supporting the musicians who create it. Our enduring commitment has made "AAJ" one of the most culturally important websites of its kind, read by hundreds of thousands of fans, musicians and industry figures every month.

You Can Help
To expand our coverage even further and develop new means to foster jazz discovery and connectivity we need your help. You can become a sustaining member for a modest $20 and in return, we'll immediately hide those pesky ads plus provide access to future articles for a full year. This winning combination will vastly improve your AAJ experience and allow us to vigorously build on the pioneering work we first started in 1995. So enjoy an ad-free AAJ experience and help us remain a positive beacon for jazz by making a donation today.




Get more of a good thing!

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories, our special offers, and upcoming jazz events near you.