Germantown, located near Philadelphia, is a typical small town in the northeastern United States. While some streets feature grand mansions, others have run-down apartment buildings. In addition, there are rows of interconnected houses that may be indistinguishable from one another, but one of these houses holds a unique history.
Sun Ra resided at 5626 Morton Street until his passing in 1993. This location is also home to various members of his remarkable jazz ensemble, the Arkestra. The living room serves as the Arkestra’s primary rehearsal space and is a sacred tribute to their pioneering leader – one of the most innovative and open-minded musicians of the 20th century. The room is just as diverse as Ra himself, adorned with otherworldly sculptures, celestial decorations, portraits and paintings, honorary citizenship plaques from Atlanta and New Orleans, a well-used upright bass with deep scratches, and a rusted hi-hat.
Marshall Allen, a 99-year-old who has been a member of the Arkestra since 1957 and its leader for almost 30 years, shared with me in November that his father offered him a house to move the band to. Although he has retired from touring internationally, the Arkestra is currently deciding on its future plans.
The previous owner of the house was a truck driver and had stored large tires upstairs, which Allen found amusing. He got rid of them and declined his father’s offer to live there, but suggested selling it to Sun Ra for one dollar. The house was used for band rehearsals, but now the focus is on renovating the house.
Arts organizations have financially supported efforts to address significant structural problems, and various members of the Arkestra have contributed to fixing them. “Sun Ra was unable to leave because of his illness, so we installed a new toilet in the back,” explains Allen as he gestures towards the rear of the building. “Our drummer was the one who did the plumbing.”
Unfortunately, the house’s decay, from peeling paint to chipped brickwork, lessens its importance (although there are intentions to mark it as a significant historical site). However, as you sit in the practice area, it’s hard not to sense the change in atmosphere, a strong presence from all the past and current members of the Arkestra who have performed in that room. This includes Ra himself: someone who embraced the unconventional and challenged the boundaries of experimental music, while also reaffirming pride in Black culture in the present moment.
Vincent Chancey, a French horn player who has been with the Arkestra since 1976, recalls Ra claiming that he was sent to Earth from outer space. According to Ra, he had an encounter on a spaceship where extraterrestrial beings informed him of his duty to save the Black race. Ra’s cosmic perspective was ahead of its time, even compared to groups like Parliament-Funkadelic. His desire to transcend earthly limitations and bring liberation to Black America was influenced by his own experiences, as well as those of fellow Arkestra leaders Allen and John Gilmore, who all grew up in the segregated US south.
Herman Poole Blount, later known as Ra, was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914. He showed exceptional talent on the piano and began composing music at a young age. He had the opportunity to meet and be influenced by renowned musicians such as Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson, whom he even composed and arranged for. Ra received a scholarship to attend Alabama A&M University to study music education, but he decided to drop out after only one year.
During this period, Ra had an encounter with extraterrestrial beings. When he arrived in Chicago, he extensively researched science fiction and reinterpreted spiritual texts. This was accompanied by a deep understanding of the struggles faced by Black Americans and their ties to ancient Egypt. Drawing from his early exposure to big bands and jazz, Ra developed the concept of “Astro-Black mythology”, combining ancient history with the idea of a journey to a futuristic utopia for Black individuals.
Allen, meanwhile, was a native of Louisville, Kentucky, who settled in Philadelphia with his father. At 18, he enlisted in the military and played alto saxophone and clarinet as a member of the 17th Division Special Service Band, part of the Army’s 92nd infantry division, widely known as the Buffalo Soldiers – Allen is one of the only surviving members of the renowned Black Cavalry.
During his time in Europe, Allen had the opportunity to play with renowned musicians like Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas, Art Simmons, and James Moody. He even had the chance to perform with members of Duke Ellington’s band. After being released from duty in 1949, he chose to stay in France and pursue studies in clarinet at the Paris Conservatory.
When Allen came back to the United States in 1951, after being away for almost ten years, he made his home in Chicago where his mother resided. He spent a few years there, playing with various musicians and taking on any gigs that were offered to him. One day, he visited a record store owned by Joe Segal who sold him a demo of Sun Ra. Allen turns to long-time Arkestra saxophonist Knoel Scott and asks him about the tune. Scott starts singing the melody, hoping it would help Allen remember. Allen then continues, “Whatever it was, I remember thinking that band sounded great.” Joe informed Allen that Sun Ra rehearses every night and is always on the lookout for talented musicians.
Allen brought his drummer with him to meet Ra. “We visited the boiler room where Sun Ra was practicing. He was discussing topics related to space. I exclaimed, ‘What kind of band is this? I want to be a part of it!'”
