With its guiding lights in the great beyond, the Sun Ra Arkestra sails on by chris toenes Brilliant jazz innovator Sun Ra--given name: Sonny Blount--grew up around Birmingham, Ala., though he always claimed a more distant place of origin. His philosophy of being and nothingness included his descent from Saturn to teach through music. The self-taught genius moved effortlessly from doo-wop groups in Chicago to his large ensemble work with the Arkestra. Using big band strategies, he took his disciplined crew into the stratosphere with odd key arrangements, unique phrasings and early use of electric keyboards.
Multi-instrumentalist Marshall Allen worked on crucial records like Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy and Space Is The Place. He now leads the Arkestra, since the passing of Sun Ra and principal member John Gilmore. Witty and lively at 80 years on this planet, he spoke (and often laughed boisterously) with the Indy from his home near Philadelphia.
Independent: You sought out Sun Ra after hearing some of his earlier music. How did this introduction initially go? What drew you to his sound above others in the '50s?
Allen: Well, there was this record store around there (in Chicago), and every payday, I used to go down and buy some records. And they had this record with different bands on it, and the guy at the store said, 'You got to hear this guy.' He knew where Sun Ra played down in this ballroom in town, too. Turned out it was only about six blocks from where I lived. When I heard that, there was something about that sound, I just said, 'That's it!' It was swingin', but it had that deep, dark sound.
How did the communal closeness of the group affect things? Is that still true today in the Arkestra?
Early on, it was a gentleman's band, where everybody got along, and some had grown up together. Hometown boys; had families and stuff. But they'd always be there for Sun Ra. You had to really learn all this stuff with him, history and religion, and it was like a school, you see. Later when we went out on the road, we lived like a family, we'd look out for each other.
Sun Ra once said Duke Ellington influenced his approach. How do you use some of those same tenets today with the Arkestra?
Well, there was Fletcher Henderson, too (a bandleader who also influences Allen's arrangements). Sun Ra was a very creative person, and he wanted to create natural sounds, the sounds of the universe. We'd been taught the ABCs of music and what was right and wrong. And with him, you had to know both and put them together. I'd been to the conservatory and knew the straight up and down. But he knew what he wanted. It might be written in a square, but when you played it, it'd be like a spiral.
Many people recognize the Arkestra from the beautiful colored garments.
When you're dealing with spirit and sound, it has to do with each individual. Your color, what instrument you play; he'd have people play instruments they weren't used to. He knew what fit you, you know what I'm saying? You tailor-made your music, that and the visual. Sun Ra wrote it for the individual player.
The current lineup of the Arkestra has seasoned veterans alongside younger, eager musicians who perhaps grew up listening to the work. Can you describe this dynamic with experienced and fresh faces fleshing out the music?
When I started leading the band, I still couldn't untangle some of Sun Ra's original arrangements. But I could lend my own to it. I decided to start with this band the same way I started with Sun Ra--by playing all kinds of music. So we work on arrangements, from Duke to Count, since we honor all that come before us.
Can you tell us why a space chant, one of the staples of the Arkestra, still means something today as it did when the Arkestra first started?
When I was playing all these gigs back then and didn't have any money, Sun Ra was saying this music was for the 21st century, for the future, that maybe nobody got it then, but maybe the kids, the next generation, will.
And here you are.
And I'd say to myself then, oh lord I got about 10, 20 years to go (laughs).... But we have these songs about how imagination is a magic carpet, and dreams and telling stories and other worlds. (Singing a chant) The space age is here to stay, no place you can run away.
The Sun Ra Arkestra plays Cat's Cradle Thursday, Feb. 3. Tickets are $15.