I first learned of Sun Ra and Marshall Allen the summer of 2005. I had just finished my first year of college in which I had begun to develop an awareness of jazz and it's history; as well as listening to classic albums and starting to play double bass. I tagged along with a few friends to
Philadelphia to see the then popular (and now-defunct) electronic/dance/rock group NEED NEW BODY (NNB) at the Vox Populari gallery/warehouse on the promise that a "weird" jazz band was opening...
It was clear this group was going to face a somewhat apprehensive audience. It was the height of the indie rock craze of the 00's, the group's age (Marshall Allen the lead singer, was in his eighties, with much of the audience in their teens and twenties) and psychedelic clothing seemed to code the dreaded "jam band" assessment of some in the crowd. Furthermore, The groups iconic leader had died a decade ago. Come on, lets hurry up and get through this so we get to the band we all came to see.
Apprehension quickly gave way to delight as the Arkestra began to play. It immediately became obvious that the group was a legitamite jazz band. This evening, the personal assembled all performed with more or less mainstream jazz instruments such as the double bass and a full horn section. Nevertheless, there were the unique elements that came to define the Arkestra's music. What grabbed me most from the performance was that no matter how "out there" the group got, it still swung as hard as any of the college educated bebop bands I had become
accustomed to. Allen, a multi-instrumentalist who specializes in both alto saxophone and an idiosyncratic "Electric Value Instrument" in particular possessed a sound and concept that I've only rarely been privileged to experience. It is unique to say the least to find a musician who has synthesized both the tonal languages and timbres of swing, bob, and the experimental jazz of the 1960s and 70s. Within a single phrase, Allen can take listeners from the deep south to deep
space and back again.
The headlining band clearly revered Sun Ra, Allen, and the group. NNB's keyboardist gave a heartfelt speech extolling the impact of the group on his own playing and invited the band back on stage to join him in a tune he composed in their honer. After the song ended, someone jumped on stage to present Allen with a cake with a "81" in the icing , as it was Allen's birthday week. He accepted the gift with a smile, and quickly flipped it upside down to read "18." The crowd erupted in laughter before spilling out into the streets to enjoy what remained of the hot summer night.
Sun Ra was a keyboardist. composer and big-band leader who was active for half a century, released over 200 recordings, and has more or less cemented himself as one of the genres great iconoclasts; a bona fide peer of "free jazz" innovators such as Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor,
and Roscoe Mitchell. While Sun Ra's compositional style was rooted in Ellignton, his philosophic underpinnings extended quite literally to outer space. Sun Ra claimed frequently that he was literally from the planet Saturn. He was never seen publicly in western dress after his early career. Despite his casually psychedelic aesthetic, he was opposed to the drugs and free love that seems to dominate the memory of the 60s and 70s. He lived in a commune with his musicians who doubled as his disciples, some staying days and some staying decades.
In the mid-1940s Ra, then Herman Poole Blount, moved to Chicago after briefly spending time in prison as an objector to WWII. He was able to perform with big band luminaries such as Fletcher Henderson, but his music was to take a drastic turn. While in Chicago, Ra had a spiritual
awakening that would become a central element of the composers art and person-hood. Ra began incorporating in his philosophical beliefs and insights along with modern electric instruments such as the Moog synthesizer. The members of his band were not only under his musical guidance, but were spiritual devotees as well. After Sun Ra passed,
his Akestra continued under the direction of longtime lieutenant Allen. This is the group has become less active as time has passed, so I was enthusiastic to see the group again now many years later in New York. - 1
Considering that New York is on of the few cities left that has a real bedrock of dedicated jazz clubs, Sullivan Hall (Formerly The Lion's Den) struck me as an odd choice. Then again, the group never quite flushed with the jazz community's expectations. Arriving at the alone shortly before the show began, the crowd of around fifty was subdued with Kind of Blue playing over the clubs PA system. Even before the band appeared, the stage was a spectacle; it was packed to the brim with dozens of saxophones, flutes, drums, electric guitars, and other instruments. The band entered from backstage in a procession dressed in bright metallic robes, sunglasses, and headdresses, clapping and singing. Allen was nearly mobbed by fans as he made his way, many of whom were happy to pay respect to the man who represents the strongest remaining linkage to Sun Ra's legacy.
Regardless of the iconoclasm of Sun Ra's compositions, the Artkestra is a big-band at its core and this was well on display at this performance. The show featured little along the lines of free
collective improvisation, but numerous Sun Ra "standards" such as Happiness and 1014 with free blowing and heavily layered horns, hand drums, guitars, and experimental instruments such as Allen's own "Electronic Valve Instrument." Strangely but I can't imagine accidentally, no keyboard instrument was present in this performance.
To Be Continued.......
1 - For a more complete overview of Sun Ra's life and beliefs, I would
recommend Valarie Wilmer's tremendous writing on free jazz "As Serious
as your Life" or Sun Ra's 1974 film "Space is the Place", which is
available in the public domain and is linked below.