‘Space Is the Place’

“Why did you stop playing the sax?” I asked a friend one day. He had been a Bebop player of growing reputation back in the ’50s but ended that career to become a poet.

“It never stopped sounding like a saxophone, no matter what I did,” was his reply. As a writer, he could transform things into words and words into things and essences into essentials, and also none of the above.

I do not know if there is something different in the saxophone players among us, but the answer did not surprise me; these musicians seem to spend their musical lives in a search for a sound inside them that nothing can possibly capture, and the sad-happy fact of nothing capturing it is what they use the sax to express and celebrate in their music.

The alto sax player Marshall Allen is 92 today and is still performing. Since 1995, he has been the leader of the Sun Ra Arkestra, which has a vigorous U.S. tour scheduled for the summer of 2016 (vigorous for someone my age, even more so for a 92-year-old). In June, the Arkestra will be performing near me, something I just learned. (Uh, Jen?)

When the prolific composer and pianist Sun Ra left this plane of reality in 1993, the sax player John Gilmore took over, but he died two years later. In 1995, Marshall Allen was 71 and ready for the new challenge: he took over the cosmic jazz ensemble.

Allen became a part of Sun Ra’s universe in 1958, and “universe” is the right word: Ra’s musicians displayed a devotion to Ra and to the music that was rarely seen anywhere else. The Arkestra lived (and still lives) together, first in New York City and, since 1968, in Philadelphia.

Part of Sun Ra’s performance ethos held that the performance was only a part of the music-making life, so, when gigging near home, the musicians started playing at home, walked to the venue while performing, took the stage while playing, left an hour or three later by walking through the audience while still playing, and they often continued into the night at home, where they recorded. For those who live on Morton Street in Philadelphia, it is best to be a music fan. When on the road, the Arkestra begins making music off-stage and walks through the audience on the way to the stage.

Sun Ra arrived on Earth as Herman Poole Blount in Alabama in 1914. In the 1940s, he began to call himself Sun Ra or (sometimes Le Sony’r Ra) and he denied earth parentage or earthly interests. In different interviews and statements through the years, he claimed to be from outer space or to have been abducted by aliens from Saturn who bore antennae over both eyes and ears. He said he had been to Saturn and to Jupiter. He never winked at the camera while discussing these tales.

Sun Ra’s UFO claims pre-date the flying saucer craze of the 1950s, so whatever happened to Blount in his life on Earth by the late 1940s left him utterly convinced that Earth is not his home and that Herman Blount never existed. And till his death in 1993, he never broke character, perhaps because this was not a character he was playing, at all. (There are a few surface resemblances between his story and the novel and Kevin Spacey film K-PAX.) On his passport, he wrote “Saturn” as his birthplace and he left the birth date line blank. (These are things he most likely would not be able to do now.)

But interesting or curious details such as his possible extraterrestrial origins or his elaborate mytho-poetic philosophies explaining life on earth do not explain why dozens of musicians worked with and even lived with Sun Ra for decades, making records every day in their communal home. Musicians like John Gilmore, who attracted the admiration and envy of no less a jazz luminary as John Coltrane, who critics lamented could have been as big as Coltrane if he went out on his own, lived with Sun Ra and his fellow musicians for almost 40 years.

Allen has lived the communal music-making life since 1958. His ongoing mission is detailed on the Arkestra’s website:

Marshall Allen maintains the Sun Ra residence as a living museum dedicated to the compilation, restoration and preservation of Sun Ra’s music, memorabilia, and artifacts. Marshall has launched the Sun Ra Arkestra into a dimension beyond that of mere “ghost” band by writing fresh arrangements of Sun Ra’s music, as well as composing new music for the Arkestra. He works unceasingly to keep the big-band tradition alive, reworking arrangements of the music of Fletcher Henderson and Jimmie Lunceford for the Arkestra to play, along with many other American standards.

In the video below, Allen (in the besequined cap) leads a small ensemble in Sun Ra’s “Space Is the Place,” shreds on sax, and then shreds on an EWI (electric wind instrument). He is 90 in the video:

Long may he shred, against the grain, in the search for the sound and celebration of that search.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for May 25 asks us to reflect on the word, “Grain.”

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