Jazz legend, after house partially collapses, gets help from philanthropist, neighbors

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Marshall Allen at the Sun Ra House

Marshall Allen, 96, has led Sun Ra's Arkestra since 1993 and still lives in the Sun Ra House in Germantown. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The terrestrial headquarters of the Sun Ra Arkestra is a three-story rowhouse in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood, where the famously intergalactic jazz ensemble has lived, rehearsed, and pushed the boundaries of music for more than 50 years.

The house has partially collapsed, but Marshall Allen, 96, the band’s founding saxophone player and current leader, still lives and works there. The first Sun Ra Arkestra album in 20 years, “Swirling,” was released last October to wide acclaim. The house is now undergoing major structural repairs funded by a Miami-based art and jazz philanthropy, the Robert D. Bielecki Foundation.

The pump for the radiator heating system can’t heat the upper floors of the house, and the basement had been deteriorating for years. Allen has lived in the house since 1968, with a rotating cast of band members, and took over leadership of the Arkestra after Sun Ra’s death in 1993. He said in the past year, the floor joists gave way, causing the basement floor to collapse into the sub-basement.

The Sun Ra House in Germantown
The Sun Ra house in Germantown, identifiable by its painted door, has been home to the Sun Ra Arkestra since 1968. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“Water had dripped on it, and probably termites had eaten the sub-basement,” said Allen. “One day it just — schlkup — fell in.”

When a plumber came to the house recently to inspect the failing boiler, he could not access the heating system because the pit where the basement floor used to be was filled with junk that had accumulated there over the decades.

“So many people come through here. If they leave anything, it’s in the basement,” said Allen.

A Sun Ra poster remains affixed to the wall above the space where the floor collapsed into the sub-basement at the Sun Ra House
A Sun Ra poster remains affixed to the wall above the space where the floor collapsed into the sub-basement at the Sun Ra house in Germantown. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

In January 2021, Cornelia Muller — who is working on a feature film about Sun Ra — contacted Robert Bielecki and explained the state of Allen’s house. He immediately committed $7,000 to fix it.

“The Foundation’s ethos is ‘redefining reciprocity.’ The idea that audiences, artists, and presenting organizations form a virtuous circle that requires shared responsibility for the health of the commons,” wrote Bielecki in an email. “It is sad and outrageous that Marshall Allen and some Arkestra members are living in these conditions. Sun Ra’s legacy, the Arkestra, and the house are American Treasures and deserve to be treated as such.”

Bielecki reached out to local jazz presenter Mark Christman, founder of Ars Nova Workshop. Bielecki had supported the launch of Ars Nova’s annual music festival October Revolution back in 2017, where the Sun Ra Arkestra performed their legendary album “Space is the Place” in its entirety. With Bielecki’s support, Christman set about finding a contractor.

Christman sees the Sun Ra house as on par with other jazz landmarks in and around Philadelphia, like the John Coltrane House in Brewerytown and the burial site of hard bop saxophonist Hank Mobley in Eden Cemetery in Darby.

“These are important places that need to be considered, need to be preserved, they provide a significant role in the community,” he said. “They’re history, and history is alive and well within them. Think about the ideas and contributions that were incubated in here, and continue to be incubated in here.”

Mark Christman of Ars Nova Workshop stands in the backyard of the Sun Ra House
Mark Christman of Ars Nova Workshop stands in the backyard of the Sun Ra house in Germantown. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Christman called contractor Frank Reis, whose company Walnut Tree Construction is based in Germantown. When Reis arrived at the house, he saw that it had no door leading to the rear yard. Instead, a piece of plywood was tied to the doorway with a bent wire coat hanger.

The first task was to haul out an entire dumpster of junk from the basement. Then workers removed the rotted lumber and excavated the pit, discovering gaping holes in the masonry underground.

“It’s about 10 feet down from [the basement to the sub-basement],” said Riess, standing in the rear doorway, looking down into the building’s foundation. “You can see the floor, the baseboard. You can see where the old floor level was at.”

Reis had been to the Sun Ra house once before. Years ago, he got a call during a snowstorm asking him to give the then 90-year-old Allen a ride to a gig. He happily complied.

“For Germantown, music is one of the big factors that bring us together. Sun Ra, Marshall Allen, and the whole crew has been part of Germantown for as long as I can remember,” he said. “I’m volunteering my efforts. We’re paying the contractors who are actually doing the work, but all my supervision and coordination I’m doing as a volunteer.”

Mark Christman (left) and Frank Reiss stand outside the Sun Ra House
Mark Christman of Ars Nova Workshop (left) and Frank Reiss of Walnut Tree Construction teamed up to make much-needed repairs to the Sun Ra house in Germantown. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The job is expected to last about another week, but the problem with the basement is only the most urgent repair. Allen said there are also problems with leaking plumbing and rain damage. The siding on the back of the house is peeling off.

“I had enough money to fix the front. The gutter and all the stuff up there, the windows,” said Allen on his front porch. “The back was neglected because we ran out of funds.”

Christman looks out not only for the house, but also for Marshall Allen, himself. He recently helped the nonagenarian jazz legend get vaccinated for COVID-19.

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