Kelan Phil Cohran (May 8, 1927-June 28, 2017) was an influential jazz musician, composer, civil rights activist, inventor, educator, artist, philosopher, astronomer and father. Cohran was born in Oxford, Mississippi and moved to St. Louis with his family when he was ten years old. Inspired by the St. Louis jazz scene, he first began playing trumpet with Clark Terry in the 1940s. Cohran later joined a group led by Jay McShann in the 1950s, where he was introduced to the touring life and exposed to different forms of jazz. It was also through that experience that he began meeting prominent jazz musicians. From recording with McShann and Walter Brown at Peacock Records in Houston, Texas, Cohran credits this experience as a pivotal moment in his life, where he became an engaged musician and musicologist. (Shapiro, 2001).
In 1950, Cohran was drafted into military service. He avoided going to war in Korea by becoming a member of the Naval Academy Military Band in Maryland. After he finished his military service in 1953, he moved to Chicago because the jazz scene was thriving. It was also where he could learn the Schillinger system of melodic harmonies. After finding out that Schillinger lessons in Chicago were $25 a pop, he opted to independently research Indian classical music instead, which was based on the same mathematical concepts. He studied composers such as shenai player Bismallah Khan. Throughout his life, Cohran learned from hearing common threads in structure and compositions in many forms of traditional and indigenous music, which in turn helped him develop his own techniques.
Cohran played trumpet with Sun Ra’s Myth Science Arkestra from 1958 to 1961. Describing his experience while watching the audience at The Fifth Jack, playing with the Arkestra on the west side of Chicago, he said, “We had them all mesmerized and it was the first time I realized how much power we had. It was proof that music had power over people whether they were conscious or not, it gets inside of your body, inside of your body rhythms. It mixes with your chemistry. Music affects the ancient tuning systems.” Cohran left Sun Ra and his Arkestra in 1961 to pursue his own creativity. From a conversation I had with Phil playing his first show in Portland, I remember him telling me, when recounting his musical differences with Sun Ra, “Sun Ra was a spaceman, I am an earth man.”
On Cohran’s birthday, May 8, 1965, he established the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago, along with co-founders pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, Jodie Christian, and drummer Steve McCall. The AACM’s ethics centered around the belief that musicians should maintain ultimate control over the rights of their artistic creations. On a broader level, it promoted the idea of the self-sustaining collective and emphasized intellectual growth through community education, particularly among working class youth of color. Members paid minimal dues to maintain AACM, and musicians played concerts at different venues around Chicago to raise funds for additional support. It also networked with like-minded organizations located in other cities, most notably the Black Artists Group in St. Louis, Missouri. Today, the AACM is still an important organization supporting Chicago jazz musicians in fostering equitable music education through performance and honoring the achievements and contributions of its members.
By late 1966, Cohran began to differentiate himself creatively from other members of the AACM, feeling that the organization had “played out.” In 1967, he parted ways with the organization and founded the Affro-Arts Theater, after being motivated by Oscar Brown Jr., who had formed a theater company following the success of a show called Joy ‘66. Cohran espoused exploring the realms of traditional trance freedom musics, with Chess Records session players Aaron Dodd (tuba), Louis Satterfield (bass), Donald Myrick (saxophone), Charles Handy (trumpet), Pete Cosey (guitar), and Bob Crowder (drums). This lineup would become the Artistic Heritage Ensemble in the summer of 1967, regularly gigging on the shores of Lake Michigan and obtaining a grant to display art exhibits in an old boathouse located on 63rd and Lake Shore Drive. For the first time, this brought together a large community of sculptors, writers, poets, painters, dancers and musicians to the lakefront. At Phil Cohran & The Artistic Heritage Ensembles’ last performance, over 3000 people gathered, and the song “On the Beach” was written on August 16 to commemorate, with attendees such as Maurice White (Earth, Wind & Fire) and Ramsey Lewis as active participants (Shapiro, 2001). Gwendolyn Brooks further memorialized the gatherings on the beach through her poem, “The Wall”, published in 1967:
“Women in wool hair chant their poetry.
Phil Cohran gives us messages and music
made of developed bone and polished and honed cult.
It is the Hour of tribe and of vibration,
the day-long Hour.”
Recently, the AACM honored Cohran in a ceremony on July 9, 2017, on the 63rd/Lake Shore Drive beach. They wanted to recreate the music Cohran inspired at this location some 50 years ago.
The Affro-Arts Theater was a gathering space on the south side of Chicago that hosted community development while inspiring the empowerment and unity of African American peoples. The theater held conferences and concerts, offered education in African history and African languages, such as Swahili, and promoted healthy vegetarian cooking. The Artistic Heritage Ensemble also performed every weekend, and their record, Armageddon, was recorded in the lobby. Chaka Khan took classes and performed her first public shows at the theater. Maurice White was a pupil as well, learning how to play Cohran’s own musical invention, the Frankiphone, which he later incorporated into songs written by his band, Earth, Wind & Fire. Jazz vocal greats Abbey Lincoln, Betty Carter and Harry Belafonte also either performed at the theater or came to listen until its closure in 1968, after the leadership clashed with racist city officials because of the intersectionality and positionality of the Black Power and Civil Rights movements. Cohran continued the mission of the Affro-Arts Theater with Transitions East and Sun Ark which were music venues and health food stores, in the 1970s, and later into the 1980s. He then taught music and lectured at Malcolm X Junior College, Kendall and Olive-Harvey Colleges (Russonello, 2017).
