Hometown Hero: Marshall Allen

By Suzanne Cloud | Photograph by Colin M. Lenton

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1924, Marshall Allen started on the clarinet at age ten. Eight years later, the time studying music stood him in good stead when he enlisted in World War II at age 18. After helping to liberate Italy and then going on to play alto saxophone with the Special Services entertainment division in Paris, the young player quickly got attention from two very important saxophonists—Don Byas and Coleman Hawkins. The lucky association ultimately evolved into a tour, and recording, with James Moody’s Boptet.

Allen met Sun Ra in the early 1950s, and his life was transformed. Ra’s mystical world and mission of human elevation changed Allen’s ideas about what music could inspire and do for spiritual uplift. So, the alto saxophonist stayed, and a unique movement was born that would end up in Philadelphia in 1968 when the Sun Ra Arkestra moved from New York City into a rowhome on Morton Street, a home they called “The Pharaoh’s Den.” 

Explaining the move, Allen said, “We were in Chicago 10 years, then in New York 10 years, so we moved to Philly, the First Capital, the birth of the country. When we got Philadelphia, we got America!”

Allen helped Sun Ra run the band “rehearsing Monday through Sunday” until Ra’s death in 1993, and after saxophonist John Gilmore died in 1995, led the Arkestra ever since, constantly exploring and reexploring the musical output of the late pioneer of Afrofuturism.

Trenton musician and current member of Kool and the Gang trumpeter Michael Ray (who’s been associated with the band since 1978), was mentored by Allen. Ray wrote in an email, “Marshall was my roommate and took me under his wing. He has been an unlimited reservoir of information, music, and love. He has always said, ‘PLAY WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW.’ To this day, I’m learning to play what I don’t know.”

Marshall Allen pioneered the avant-garde jazz movement of the early 1960s, and he was one of the first jazz musicians to blend traditional African song into his music. Allen’s collaborations with percussionist Babatunde Olatunji mark some of the first free jazz/traditional African music fusions. Because of his vast musical impact, this multi-instrumentalist won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the New York Vision Festival in 2009 and was named a Pew Fellow in 2012 by The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage.

Marshall Allen speaks about how Sun Ra’s concept of the “spirit of the day” isn’t an abstraction, and the idea says a lot about his creative longevity. Artists must leave preconceived notions of genres behind to express what is happening now in the world. Find your own instrumentation, and your own ways of playing an old or new composition. Explode your musical vocabulary and discover atypical rhythms of surprise.

Allen, who will celebrate his 96th birthday on May 25, 2020, understands how this philosophy keeps him young enough to find the next original musical thought that speaks to the world a moment later.

It’s like life,” says Allen. “You do the same things, but you do them differently because of the situation. If it’s raining, you get your umbrella and keep on going.”

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