'95 interview with Marshall Allen (by Edwin Pouncey)

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#1 Sat, 2006-02-18 15:37
Margaret Grimes
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'95 interview with Marshall Allen (by Edwin Pouncey)

I just discovered this interview with Maestro Marshall Allen from '95 on the Web and hope Mr. Pouncey won't mind if I post it in for your enjoyment:


(If anyone has Mr. Pouncey's Email address, please send it to me!)


  Marshall Allen interviewed by Edwin Pouncey

  29th May 1995

  Just before his solo performance at the LMC 1995 Festival,

saxophonist MARSHALL ALLEN looks back on a lifetime of working for Sun Ra

  Interview by EDWIN POUNCEY

  This interview with Marshall Allen was conducted in a small room

above the Conway Hall in London prior to his solo performance there that evening. A veteran of the late Sun Ra's Arkestra and a principal member whose playing has enriched the legacy and legendary status of the band, Marshall proved to be, as promised, a gregarious interviewee whose enthusiasm was infectious. While we were talking he told me that tenor saxophonist and Sun Ra's successor John Gilmore was ill and that he had been requested to stand in for him until he recovered. Marshall insisted that John would return to lead the Arkestra into the 21st century, but unfortunately that was not to be. John Gilmore died on August 20, 1995 aged 63.

  Again the future of the Arkestra is in doubt, but if Marshall

Allen decides to take on the mantle of leader then there is no doubt that he will wear it with style.

  With respect and gratitude to John Gilmore whose playing on this

planet will never be forgotten by those who heard it.


  EP: Would you explain to people how the Arkestra is functioning

now that Sun Ra has passed on? You said something about John Gilmore is the new director...

  MA: Yeah, John Gilmore is the director, he's the leader...

  EP: But he's not very well...

  MA: ...and since he's a little ill now I substitute directing

the band on jobs, and at the house we have John, myself, Tyrone Hill, James Jackson and, so we run things at that end. And we have a fellow that takes care of the money...

  EP: You've got an accountant?

  MA: Yeah....it functions pretty good for us, because we split

the jobs up. Sun Ra would mastermind all of it and we wouldn't have to worry about it, we would do as he told us to do, but now that he's gone we have to split the work up...the load is pretty heavy.

  EP: How about the re-issue programme that Evidence are doing, is

that on hold?

  MA: They re-issued 13 or 15 in all on CD's. ........ but we

haven't done any new work recording because we're waiting 'til they settle what they're doing.

  EP: So the Arkestra still functions then, it's still a playing


  MA: It's still a playing band, and active.

  EP: How do your performances go down?

  MA: In the band we're using two drummers, bass and guitar, we

use vibes and trombones, trumpets and saxophones. So it's like it was when Sun Ra gathered all these musicians together.

  EP: I hope that this next question doesn't sound bizarre or

disrespectful, but do you feel that Sun Ra is with you when you play?

  MA: Yeah.

  EP: You still feel his presence?

  MA: The memorial day is today, but on Saturday night the first

tune I played was the Space Call, and then I played a tune that I wrote and dedicated to him. And then we went on with the regular programme. The theme songs and tunes to create the spirit.

  EP: So now he's even more of a spiritual guide in a way.

  MA: He's still there, the presence is there. When I go to the

house I can feel it. When I get there it's not like my own home, at home I can't do the things, but I get there and everything's coming together. Whatever I'm going to do, rehearse or do things with some new tunes or play things that we haven't played in probably months. When I go to the house his presence is there. So I go every day.

  EP: The performance you're going to give tonight is a solo

performance, how many times have you done that before?

  MA: With Sun Ra we used to play like the first half hour of a

show, he would pick somebody to open the show....so I guess that what this is now.

  EP: I was watching the 'Joyful Noise' film on video this morning

and I got to a point where you do an incredible solo where you were almost strumming your saxophone, you know the one I'm talking about?

