Saxophonist Marshall Allen, now 85, has played in Sun Ra’s Arkestra since the late 1950s. Now at the helm, he tells Neil McKim about the Arkestra’s latest live album
You’ve been with the Sun Ra Arkestra for over 50 years. How did you get the job?
I wasn’t in a band and I heard one of Sun Ra’s demos at a record store. I listened to it and heard Sun Ra playing and the band sounded good. I said: ‘When’s the band next playing in town – that’s a good band.’ So I went to find them and see if I could get in.
What were your first impressions of meeting Sun Ra?
Well, I don’t know because I didn’t get to say much [laughs]. He was constantly talking, talking about the moon, the sun, the universe and the bible and all history. And I’m listening and next thing you know, hours have passed. And after that I’ve gone home and he’s told me to come by [saxist] John Gilmore’s house. So the band was practising. I had no chair, I used to stand by the piano. Sun Ra would play a little tune and then he’d let me practise on flute.
In the early days how did the press react to the costumes?
They called us weird, man from the moon and all that. But they knew the music was good. Sun Ra was doing something – he was writing and we was playing tunes, you know, standard tunes but he had different arrangements. We had a few years of playing underground in the city [Chicago]. The band was hip and people liked it.
How did the latest album, Live at The Paradox, come about?
We had a week’s tour there and said wouldn’t it be nice to make the best recording we can. We had more than one night playing so we could settle down and get the vibrations – the sound of the place – and then tighten the band up, and then record it. We had different numbers and different days: we played standard tunes; we played Sun Ra’s tunes; and we played tunes that I wrote. So we just took one of the good nights and put it on tape.
The track ‘Velvet’ is from the 1958 Sun Ra album Jazz in Silhouette.
That’s one of his original tunes – they were nice melodies. He did such a nice job of arranging things. He worked with Fletcher Henderson – they played a lot of dances and shows and stuff. That band was really swinging so Sun Ra fitted right in. Sun Ra writes syncopation but you first had to know how to play the naked swing.
What was the 1970s cult film Space is the Place like to work on?
I had to go out to California – It was ‘Oh God, Hollywood!’ [laughs]. But it wasn’t done in Hollywood, it was done in Oakland and San Francisco. It was about space and stuff, about going to another planet – so the story was nice. We did a lot of stuff in the studio with the music and then we went out into one of the university campus’s where there was the spaceship they’d made. We would travel around different spots and then we’d do a club scene.
What got you into jazz in the first place?
I’m a band man. What I heard when I was growing up was big bands – Duke Ellington, Count Basie. I was always wishing to be in a band and I had my chance in the army. After I got out I was by myself, I was playing with small groups. I seen the Sun Ra band was looking for a recruit, and answered the call because I wanted to be in that band.
Interview by Neil McKim