The Sun Ra Arkestra is a sonic explosions recreating itself with each note and was formed in the mid-1950s and led by keyboardist/composer Sun Ra until his death in 1993. They are certainly considered a pioneer of afrofuturism. The Arkestra is still led by saxophonist Marshall Allen, an member since 1958. To this day, the outer shell of the travelers on stage are still draped in their cosmic entrance gear, expelling from the ever-evolving swirl. In jazz, unity could emerge — even as individual notes seemed in disarray and rhythms seemed uncountable. Jazz demanded discipline and precision, but also an open mind. “A lot of things that some men do… come from somewhere else,” Sun Ra said, “or they’re inspired by something that’s not of this planet. And jazz was most definitely inspired, because it wasn’t here before.” Jazz was the road to a mystical experience, a sort of reasoned ecstasy. It was the music of elsewhere. Sun Ra called his band the Arkestra, though it went far beyond the limits of a band. The Arkestra was Sun Ra’s grand Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work that crossed the boundaries of art and life for Sun Ra and his musicians. Arkestra performances were music, theatre, dance, philosophy. They combined the ancient and the radical future, African rhythms played with fists and synthesizers played with the elbows. Arkestra musicians followed Sun Ra’s style, wearing Egyptian headdresses and African robes and Mardi Gras beads. Onstage, they laughed and danced and walked arm in arm. Sun Ra wanted to show his audiences an expression of pure possibility. And yet the Arkestra was more for the musicians than the audience. Musicians lived together (for a long while in a building Sun Ra bought on Morton Street, in the Germantown area of Philadelphia) worked together, thought together. When they weren’t onstage, they were rehearsing. They played music in place of social activities, in place of sleep. The Arkestra breathed music together, abandoned themselves to it, like one single enlightened organism with Sun Ra as their guide. Sun Ra’s compositions were famously difficult, even for the most talented instrumentalists. Arkestra musicians tell stories of being baffled sometimes for months before they could hear music in the written notes. The intervals were mad, impossible. Sun Ra was patient though, often choosing musicians who were more intuitive than knowledgeable, who could be developed (intuitive people had more space in their minds). One could imagine the Morton Street building like a monastery, and Arkestra rehearsals akin to liturgical chant, with Arkestra players embodying the music through repetition until playing was an ecstatic experience. For this experience of both the past and the future, breathing and being altered in the now, we find Marshall Allen continuing to be a director from which it came – within the spiraling sound landings of The Sun Ra Arkestra.
I had the honor of checking in with Mr. Marshall Allen ahead of CODAFEST 2022 – A Celebration of Creative and Cultural Music’. Highlighting this 5-day event will be the legendary Sun Ra Arkestra, led by the 98-year-old saxophonist and protégé of the late/great Sun Ra. This event will be on November 19th at Cafe Coda. We discussed how the moment, any moment is about the vibration of that day, that moment, that time. This translated into how the group will be proceeding into the spiral while here in Madison, avoiding the square and adding the feeling of the audience to the building blocks of notes to be. This little conversation reminds me to always listen in to what those who’ve been to and from – and how/why there is the reason what the Arkestra did/does resonates within me. Its the moments within each. Take a moment. Make a moment