Kelan Phil Cohran, influential Chicago composer-bandleader, dies at 90
Kelan Phil Cohran is seen playing his harp on Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015, in an exhibit at the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago celebrating the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians).
Chaka Khan and Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White studied with him.
The globally influential Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) was co-founded by him.
And generations of musicians drew inspiration from the pioneering work of Chicago composer and multi-instrumentalist Kelan Phil Cohran. He died Wednesday at the University of Chicago Hospital at 90, said his son Tycho Cohran.
"He was a major contributor to the whole structure and the idea" of the AACM, said Muhal Richard Abrams, another co-founder of an organization that changed the course of music starting in 1965.
"I think he had a profound influence on many organized groups," added Abrams. "They more or less cut their teeth in Chicago, and their major influence was Phil Cohran."
Said Chicago percussionist-bandleader Kahil El’Zabar, who helped organize a 90th birthday tribute to Cohran on May 8 at St. Adalbert’s Church on West 17th Street: "He was an innovative cultural institution unto himself."
That’s not an exaggeration, considering that Cohran played and recorded with the groundbreaking Sun Ra Arkestra in the late 1950s; invented an instrument he dubbed the Frankiphone — a version of an African kalimba or "thumb piano," which White brought to Earth, Wind & Fire; created the Affro-Arts Theater, which in the 1960s was a South Side epicenter of experimental arts; and founded the Artistic Heritage Ensemble, which influenced bands as far-flung as El’Zabar’s avant-garde Ethnic Heritage Ensemble and Earth, Wind & Fire.
"He was definitely one of my mentors at an early age," said Roscoe Mitchell, a founder of the pioneering Art Ensemble of Chicago, one of the first AACM bands to attain international acclaim. "I had nothing but respect for him as a musician and a teacher."
Indeed, the two roles were inseparable to Cohran, whose long career in music essentially linked early jazz traditions to its most contemporary off-shoots.
Born May 8, 1927, in Oxford, Miss., Cohran moved with his family to St. Louis when he was about 10, immersing himself in the city’s robust jazz scene and playing alongside trumpeter Clark Terry in the late 1940s. Pianist-bandleader Jay McShann, who had given a young Charlie Parker his first major job, hired trumpeter Cohran and "that was where I really learned to swing," Cohran told DownBeat magazine in 1984. "The crowds would be so thick, people would be falling on top of you and drinking and everything; it got so bad you’d have to lean back and play."
Cohran was drafted into the military in 1950, after his service eventually gravitating to Chicago where he played with saxophone titan Johnny Griffin and pianist Ike Cole (Nat King Cole’s brother), among others.
The ears-wide-open, "space is the place" aesthetic of Sun Ra immediately appealed to Cohran’s spirit of musical daring. But when Ra left Chicago in the early 1960s, Cohran stayed, playing multiple instruments in Abrams’ Experimental Band (a precursor of the AACM).
On May 8, 1965 — Cohran’s birthday — the founders of the AACM met in his East 75th Street apartment to create the AACM as a means for presenting their own music, in their own venues, at a time when jazz clubs were shuttering around Chicago and across the country.
"We said: Why do we go through this?" Cohran told the Tribune in 2015, as he walked through "Free at First," an exhibition marking the AACM’s 50th anniversary at the DuSable Museum of African American History.
"Why don’t we do something about it?
"Our problem was we’d been studying instruments of other people," added Cohran, referring to traditional Western pianos, violins and the like. "We needed to study our own and to create our own."
Cohran did exactly that with the Frankiphone and, like other AACM progenitors, presented his Artistic Heritage Ensemble in venues that he found or created.
He took the idea a step further in the late 1960s establishing the Affro-Arts Theater on South Drexel Boulevard as a nexus for music, drama, comedy, instruction and political activism. Khan and White learned there.
"Once you stepped inside the theater," Khan said in a 2013 Tribune interview, "it took you into a really high place spiritually."
In 1968, civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael appeared at the theater, the place subsequently shut down by Mayor Richard J. Daley.
A sign then posted on the theater marquee read: "We are closed by deceit — Philip Cohran & the Artistic Heritage Ensemble."
Cohran continued to rehearse, teach, perform, inspire and expand his universe, developing expertise in astronomy, nutrition and other seemingly far-flung disciplines.
Perhaps no ensemble was more profoundly influenced by him than the aptly named Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, staffed by his eight sons. The group started out performing on Michigan Avenue and at "L" stops in the 1990s, eventually moving to New York, appearing with Prince, winning a measure of international recognition and becoming the subject of the documentary film "Brothers Hypnotic," which aired on PBS’ "Independent Lens" series in 2014.
Though the brass band’s forays into rap and hip-hop veered far from Cohran’s musical idioms, its questing nature reflected his ideals.
"One thing that our father always taught us to do was to keep the music for our people, for the people that need it, the people like where we came from that have nothing," Cohran’s son Clef says in the film.
In 2014, Cohran — having just returned from sold-out concerts in Brazil — led his Kelan Zulu Ensemble at the Garfield Park Conservatory, singing, chanting, playing harp and otherwise conveying a kind of musical serenity.
On May 10, two days after his 90th birthday celebration, he performed at the Promontory, on South Lake Park Avenue, with Alexandre Pierrepont’s Bridge project.
"He performed for an hour-and-half, sang and recited a whole Paul Laurence Dunbar poem, verse for verse," recalled El’Zabar.
Said his son Tycho Cohran, "He was about his people, dealing with descendants of slaves and what could he do to help them get out of the predicament they’ve been in during the last 400 years."
A planned 50th anniversary celebration of Cohran’s landmark recording "On the Beach" at 63rd Street and the lakefront already was scheduled for July 9. Now it "will be a celebration of the body of his work, but it will be a commemoration as well," his son said.
Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.