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.