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There are several “ghost” big bands that have continued performing long after their leaders’ deaths, the Ellington and Basie bands not least among them. But even in this position, the Sun Ra Arkestra is a different breed. Twenty-one years after its founder and visionary departed the planet, the Arkestra’s still as much defined by its original stage presence—-with all the costumed flair and outer-space mysticism that entails—-as by its music.
It’s also still largely defined by its veteran musicians, including 90-year-old tenor saxophonist Marshall Allen. Allen has been a member of the Arkestra for 56 years, 21 of them as its leader, and though he is a much earthier personality than the ethereal, often arcane Ra, he nonetheless keeps his predecessor’s spirit intact. Ahead of tonight’s performance at the Lincoln Theatre, Allen gave Arts Desk a status report on the Arkestra’s life in the futuristic world that Sun Ra always looked toward.
City Paper: Tell me about the direction that the Arkestra has gone in since Ra passed. Has it continued developing?
Marshall Allen: Well, we’re still playing Sun Ra’s tunes. Playing and dancing, the avant-garde and space stuff. The formula hasn’t changed! Sometimes I have 25 musicians: violins, cello, harp, dancers. So it’s still the show band.
How much has the membership changed since he left us?
The personnel has changed some; I’ve still got some veterans in there, people that Sun Ra hired in the ‘60s and ‘70s and stuff, but new added people. We just had a tour in Europe over the summer for three months, and it was still a 12-, 13-, 14-, up to 25-piece band. I took one of the bands into Lincoln Center in New York, and then we took a bigger one with the violin and harp player to Europe. I’ll probably come to D.C. with about 15 people.
I was looking at the Arkestra’s most recent album, Live at Paradox, and there were some tunes on there that I’d never heard before. Were those new tunes?
Oh, we’ve got some new ones, sure. I write up a lot of them; I put some of my tunes in along with Sun Ra’s. And a few others have written some tunes, and I’ve written some new arrangements of the old tunes. So the book is still fat. But we’re still promoting the tunes of Sun Ra’s music, spreading the vibrations of Sun Ra and playing the old tunes from the big bands and right on up until today. Still looking for that variety, and we’ve still got the repertoire.
When you have this rich repertoire, and you bring in new members, how do they get acclimated to it?
Well, every band has a way of speaking, a way of sounding, and they have to learn that. Of course they have to learn the tunes, and mix them up and everything. And so the way we have rehearsals is to get your brain in there, you know? Like all the bands, when you heard them, you knew who they were when you heard them play, no matter what it was.
Do you bring Sun Ra’s mysticism, his philosophies, into it?
Yeah, we go through all that. And we bring his poetry onto the stage—keeping his whole tradition alive. And we’ll have all the different costumes and everything.
Sun Ra played piano and keyboards in the band, plus some percussion. Who handles that now?
I got a couple of piano players; Farid Baron is the main one. And I also got a violin player who plays the piano, and the guitar player. And then I also have percussionists, bass drum, and African congas and things, separate from that.
You’ve been doing this for 21 years now. To what extent has it become your band, rather than Sun Ra’s?
Well, it’s still really Sun Ra’s music, and I just do it like I’ve always done it—and I’ve been in the band since 1958! I look around and I’m 90 years old already!
Is there an heir apparent to take over from you?
Well, I don’t know! [laughs] I didn’t know I was gonna take it over! But everybody else who ran it left; there wasn’t nobody else but me, and I decided just to keep it going. So we’ll just see.
The Sun Ra Arkestra plays the Lincoln Theatre tonight. Doors at 7 p.m. $20.