Marshall Allen
Marshall Allen of the Arkestra

How do you get a group of highly skilled creative people to perform at their peak? Last year’s Oscar-nominated film Whiplash pushed the idea that insult, humiliation and violence can work well, at least in the context of competitive college big-band jazz.

The jazz world has had its share of workplace bullies. Drummer Buddy Rich was notorious for his rudeness and peremptory sackings, and double-bassist Charles Mingus would assault musicians mid-performance if he thought they were playing safe. But no one pushed mind games and punitive measures to greater extremes than the pianist and composer Sun Ra. (He was American officially, but as far as he was concerned he hailed from Saturn.) His band, the Arkestra, had all the trappings of a cult, including a communal life. Punishment was regularly meted out: one musician was locked in a closet for drinking; others were named and shamed onstage. Yet few who met or worked with Ra saw him as a tyrant.

Ra, born Herman Blount in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914, created an ideological collage out of Egyptology and shamanism, B-movie science fiction and Afrocentric philosophy, and wove it into an equally eccentric stage act. Clad in robes, he would sit impassively by his keyboard orchestrating a three-hour spectacle, a working model of the solar system perched on his head.

Ra died in 1993, but the Arkestra continues to tour under the direction of saxophonist Marshall Allen and in May it headlines the Cheltenham Jazz Festival in England. Allen joined the Arkestra in 1958 and when I met him recently in London he described Ra’s methods and the epic rehearsals he led. “Ra would write music like you’d write a letter,” says Allen, who turns 91 next month. “Every day he’d have four, five, six new charts.” Ra’s music as written was hard enough. The intervals were difficult and the cross-rhythms complex. “Sometimes you had nothing to hang on to except your part,” says Allen.

But this was only the start. Ra believed that each day had its own vibration or code, and the music needed to be adjusted accordingly. And because he tailor-made parts for each musician, the music changed each time someone new arrived. “You couldn’t come in and pick up your horn and start playing,” says Allen. “He had it fixed so you had to come to rehearse to get the music.” And rehearse you did, every day, sometimes starting at 4am. “I’m not paying you for the gig,” Ra used to tell Allen, “I’m paying for you to rehearse.”

Allen first heard about Sun Ra through a Chicago music store owner who told him where the band practised every day and that the leader was always looking for musicians. Allen says his first impression of Ra was: “Ow! Where’s he coming from?” The musicians talked music, but Ra spoke about “outer space, going to the moon, the Bible, all sorts of stuff. It sure wasn’t about music,” Allen recalls. But when he heard the music, something just tipped him over.

Allen was a multi-instrumentalist who had spent 10 years in US army bands and had studied at the Paris conservatoire. He grew up in Louisville, Kentucky listening to big bands, and describes his playing style at the time as “anybody’s really. Straight alto with a nice tone”. Meeting Ra changed that. “Everything I knew and studied and learnt he wasn’t doing,” says Allen. “He was doing everything I didn’t know.” Ra expected Allen to imitate a trumpet if the trumpets were missing, or capture the sounds of electronic instruments. “There was a lot of ‘how do you do it?’ It was mind and spirit. I was more over here,” he says, tapping the top of his head, “than he was on the spirit side.”

But it wasn’t just the music that kept Allen putting in the hours. “His philosophy had a lot of stuff in it, and you chose what you could get out of it. He was a good teacher, he had the patience and feeling and spirit. That made it perfect.”

Sun Ra in 1990
Sun Ra in 1990

John F Szwed’s excellent 1997 biography Space is the Place traces the in-depth study that lay behind Ra’s fascination with Ancient Egypt, etymology and space, while making a case for the idea that Ra’s Afrocentric cosmology not only reflected the tumult of the 1950s and 1960s, but transcended it.

In 1968, Ra bought Allen’s father’s house in Philadelphia, thus acquiring a permanent rehearsal space. The price paid, says Allen, was $1: “My father wanted to give it to me, but I didn’t want it at the time. I had another house for my kids and stuff.” It became known as “Pharaoh’s Den”, and the nucleus of the band stayed there, endlessly practising and reworking Ra’s vision.

Ra mashed up old-time vaudeville and big-band jazz with bop, pop and electronics. And that was just the start. There were visual effects and dancers, fire-eaters, comedians and the screech of fiery improvisation. You can get the gist of the live performances from YouTube clips, but not the visceral experience of being there.

The trumpeter Chris Lee, who co-founded the avant-jazz group Pigbag in 1980, and pianist Adrian Reid, who helped launch the black British big band the Jazz Warriors in 1986, both saw Ra in London in 1982. Reid remembers a constant churning of styles; Lee that a jester laughed behind Sun Ra’s back. “Ra was like an alchemist mixing chemicals. It was a fantastic atmosphere, a freak-out,” says Reid.

Lee saw Ra again at London’s Mean Fiddler in 1990. This time a John Gilmore saxophone solo was so intense that the woman next to him collapsed. Producer and radio presenter Jez Nelson was also at the Mean Fiddler that night. “It was, without question, the most intense live experience of my life. I could see the music, that was the weird thing. I had to leave the room and then come back in,” says Nelson, whose Travelling the Spaceways: The Cult of Sun Ra, was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 last year.

But transcendental intensity was only one component of a cut-and-paste compositional method. Ra was a substantial composer who had a profound influence, way beyond jazz. Nelson cites innovations in sampling, electronics and stagecraft, with a do-it-yourself ethic that predated punk.

The current Arkestra packs the authentic Ra punch. Parts are still tailor-made to each musician and the overall approach remains intact. And they still rehearse in the basement of Allen’s father’s house. “Ra had more control over them than I do,” says Allen. “But it’s the same thing. You learn what you’re supposed to learn and step up.”

Allen still carries himself like a military man, and looks like someone with energy to spare. “I try to use the music for me, then for the people. My well-being comes from their well-being,” he says. “Somewhere down the line I woke up to see that if you really want to do this you’d better be sincere and play from your heart, because otherwise you’re not going anywhere.”

Sun Ra Arkestra play Cheltenham Jazz Festival on May 2, cheltenhamfestivals.com

Photographs: Anna Huix; Frans Schellekens

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