Sibylle Zerr

Picture Infinity
Marshall Allen & The Sun Ra Arkestra

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I’m actually painting pictures of infinity with my music,
and that’s why a lot of people can’t understand it.
But if they’d listen to this and other types of music,
they’ll find that mine has something else in it,
something from another world.
Space music is an introductory prelude
to the sound of greater infinity...
It is a different order of sounds
synchronized to the different order of being...
It is of, for and to the Attributes
of the Natural Being of the universe.
Sun Ra, 1970

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Contents

Proem

9

Angels and Demons at Play
Music from another Planet
From Planet to Planet
Maestro Marshall Allen
Mystery and History
Travelling the Spaceways
Discipline
The Living Myth
Voluntary

14
26
36
52
70
96
116
128
138

Appendix

145

The Sun Ra Arkestra
Photo Index
Sun Ra Quotations
Acknowledgment
Colophon

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145
146
149
150
151

Leading a large band is an impossible job,
and I would have given up some time ago,
but I’m under the jurisdiction of other forces
that want to help the planet,
and they keep certain musicians with me.
Sun Ra, 1989

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Maestro Marshall Allen

M

arshall Allen leads the Sun Ra Arkestra as the diplomatic corps of a myth.
He did not choose this task. It came to him, he states, when John Gilmore
also edged away to Saturn, only shortly after Sun Ra. Someone had to do the
job, otherwise the Arkestra would have fallen apart – and that would have put
much more weight onto Marshall Allen’s shoulders. Sun Ra had called the tenor
saxophonist John Gilmore his Deputy. For almost forty years Marshall Allen was
available to the master as the second Deputy, standing next to John Gilmore and
close to Sun Ra’s piano, leading the reed section and writing the sheet music for
the entire wind section.
To prepare his Arkestra well for future tasks, Sun Ra very often jestingly warned
his musicians that he would not be around them forever, even if the press reports otherwise. “We are changing” Marshall Allen states. When he, at the age of
seventy-one, unexpectedly started up as the leader of a legendary big band, he
claimed sound spheres with the Electronic Valve Instrument E.V.I. Nyle Steiner
developed, which the pioneering Sun Ra already entered as early as the late sixties with a prototype of the Moog synthesizer. Obviously Marshall Allen never expected his explosive alto saxophone to someday be among the most distinctive
and striking voices in jazz, and to become the brand mark of the Sun Ra Arkestra’s
cosmic sound.
Marshall Belford Allen arrived on the 25th of May 1924 in Louisville, Kentucky,
and he played the clarinet only ten years later. That is why he could master the
alto saxophone so easily only a little later in his life. However, as a musician, all he
aspired to was to become a dependable part of a band. He preferred big bands
because he loved those large formats. During World War II Marshall Allen served
in Europe with the 17th division in a special, exclusively African American infantry regiment. He seized his chance to stay in Paris after the war, and to play with
James Moody, as well as to study at the conservatory for two years.
Only very few jazz musicians then studied at a conservatory. In jazz it seemed
to be unnecessary. Whoever wanted to articulate in the language of jazz had to
listen and learn, for the voice already could be heard and was handed down from
musician to musician. Jazz music during Marshall Allen’s formative years was an
existential experience, still an emotional outlet to those who had no voice within
their home country. At least they could articulate their feelings, and would be
heard by their fellows. But the voice of jazz was heard as well by those who had
ears to recognize it.