Allen expanded his musical abilities by adding the flute to his repertoire. He joined the Arkestra on their tour, performing in various cities such as Chicago, Milwaukee, and Montreal. During their return home, they made a pit stop in New York to visit former bandmates. Unfortunately, their car was hit by a taxi, leaving them stranded in New York without transportation or funds. Each member had to survive on a daily budget of only 25 cents. This experience brought the band closer together, creating a family-like bond within the Arkestra.
George Burton, who joined the Arkestra in 2012 playing viola and violin before switching to piano a year later, describes the band as having a rich history. He also notes the strong camaraderie among band members, who have developed a brotherly bond from spending so much time on the road together. This closeness translates onto the stage, contributing to the ever-evolving nature of their music. Unlike most bands where the composer dictates exactly how the music should be played, the Arkestra’s music is constantly evolving and being created in the moment without a predetermined plan.
Sun Ra’s music is commonly perceived as being open and unrestricted, but according to Allen and Scott, this is not the case. Scott shares that Sun Ra disliked the concept of “freedom” and instead valued discipline and precision. He approached his music with calculated equations, showing that what may appear as freedom to listeners was actually a scientific process.
Allen slowly assimilated Sun Ra’s principles. “It took several years for me to fully comprehend his teachings, so I had to learn the hard way through dedication and hard work. Discipline is necessary for learning. All he required was your time.”
He would say, “You have a pleasant sound when you play, but there is something lacking.” The missing element was the spirit, which he was striving to cultivate. It wasn’t that I was incapable of playing or lacked a sound – I simply couldn’t capture his music. When Allen finally captured the spirit of the music, it was about more than just playing the correct notes. It was about the emotion behind the music, as Allen gestures towards his chest and says, “It came from the heart.”
Ra’s composition style was unpredictable. After Allen worked all week on a new part he’d been handed, he realised that “Ra can change it, give it to somebody else, and give you a whole new part. It wasn’t easy. He would say: ‘I don’t want you to know anything. If you know something, it hinders you.’”
After Sun Ra passed away in 1993, Mark Dery created the phrase Afrofuturism. This term, often associated with Ra’s expansive ideas, has been applied to a variety of things, including Grace Jones and Octavia Butler. Afrofuturism envisions a new space and time for Black Americans, separate from their troubled history, fleeting present, and uncertain future.
Tara Middleton, who has been a vocalist and violinist in the Arkestra since 2012, expresses her difficulty in truly understanding Sun Ra’s vision, which is rooted in cosmic philosophy. The future that Sun Ra envisions for Black people is one that breaks free from the societal and political constraints imposed by past narratives. His music conveys a sense of cosmic awareness and encourages people to embrace the endless potential of existence. Additionally, it incorporates elements of African mythology and symbolism.
Middleton is currently the only woman in the Arkestra, following the example of singer June Tyson. With a strong presence in Harlem’s artistic community, Tyson’s vocals inspired a younger audience to explore Sun Ra’s unique world.
Melanie Dyer, founder of WeFreeStrings and former member of the Arkestra beginning in 2017, describes June Tyson as an “apostle” who embodies the spirit and message of Sun Ra. Dyer admires Tyson’s vibrant and confident voice, as well as her belief in the band’s powerful message. Together, the Arkestra and Tyson created a strong energy that surpassed their individual contributions.
The University of Chicago Library obtained a significant collection of Sun Ra’s materials in 2007, including recordings, manuscripts, photographs, and other items. Another archive is located at Emory University. The group recently received their first Grammy nomination in 2021 for their album Swirling in the category of best large jazz ensemble. However, the Arkestra’s legacy is primarily found in its members and their extensive musical catalogue, which is almost impossible to fully comprehend. According to Allen, he has multiple garbage bags filled with Sun Ra’s music, highlighting the vast amount of music he composed.
Middleton stated that the Arkestra’s senior members will be responsible for any choices regarding the band’s future leadership. She described the transition of leadership as a delicate balance between honoring tradition and embracing new exploration and growth for the band. With newer members joining the stage, there is a shift towards viewing the orchestra as a dynamic and evolving entity.
As his 100th birthday draws near in May, Marshall Allen attributes his longevity to Sun Ra and often echoes his leader’s words, “Discipline – nothing can be achieved without it.” While his days of international touring may be behind him, his music continues to thrive. He now has the opportunity to focus on creating and performing without having to constantly travel. When asked about his plans for his actual birthday, Allen simply replied, “To stay alive, by any means necessary!”