SUN RA ARKESTRA at Lula Lounge (1585 Dundas West), Tuesday to Friday (October 18-21), 7 pm doors. $30. 416-588-0307. www.elrarecords.com
There was never really any doubt that the Sun Ra Arkestra would continue to perform after their celestially enigmatic namesake left the planet
In fact, right after Sun Ra's earthly body was laid to rest in Birmingham, Alabama, on June 5, 1993, the Arkestra members had to fly directly to New York City for a previously scheduled engagement later that same evening at the Bottom Line under the leadership of saxophonist John Gilmore, who had already been piloting the cosmically conscious big band through the interstellar low-ways of jazz for a number of years.
However, when Gilmore died two years later, there was some question about who would guide the Arkestra into the 21st century. Long-time alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, who had been a member since 1958 and was already in charge of the driving horn section, seemed the obvious choice.
Arkestra trombonist Nate Pryor's observation that "next to Sunny, Marshall is the farthest out" sounded like a ringing endorsement for Allen to take over the reins, or at least that's how it appeared to everyone except the modest Allen himself.
"After Sun Ra was gone and then John passed away, I thought, 'Oh my goodness, it's all down to me,'" recalls the 81-year-old Allen from Philadelphia. "Of course, I'd worked in bands all my life, but I'd always been a sideman. I was one of those guys who'd just come in, play my horn and go about my business, not worrying about anything else.
"So when all of a sudden everything fell into my lap, I wondered whether I could handle the responsibility of running the Arkestra, like, 'What am I gonna do now?' But there was nobody else around to get things done, so I had to take the lead. There was no choice. I had to decide who should be in the band. I had to get our songbook together, which besides Sun Ra, also includes the music of Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and others. But we're in good shape right now."
For Allen, who's been adding his own compositions and arrangements to the Arkestra's already enormous repertoire, it's just as important to maintain a strong connection to the Arkestra's past as to creatively move forward. And not just to preserve and honour Sun Ra's magnificently rich musical legacy - there's also an economic necessity to keeping the Sun Ra Arkestra running as a fully functional touring ensemble.
"You know those Sun Ra reissues, the live recordings, the bootlegs and whatever that are coming out all over the place? Well, the family of Sun Ra is in charge of the estate, and they deal with that stuff. The members of the band - the musicians who played on those recordings - don't make any money from them.
"I've been trying to get something for a while now, but that's gonna take some good lawyers and a long battle in the courts. Who can afford that? Well, we sure don't have the money, but we've got the music, so I set up a new publishing company and we got ourselves a new label, El-Ra Records ( www.elrarecords.com) to release our recent Arkestra recordings. Starting from scratch has been tough, but we had to do it."
Besides leading the Arkestra, Allen also runs the Sun Ra Arkestra home museum where he still lives in the Germantown district of north Philadelphia. If you stop by for a visit, you may see more than just old photographs and concert posters.
"There's still a feeling of Sun Ra here," insists Allen. "That's the only reason I keep living in this place. I've actually seen him here a couple times, and I ain't the only one. He usually appears to tell me things that need to be done, just like he did when he was alive.
"He says 'You need to keep on going - with the people's support or without it. Keep moving forward, it's for your benefit!'
"And he's right. At my age, you can get worn out real easy, but I feel so much better when I play this music. It must be doing something."