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When Sun Ra founded his Arkestra in Chicago, racial segregation still prevailed in
the United States. At best in the white clubs, black Americans were on stage as
musicians, but the reversal would have been almost impossible. What a long way
jazz has come since then. Meantime jazz musicians are held for archetypal cosmopolitans. The color of the skin has proven to be an invalid classification. Marshall Allen’s world has changed so fundamentally. “These youngsters outplay me,”
he confesses – and he refers to their expertise and technic. “They are all aware
of what they do theoretically and technically, and they play their scales with a
speedy verve and accuracy that I only can dream of.”
When Marshall Allen came back to the United States in 1954 he settled in the
then nonofficial navel of the jazz world: Chicago. He was extraordinarily proud
of the exquisite tone he had acquired during his studies in Paris. Who could have
blamed him for his confidence and pride. After all, he had achieved something
that almost none of the musicians of his age and ancestry could ever reach. Marshall Allen was held for an absolutely exceptional musician, for his capability of
sight-reading any sheet music presented to him. He could have played with any
orchestra in the world, and every band leader would have willingly hired him on
the spot.
Already in 1951, a friend passed a tape to him, on which Sun Ra and his band at
that time could be heard. Marshall Allen immediately knew that this was exactly
the kind of music he had been searching for. In the same year he met Sun Ra for
the first time, and recalling their first encounter, Sun Ra talked and talked to him
for hours. “He talked too much about all these kind of cosmic stuff. I didn’t get
one word.”
However, not by fortune he met Sun Ra again only a few years later. Marshall
Allen wanted to play in Sun Ra’s big band, and in no other. At that time Sun Ra
was playing at the Club De Lisa on a regular basis. So on one fine day, Marshall
Allen went to the club in order to demonstrate his exceptional skills to Sun Ra.
“I wanted to play with Sun Ra so desperately. I had this very special tone that I
worked hard for at the conservatory. But then I went to Sun Ra, and he teaches
me, that my studies at the conservatory were not worth a dime. It was tough for
me. My self-confidence went to zero. I felt so damn smart. Today I am aware of
that I did not know anything then. If you want to hear the truth: I am as insignificant as a grain of sand.” He bruises the invisible grain between index finger and
thumb, his hand strokes the henna-dyed red beard and he looks at me with dark
beady eyes. “When I became a permanent member of Sun Ra’s band in 1958 he
wanted me to carry the adequate tone into his Arkestra, he wanted me to tune in.
So I auditioned, and he listened.”
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But, according to Sun Ra, Marshall Allen did not render one thing right. “This is not
what I want to hear from you,” he said over and over again, however Marshall Allen tried hard to interpret multifaceted, and to phrase, whatever he played, each
time differently. Finally Marshall Allen asked, what he was supposed to play to
tune in the sound of Sun Ra’s Arkestra. Sun Ra’s answer was, “I don’t know.” So
the desperate and tiresome game started all over again. It went on for hours. No
matter what Marshall Allen auditioned, regardless of how he auditioned, and how
much devotion he put into his playing, Sun Ra quashed it all. Marshall Allen was
almost done, and agitated to the bone.
The despair is still in his voice as he states, “Sun Ra wanted me to play the things I
don’t know, the things I am not familiar with, and what I did not learn before. He
even wanted me to forget about what I had learned before. That was precisely
what he wanted me to do. He wanted me to play my own thing. He wanted me
to sound exactly how I am, and not what I had learned about how I should sound
like. It was his way of pulling the thing out of me, by wearing me down.”
Marshall Allen shrugs his shoulders in despair, or surrender. He raises his arms
heavenwards, and turns his palms upwards adjuratory, to let the tension go immediately, and leave both of his arms to respond to gravity. “That is it!” he confesses, as if it is the most self-understood matter in the world, as if he had been a
simple-minded fool then. Why is it that he was not able to understand the most
simple thing on this planet. It is unbelievable that in the beginnings with Sun Ra,
he could not intuit the simplicity for such a long time.
Suddenly Marshall Allen explodes with his typically hoarse and high laugh, and at
once he gets himself together again, to add calmly, that Sun Ra soon determined
that he was to play flute in the Arkestra, instead of the alto saxophone.

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Colophon
Sibylle Zerr studied cultural anthropology at Heidelberg University, and works as an author and photo
journalist. Her works have been published in numerous magazines and newspapers, as well as in book
form; her debut “Blues für einen Schmetterling”
(published 2006, in German), a collection of interviews, reportages, short stories and photos from
pre-Katrina New Orleans, has been widely recognized.
http://www.sibylle-zerr.de
http://www.facebook.com/Sibylle.Zerr
Copyright © Sibylle Zerr 2011

All rights reserved
No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized
in any form or by any means without the written
permission from the publisher.

Bibliographic information is published by the
Deutsche Nationalbibliothek:
The Deutsche Nationalbibliothek lists this publication in the Deutsche Nationalbibliografie; detailed
bibliographic data is available on the internet at
http://dnb.d-nb.de
ISBN 978-3-00-035497-7

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151

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“I’m actually painting pictures of infinity with my music, and that’s why
a lot of people can’t understand it. But if they’d listen to this and other
types of music, they’ll find that mine has something else in it, something
from another world. Space music is an introductory prelude to the sound
of greater infinity... It is a different order of sounds synchronized to the
different order of being... It is of, for and to the Attributes of the Natural
Being of the universe.”
Sun Ra, 1970
Herman Poole Blount (1914–1993), better known under the name Sun
Ra, was an extraordinarily gifted pianist, a legendary big band leader
and one of the most chatoyant and controversial personalities of his era.
His compositions belong to the 20th Century’s musical canon without
any doubt, although it seems to be impossible to take his music as a
fixed constant. He did not hand down a monolithic opus but a puzzling
variety – and his big band: The Sun Ra Arkestra.
The Sun Ra Arkestra survived all the jazz tides. Under the direction of
Marshall Allen it is still traveling the globe in Sun Ra’s mission – Noah’s
Ark and avant-garde project in one, stem cell, root and sprout of jazz.

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