I had the privilege of setting up Phil’s first live show in Portland, OR on Feb 6, 2014. The show was at Hollywood Theater and was presented by Mississippi Records, who had reissued his album, The Malcolm X Memorial (A Tribute in Music). When Phil saw his name on the Hollywood Theater marquee, he told me the last time he saw his name on a marquee was at the Affro-Arts Theater. I remember his face being overjoyed and smiling from ear to ear. In a sense, he seemed to be revisiting his experiences facilitating community-based empowerment at the Affro-Arts Theater during the time when the civil rights movement in Chicago was awakening into action. For his show in Portland, he brought two trays of slides to project, documenting performances and black community empowerment on the beach from Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. He performed between his narrations and slides with works composed on the Frankiphone and floor harp, including songs from the Meditation and African Skies albums, as well as a rap that was inspired by his sons in The Hypnotic Ensemble. The winter in Portland was particularly bad that week, and when Phil landed the day before, I relayed to him that he had brought some Chicago winter weather with him. The Hollywood Theater decided to keep Phil’s show on the agenda and, despite the blizzard that shut down the city of Portland that night, over 300 people came out to see Phil perform.
Cohran invented a musical instrument he called the Frankiphone, also known as a Space Harp. The Frankiphone, named after his mother, is an electrified amped version of an African finger piano, also called the mbira or kalimba. It is constructed of a wooden hollow body, with 22-28 staggered metal tines, and played by holding the instrument between two hands and plucking the tines with thumbs. From one conversation I had with Phil, he told me a Japanese person contacted him and asked if he could sell him the patent. Phil was reproachful, saying he refused the offer because the Frankiphone is a spiritual part of his family; and of course, there is no price to quantify the sale of family. When audiences watched Cohran play the Frankiphone, he would fall into deep meditative states, often presenting with closed eyes, his whole body becoming fluid and one with the notes and vibrations resonating from the instrument. It’s as though he achieved a higher consciousness to the eyes and ears of the beholder. Cohran would present on stage differently when playing his floor harp or trumpet, as though he was channelling a higher force from within, specific to the instrument he was playing. In 1991 Cohran was invited to teach jazz music, astronomy and ancient theory to students in China. He was honored with his name Kelan, bestowed to him by Chinese Muslim monks, which translates into ‘holy scripture.’
Cohran leaves a legacy of an extended family, including twenty three children between multiple wives and relationships. He has 37 grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren. Seven of Cohran’s sons are also musically known with their band, The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. Their albums are an amalgamation of musical education taught to them by their father, including the importance of knowing their African heritage. HBE’s sound is grounded in classic marching band, almost New Orleans celebratory style interspersed with complex rhythm changes, hip hop, roots and blues, with songs sometimes dissipating into hymnal abstractions. Listeners of Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, who also listen to Cohran, can hear their father’s influence empowering and influencing the next generation.
As an ethnomusicologist, Cohran spent his life researching music and African heritage in all forms. He would link evidence from rainforests and Sub-Saharan deserts from structures in Egypt, interpreting symbols to uncover mysteries of advanced African first peoples. He would philosophize and transcribe, signs, patterns, and songs of African ancestors to add to his holy scripture. Cohran stated the Greeks learned their modes from Ethiopians, connecting ancient science, environments, humanism and astronomy. In a divine sense, Cohran believed music is the cosmic original language of the original people; throughout his lifetime, he asserted that black people sang before speaking (Never the Same blog). Languages came from songs where environments were maintained and advanced by songs. We are privileged to have been gifted Kelan Phil Cohran’s songs and wisdom, as transcribed through his life’s work in recordings of musical mastery and teachings. Thank you, Kelan Phil Cohran, for gifting us with your presence on earth.
Written by Karen Lee (Weekend Family Music Hour) & Jim Bunnelle (Center for Cassette Studies).
Russonello, Giovanni. Kelan Philip Cohran, a Musician who Invigorated Chicago with Education & Activism, Dies at 90. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/04/arts/music/kelan-philip-cohran-a-musician-who-invigorated-chicago-with-education-and-activism-dies-at-90.html
Shapiro, Peter (2001). Blues & the Abstract Truth. Wire.http://www.philcohran.com/pc_wr_fr.htm
Zorach, Rebecca. Kelan Phil Cohran. Never the Same blog: Conversations about Art Transforming Politics in Community in Chicago & Beyond. https://never-the-same.org/interviews/phil-cohran/