  MA: I'm dealing with sound...using the technique to get the

sound like a Whooosh! - and if that's what I hear and I have to do it, I just do it. I don't think, 'Oh, I'm going to do this'. I don't know what I'm going to do. With the nerves and all, and the sound mixed together, and it makes you Booomph!.

  EP: To me it was an example of the finest in improvised music,

where the player is possessed by something that he isn't completely in control of, but he is in control.

  MA: He was the master of what he was doing, and there was time

for us to listen........and what comes out, that's what comes out.

  EP: Before, you were playing with people like Art Simmons, at

the very beginning...

  MA: Yeah, that's when I was in the army and we called ourselves

the Fourstars. We had bass, drummer, piano and alto. And that army network they had, we were living at the studio and playing for the radio, and broadcast live. We got out of the army in '49, Art Simmons and myself, and went to Paris and studied at the conservatory. We all went together as a group and went to study at the conservatory. For a while there we worked all around town...

  EP: And you got in with James Moody as well didn't you?

  MA: James Moody and Don Byas were staying in Paris and we were

all staying in this little hotel room in Champs Elysees, right around the corner from the Lido. And some of us were down at St Germain, but every night there was somebody in town or a club where we could jam or play gigs. Then I went to Chicago in '51, and there I met Sun Ra: I heard this record, with one tune, like a demo. They took six or seven different bands and they put sides of them. My friend Joe in Chicago he said...I used to go buy records all the time...and he told me, "I got something that you probably would like, it's real good stuff", and he plays Sun Ra and I heard that sound that Sun Ra was getting, and that band! I was waiting for a band because I love playing in a band and I started hunting them down, I started inquiring, "Where's Sun Ra?", and one of the trumpet players said, " You ought to go round to the ballroom, they rehearse around there every day. Go round and talk to him he's looking for musicians." So I went to play for Sun Ra, and there was about two weeks of talking! I had to stay up and listen to what he was saying about what he wanted. And one day he said "We'll be playing next week", and so I went there and I wanted to play and everybody got in his seat and I said, "What about a chair for me!" - and he stood me in the corner by the piano and he would direct me from there. And I was standing there and everybody was just playing and I was just holding my horn. And he said tomorrow you meet me at my house where there's a piano and we'll practice some things with you. And that's when we did things like "Spontaneous Simplicity" and a few things - and then I had a little spot in the band, and then I had one or two tunes that I could play on. And he began to write me saxophone parts...that's the way I remember it.

  EP: Could you always play these instruments like oboe and

piccolo and things like that or were you instructed by Sun Ra...

  MA: I had a problem with my teeth and for two or three years I

had to leave that oboe alone. But I have my piccolo, my oboe and flute and I got an electronic instrument when I went to Italy and they gave us an electronic trumpet and it's got seven octaves to it. They gave Sun Ra an organ, and they gave us seven instruments which you put in an amplifier to play. So we plugged into the amplifier and everybody starts playing and Booom! And nobody didn't know how to play them then, you know. But Sun Ra, the first day we got them he said play them. And boy! the sound was just Wooaarr!

  EP: For the period we've just been talking about, when you first

joined, the titles on the first Transition album sound - you know, there is that element of Sun Ra in the music, but there's nothing too way out...

  MA: If you listen, that sound! That's what got me, you know I

heard this, I said, Oh! Harmony - cos I love all the big bands...

  EP: But the real space music was yet to come wasn't it?

  MA: He had it all then but he had to develop the musicians. To

the concept of something different.

  EP: How did he introduce you to that music. Did he plug you in

and that was it?

  MA: No, you'd come to private lessons and you'd sit there every

day, all day long, rehearsing just with the flute and piano.

  EP: But the extraordinary way-out stuff, how did you get

introduced to that? Did he come in and say "We're going to do something different today"?

  MA: You'd play something and the leader said "No, I don't like

that, that's too sentimental, or that's too this or too that." Then he won't leave you nothing left, but now, what does he want! And many times I went away sad because I was playing my little riffs and my notes and he said "That's not what I'm looking for, that's not the sound". And that's when I first began to understand it was something else he wanted me to do. So I began to listen more to him, to get the concept, and it grew step by step by step.

