Sun Ra was a jazz composer, bandleader, piano and synthesizer player, poet and philosopher known for his "cosmic philosophy," musical compositions, and performances. He was one of the most important figure in 60's avante garde jazz along with artists such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Albert Ayler. "Of all the jazz musicians, Sun Ra was probably the most controversial," critic Scott Yanow said, due to Sun Ra's eclectic music and unorthodox lifestyle.
From the mid-1950s to when he left the planet in 1993, Sun Ra led "The Arkestra" (a deliberate re-spelling of "orchestra"), an ensemble with an ever-changing lineup and name (it was also called "The Solar Myth Arkestra", the "Cosmo Discipline Arkestra", the "Blue Universe Arkestra", the "Jet Set Omniverse Arkestra", among many other permutations. Sun Ra asserted that the ever-changing name of his ensemble reflected the ever-changing nature of his music. Sun Ra's music ranged from keyboard solos to big bands of over 30 musicians. His music touched on virtually the entire history of jazz, from ragtime to swing music, from bebop to free jazz. He was also a pioneer of electronic music, space music, and free improvisation, and was one of the first musicians, regardless of genre, to make extensive use of electronic keyboards.
After Sun Ra left the planet, the Arkestra was led by tenor saxophonist John Gilmore. Following Gilmore's death in 1995, the group has performed under the direction of alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, who celebrated his 86th birthday (or Arkestrally "Arrival Day") on stage during a Sun Ra Arkestra performances at Johnny Brenda's in Philadelphia on May 25, 2010.
Marshall Allen has now given 52 years of uninterrupted dedicated service to the Sun Ra Arkestra. He continues to move the Arkestra forward not as a repertory band or a ghost band, but as a spirit band, maintaining the discipline centered on the study, research, and further development of Sun Ra's precepts.