Marshall Allen will be 92 years old in May. The last living link to Birmingham’s Herman Poole Blount, better known as Sun Ra, Allen carries on the Sun Ra Arkestra to honor its namesake, his mentor and friend.
The two men didn’t meet until after Blount had reinvented himself as his extraterrestrial alter ego. Following his childhood in Birmingham and matriculation from Industrial High School, a segregated school that is now Parker High School, Blount spent time as a working musician in the Magic City before attending Alabama A&M. He studied music, but dropped out after one year.
Blount claimed to have visited Saturn after his departure from school, marking the birth of his persona. He dodged the draft in 1942 and consequently spent time in the Walker County Jail.Meanwhile, Allen had served in World War II. Part of the 92nd Infantry Division, a Buffalo Soldier, he served his country as an entertainer. “I was playing music all during that time,” he says. “I didn’t shoot nobody and all that stuff. We played for the soldiers throughout the fields of Europe. Our unit played music and entertained to maintain the morale of the soldiers.”
Allen then studied at Conservatoire de Paris before returning to the States. He found himself in Chicago — the city to which Sun Ra had moved in 1945 as part of the Second Great Migration.
“I was in Chicago during the ‘50s, because I had come back from Europe in the early ‘50s,” Allen begins, describing his first meeting with Sun Ra. “I was there a couple of years before I met him. I was working for a camera company where they made camera lenses, tape recorders, whatever. I went by a record store and he had that first demo that he had out. I heard that and I went back to that record store and said, ‘Man, have you got any more stuff by this band? That sounds good.’ And [the record store clerk] says, ‘Well, that’s Sun Ra. He’s up there in College Grove on the Southside.’
“I lived up there anyway, about six blocks or so. I went and found Sun Ra — [the clerk] said he rehearsed in a ballroom every night with the band and that he’s always looking for talent. So I said, ‘I’m gonna take my horn up there.’ So I went up there and Sun Ra was talking about outer space, going to the moon and all that stuff… When I got in that band, I thought, ‘Boy, I got something to learn!’ I thought I knew something. And he came to be my best friend. I honor him today. He was a genius.”
Allen had served his country the only way that he knew how — with music. He had studied at one of the oldest and most prestigious music schools in the world. But his education had only just begun.
“I thought I could play!” he says. “I could read the music, but I couldn’t phrase it right. So I said, ‘Well, I’m not gonna give up.’ So every night after work, I’d go over there [and] bring my horn. One day, he let me play. He told me to come over and practice something with him at John Gilmore’s house. So I had one number in the whole band. I’d stand by the piano, because I didn’t have a chair, and I’d wait for my one number to play.”
Forced patience at the direction of Sun Ra instilled something in Allen that he still found new.
“That’s where I got my other discipline. I already had some from the Army, but I said, ‘I’m sticking this out. I’m not gonna run. I don’t care how hard it gets,’” he says. “I paid attention and I listened to him and went though all of that, and I was happy that I met him. It changed my destiny.”
Upon Sun Ra’s death in 1993, Gilmore and Allen were faced with learning how to carry on. The Sun Ra Arkestra under the direction of Marshall Allen would serve as a living memorial to the legacy of one of the Magic City’s proudest sons — a man once called “the missing link between Duke Ellington and Public Enemy” by Rolling Stone.
“When he left the planet in ’93, there wasn’t anybody left but me and John [Gilmore]. And [Gilmore] left the planet three years later. That only left me. So I said, ‘What am I gonna do?’” Allen, who now lives in Philadelphia, said. “I was trying to figure out if I wanted to this stuff anymore, and I said, ‘No, go ahead. Because Sonny worked so hard and devoted so much time to musicians and to build something nice. I’m gonna do that, too.’ So I’ve been keeping the band going since then.”
But the rest of the decade wasn’t kind to the band either.
“I had to build a new band. The whole band died. During the ‘90s, it was terrible because they were going one and two at a time,” he says. “So I had to build a band, and I had some that played with Sun Ra over the years and I gathered them up to help me because they knew the philosophy and understood what to do. So I had to call those guys and get them back in to help me build a band.”
Allen has changed the arrangements for his new band, playing to each individual’s strength. He maintains the same melodies, but gives some of the new musicians room to improvise. If they’re not as developed, he’ll allow them to play a smaller part in the band until they are ready — not unlike a young Allen, standing by the piano waiting his turn. It’s a band that’s had as many as 27 pieces.
“[Sun Ra’s] idea was to play a better music and create a better world,” Allen says. “I had to play from the spirit. I was playing from knowledge and what I know, and that didn’t work with him. So he had to develop me out of being in the square — out of doing the square things, the correct things — and into the spiral where you had to create things.”
The Sun Ra Arkestra will live on beyond Allen’s days thanks to Allen’s dedication to maintaining the work and teachings of Sun Ra after his death.
“When Sun Ra named it the Sun Ra Arkestra, we decided to keep the name — The Sun Ra Arkestra under the direction of me,” he says. “So we still have the name, but it’s not Sun Ra Arkestra, it’s ‘The’ Sun Ra Arkestra. And there will still be The Sun Ra Arkestra in a new direction. Somebody else will have to step up and it’ll be under their direction. It was always built [that way]. There’s people that can step in when I leave [laughs]. Keep the music going — all I want to do is keep the music alive and well.”
The Sun Ra Arkestra under the direction of Marshall Allen comes to Saturn on Friday, February 19. Doors open at 8 p.m., while the show begins at 9 p.m. Advance tickets are $22, while tickets are $25 at the door. For more information, visit saturnbirmingham.com.