  EP: What did you prefer to do, record or perform with the band?

  MA: I feel good making a record too, but performing live, it's

alive! You do things once and that's it. So you see it's a different feeling you get in a recording studio. Playing live, like for instance on Saturday night, I raised my hand...of course I'd given them some chords before we went on the stage, so that's all they got, they didn't get any music, but they knew I was coming out and hit, so that's what we got. They didn't have this new tune that I was playing...only two people that was in Philadelphia had it, that had practised with me, and so I said, "That's it, give me a space chord", and pointed to the bassoon player to start the tune, and I looked at the trumpet player, and all the trumpets started the tune, and the rhythm fitted in, and they weren't going to drown nothing out because they didn't know where this tune was yet. Until the mood was set and they felt what they could put in there, but I kept checking to be sure not to overdo nothing. I'd just created it and I had no idea where I was going, but I knew where I was going to stop. Therefore I gave the musicians room to create a tune, a melody, to enhance the melody that I played for them. After one chorus the tune grew and grew. I doubt if it would come like that again...it would be another arrangement, cos that was the first time when everybody experienced it and it went over fine.

  EP: Obviously live it's completely different to recording, but I

did wonder how you worked on a record like "Heliocentric Worlds'.

  MA: Saying the same thing I'm just telling you about. Sun Ra

would go to the studio and he would play something, the bass would come in, the drums would come in, and if he didn't like it he'd stop it, and he'd give the drummer a particular rhythm, tell the bass he wanted not a 'boom boom boom', but something else, and then he'd begin to try out the horns, we're all standing there wondering what's next.

  EP: So he'd literally do it in one take...

  MA: A lot of those things was one take, because he was creating

on the spot.

  EP: There's a fine piccolo solo on Heliocentric.

  MA: I just picked up the piccolo and worked with what was going

on, what mood they set, or what feeling they had. A lot of things we'd be rehearsing and we did the wrong things and Sun Ra stopped the arrangement and changed it. Or he would change the person who was playing the particular solo, so that changes the arrangement. So the one that was soloing would get the part and the one that was playing the part would get another part given to him personally. Cos he knew people. He could understand what you could do better so he would fit that in with what he would tell you. He wouldn't give you a part that he wrote for me. It wouldn't fit.

  EP: When the Saturn records were being done, were you informed,

"Now we're going to make a record"? Or was it just made from tapes?

  MA: The company was young then and they didn't have very good

tape recorders. We would go to a place that had pretty good acoustics, it might be a ballroom or it might be a club, just like "Cosmic tones for mental therapy" (?!) , that was done in a club which had a nice sound. So then we would hand-print the covers.

  EP: This was a job that everybody had to do?

  MA: Everybody would print the covers and we'd put out stacks and

stacks of covers, hand-painted, each one different.

  EP: Some very elaborate ones as well, some had photographs

involved in them and then overlaid with sticky plastic...

  MA: I've got a few of them at home and they're just beautiful.

  EP: Sun Ra I think called those records 'Cosmic Newspapers',

they were like a way of getting his word out on the street really quick, and I thought that was a really good way of describing them...

  MA: The word of mouth, the street word was - Pshwooo! - it would

be all over town whatever you say or do.

  EP: He'd press a limited quantity of those records and they'd

sell at gigs or what?

  MA: You'd press 200 and then next time you'd press a record it

would be something else because he had so much music to work with. We made albums in a better studio with better equipment, and those are the ones you still hear, but a lot of them there was only a couple of

hundred made.

  EP: Are there any plans to record the Arkestra now?

  MA: We've got plans to continue right on with what we're doing,

right now we are together as a band, working, keeping the fire and the life, and the music. All the recording dates and things ...they're coming. The first thing to do is keep the organisation intact and keep the idea that was given to us. It's set up, all we have to do is do it. We've got all the music that we haven't recorded, and with Sun Ra we rehearsed every day, for almost forty years, every day, Friday Saturday Sunday, holidays.