BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — It was music for the 21st century.
That’s the way Marshall Allen remembers pianist Sun Ra describing the music he wanted to make. It could seamlessly swing between jazz, the avant-garde, and a deafening caterwaul. That was in 1958.
To Allen, who played alto saxophone in Sun Ra and his band, the Arkestra, for decades, the times have finally caught up with the eccentric Birmingham musician who once claimed to be from outer space.
“The 21st century is here,” Allen said. “It took all this time to get here.”
Now, the U.S. Recording Academy has caught up with him as well. The Arkestra, which has continued to tour and record since his death in 1993, was recently nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album for “Swirling,” the group’s first album in over 20 years. The nomination is the first for the band in its nearly 60-year history, going back to when it was first started in Chicago in the mid-1950s.
The way Sun Ra made music both freed and limited his work with many considering him and the band either musical geniuses or misfits. Despite critical praise and a loyal following over the years, Sun Ra and his Arkestra were never fully embraced in the jazz community in his lifetime, nor did they find widespread success in mainstream culture. Nonetheless, those who have followed the story of the band point to how Sun Ra never bowed to popular taste, sticking to making the music he wanted to make.
“The thing is they’re doing the same thing they’ve always done,” said John Szwed, author of “Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra,” a biography on Sun Ra. “It seems like the times caught up with them.”
Creating something new
Sun Ra was born Herman Poole Blount on May 22, 1914 in Birmingham. A musical prodigy, Blount took up the piano and quickly began playing across town, leading different groups while writing his own music.
According to Szwed’s book, he claimed to have had a life-changing experience in 1936 while a student at Alabama A&M that would set him on a new path.
“My whole body changed into something else. I could see through myself. And I went up… I wasn’t in human form… I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn… they teleported me and I was down on [a] stage with them,” Blount said. “They wanted to talk with me. They had one little antenna on each ear. A little antenna over each eye. They talked to me. They told me to stop [attending college] because there was going to be great trouble in schools… the world was going into complete chaos… I would speak [through music], and the world would listen. That’s what they told me.”
Blount soon dropped out of school and devoted himself solely to music, playing with anyone he could in Birmingham. In 1945, Blount left Birmingham for Chicago, eventually changing his name to Sun Ra after the Egyptian sun god, as well as taking on the persona of an alien from Saturn. Starting the Arkestra, Sun Ra combined his love of early jazz, space, African rhythms, and Egyptian folklore to create his own sound.
“He was playing that stuff before audiences who weren’t quite sure what it was,” Szwed said.
Julian Priester, a trombonist who played off and on with Sun Ra in the early years, joined the Arkestra in 1954 when he was still a teenager. He said even though Sun Ra would write specific parts for each instrument to play during a song, he would constantly change the music, often rewriting sections of music and shifting musical ideas to the point where the initial idea of the song was unrecognizable.
Priester said that during shows, Sun Ra would encourage each musician to improvise during songs and direct them to do things they hadn’t done before.
“He gave us instructions, but they were mysterious instructions,” he said. “What I really mean is that they were brand new ideas that we had to interpret the best way that we could. Fortunately, I was so in love with the music that I did not get frustrated.”
Over the years, Sun Ra and his Arkestra would incorporate more theatrical elements into their shows, shedding the tuxedos many big band orchestras wore at the time for flashy Egyptian clothing, as well as incorporating electronic instruments before they were in style. Many shows would often end with the band walking out into the unsuspecting audience as they played, sang, and danced through the crowd.
“There was a side to Sun Ra when I saw in the 60s that was scary,” Szwed said. “I had never seen Black performers like that. It was just an extravaganza of a very weird sort.”
In his lifetime, Sun Ra and his Arkestra recorded over 100 albums, including one influenced by “The Magic City,” and toured all over the world, even opening up for bands like Sonic Youth and the MC5.
Priester said that despite how advanced his Sun Ra’s music could be stretched, his musical philosophy was fairly consistent over the years.
“When you are creating, you can’t be the critic,” he said. “Leave the critic outside.”
‘For my well-being’
At 97, Allen is the longest serving member of the Arkestra and one of the last surviving people from the group’s formation. For him, he doesn’t play the music for money or recognition. He does it for his well-being.
“If it does me some good, I can give it to other people,” Allen said.
Allen said he appreciates the Grammy nomination, but he is more excited that his bandmates can share in the honor.
“I’m happy for my musicians that they put out a nice album and everyone played well,” Allen said.
With “Swirling,” the Arkestra covers several songs Sun Ra wrote, some from as early as the 1960s. However, many of them are played in a different way than their original recorded versions.
“Yesterday is yesterday and today is today,” Allen said. “You play a little differently today than you did yesterday.”
Allen said Sun Ra taught him how to stretch his playing beyond what he knew, finding new ways to play familiar notes. This is something Allen continues to instill in new Arkestra members.
“Sun Ra, he didn’t want to hear what I knew,” he said. “He would said ‘Play this,’ I would play like I knew, but he would say ‘That’s not it. Play what you don’t know.’”
Allen said that at the time, he didn’t understand what Sun Ra was talking about, but over time, began to grasp what he was getting at.
“Let the spirit guide you, just like in everything,” Allen said. “You collaborate with the vibrations of the day and do what’s natural.”
Entering the mainstream
Because of how strange and cerebral Sun Ra and his music could be, he and the Arkestra were never fully recognized the same way some of their peers, such as John Coltrane or Miles Davis, were in the jazz community.
“His philosophy was so different that a lot of people, jazz people, felt like he was doing something that didn’t fit into their ideas of what the music was supposed to sound like,” Priester said.
However, there were some who saw his genius early on.
“The breadth and depth of musical experience he can bring to a performance makes him the finest of the Chicago musicians associated with the vanguard of the last twenty-five years,” critic Stanley Crouch wrote in “Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz.”
Over the years, others also saw the bigger picture Sun Ra was trying to convey in his music.
“What makes Sun Ra important as a composer and an artist is his unwavering belief that music can take its players and listeners to better worlds—better, at least, by the measure of joyous sounds,” author Paul Youngquist wrote in “A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism.”
Despite some of their quirkier moments, the band was far from underground. In their heyday, Sun Ra Arkestra made infrequent appearances in popular culture, from appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1969 to being featured in the 1974 movie, “Space is the Place,” to performing on “Saturday Night Live” in 1978.
Nearly 30 years after Sun Ra’s death, his music is still reaching new audiences with a new generation of musicians now playing it.
Under Allen’s direction, the Arkestra still tours around the world, even opening for acts like Yo La Tengo and Solange Knowles. In fact, Sun Ra shares a song credit on the Lady Gaga song, “Venus,” from her 2013 album “Artpop,” which features the opening lyric of his song, “Rocket Number Nine.”
“It shows you that people still feel it’s breaking rules and moving forward,” Szwed said.
Priester said that years later, the music still sounds new.
“It takes an innovator like Sun Ra to generate this forward music so the music can stay fresh and move ahead and keep expanding,” he said.
For Priester, the Arkestra’s Grammy nomination has been a long time coming.
“They deserve the award,” he said. “They deserve more, but I am proud they are getting the attention they are getting now.”
Whether or not the Arkestra wins an award during the Grammy Awards on Jan. 31 doesn’t bother Allen. Either way, he’ll keep playing.
“I’m still here, ain’t I,” he laughed. “I must be doing something right.”