January 30th, 2009
From the outside, this three-story rowhouse at 5626 Morton Street in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, built in 1925, looks fairly nondescript, belying its colorful history as the homebase of the Sun Ra Arkestra for the past four decades.
In 1968, experimental-jazz pioneer and infamous “cosmic philosopher” Sun Ra relocated to Philadelphia from New York City, moving into the house that was owned and rented to the Arkestra by bandmember Marshall Allen’s father (incidentally, it’s on the same street where former Philly mayor Frank Rizzo once lived). According to John F. Szwed’s Sun Ra biography Space is the Place, the Arkestra “adapted the house to their spirits, painted the front window frames blue (’haint blue’ they would have called it in South Carolina, to ward off evil); covering the window glass with aluminum foil (to reflect light and symbolize life, according to those of spiritual bent; to keep the narcs from seeing in, said the hippies who drove past, looking for who knows what); and they covered the front door with de rigeur psychedelic swirls of color.”
The many-member Arkestra lived communally there and rehearsed in the front room of the house around the clock, which at first generated some noise complaints from neighbors. Eventually, though, they were accepted into the neighborhood and especially beloved by the local children. The house remained the Arkestra’s headquarters until Sun Ra’s death in 1993, and even afterward, when the Arkestra was led by saxophonist John Gilmore, and — after his death in 1995 — saxophonist Marshall Allen.
From my understanding, Allen, now 84, still lives in the house. A 2005 piece in The New York Times detailed his struggle to keep the house from falling into disrepair, and noted that at that point, the Arkestra was still rehearsing there once a week. Stopping by this morning, all the blinds were closed and the block was exceptionally quiet; a knock on the door earned no reply. A few snaps and I was on my way, wondering if the Arkestra’s music on Morton Street has ceased forever…
All photos by Michael Alan Goldberg.