“I’m not a spaceman, I’m an Earthman”: The artistic heritage of Kelan Phil Cohran

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Earlier this week afro-futurist jazz pioneer and educator Kelan Phil Cohran passed away aged 90. We look back at a career that joined the dots between Sun Ra, Earth, Wind & Fire and Hypnotic Brass Ensemble.

Very few musicians can claim to have been a formative influence on as many different musical levels as trumpet player and educator Kelan Phil Cohran, whose career joined the dots between genres and generations of musicians. Not content to simply remain a part of his own creations, Cohran has blazed a trail across the history of jazz and popular music, leaving a string of successful bands and organisations in his wake.

The dots themselves are well known: Sun Ra, the AACM, Earth, Wind and Fire, and Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. But such was his influence that Cohran often left the fruits of his labour to others.

Interviews with Hypnotic Brass Ensemble – eight of its nine members are sons of Cohran – speak to the spiritual drive and exacting perfectionism of their father’s teaching. “We are doing what our father taught us” say the brothers, “which is bringing music back to being medicine for your soul”. While they speak of him with the utmost regard and admiration, stories from a childhood spent in the Cohran family home are often extreme. Many of the brothers were already playing their chosen instruments by the age of five, having to first master the mouthpiece before being presented with the whole horn. 6am starts were followed by an intense practice regime, which sometimes saw them playing the same note for up to four hours at a time – “until you couldn’t remember your own name, or the colour of your shirt.”

Dedication and unequivocal commitment to music was the cornerstone of Cohran’s musical education, both as pupil and professor. Following a stint with Jay McShann’s group in St. Louis, Cohran moved to Chicago where he was introduced to Sun Ra by friend and saxophonist John Gilmore. It was here in 1959 that Cohran was first exposed to a level of dedication that would come to define him as a musician.

In an interview with Wire magazine in 2001, Cohran recalls that Sun Ra “taught me the one thing that really made a difference in my life, and that is: whatever you want to do, do it all the time. Once I learned that, there was no looking back”. Almost fifty years after Cohran’s revelation, his sons can be heard on the radio repeating the same mantra: “If there is something you want to do, do it every day”.

Of course, in Sun Ra’s Chicago-based Arkestra there was never a question of doing anything else and Cohran played with the abdn at a time now remembered with infamy – “sometimes he had us trumpet players skipping two octaves, with eight notes… I wasn’t no funny thing”. Six hour rehearsals in the morning, six hour gigs in the evenings, seven days a week. “That was when I lost my wife, my job, my car, everything” recalled Cohran. When they did make it into the studio, he appeared on Ra’s ‘Fate in a Pleasant Mood’ (apparently conceived with Cohran in mind), ‘Angels and Demons at Play’ and ‘Interstellar Low Ways’ among others.

Nevertheless, the experience of playing with Ra left Cohran with more than he could claim to have lost. When, in 1961, Sun Ra packed up the Arkestra in Chicago and headed for New York, Cohran stayed behind to pursue his own ideas. Simply being a part of a groundbreaking collective was not enough: “He [Sun Ra] removed all the borders in my mind. He moved you so powerful and generated such a response in people that I knew I wanted to do that on my own.”

Like Ra, Cohran was more than just a musician. He saw music not as an isolated art form but as a form of multi-disciplinary expression. Already a keen mathematician and historian, he began dabbling in a study of flora, fauna and the sky, composing songs that related to the principles he had discovered in his studies. It was during this time that Cohran, also an accomplished harpist, developed the instrument that would define his sound for the coming decades. The ‘frankiphone’, named after his mother, was essentially a modified electric thumb piano, designed by Cohran so that he could perfect the tuning system to go beyond that of a regular 12-tone scale. Its mesmeric twinkling sound became the unique trademark of his later projects.

Similar to a kalimba, the frankiphone also represented Cohran’s experimentation with a sound rooted in African tradition. By the middle of the sixties, Chicago had become a focal point in the Civil Rights movement, engendering an new found interest and awareness of Africa in local musicians who sought to reconnect their music with its roots. In 1965, dismayed by the lack of gigs in the city, Cohran set up the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) with fellow musicians Steve McCall, Richard Muhal Abrams and Jodie Christian. As Iain Anderson writes in his study of free jazz in sixties America, This is our Music, “the AACM’s commitment to institution building extended beyond the search for gigs to embrace far-reaching social ambitions aimed at bringing cohesion, pride, and self-determination to South Side neighbourhoods through the regenerative potential of the arts.”

The AACM also gave Cohran a platform for his own band, the Artistic Heritage Ensemble. (An unassuming innovator, Cohran jokes that he too is responsible for the emergence of the term ‘ensemble’ in popular music – “I named it that because there were no ensembles at the time except for classical ensembles… Now they’ve got ensembles everywhere!”) Built on the sonic bed of Cohran’s twinkling frankiphone, the sound of the Artistic Heritage Ensemble combined powerful innovation with tradition rhythms.

The originality of tracks like ‘The Minstrel’ and ‘Unity’ is stunning, as groundbreaking today as they were forty years ago. However, it was this emphasis on tradition which began to cause a rift between Cohran and the organisation he had helped set up. Many of the musicians at the AACM had become intoxicated by the expressive freedoms afforded by the rise of free and avant-garde jazz. Cohran saw this as both a literal and symbolic severing of tradition – “I found them very offensive because they didn’t care to communicate”. Seeking a more afro-centric sound, Cohran left the AACM to its own devices to once again follow his own unique direction. “Everybody wanted to play ‘out’” says Cohran in a 1982 interview for Downbeat magazine. “My nature wanted me to go somewhere else. I’m not a spaceman, I’m an earthman. We always had a very strong rhythmic foundation… and we always knew where we were going”.

Cohran began to focus his energy on the Artistic Heritage Ensemble, recruiting new members from the Chicago-based Chess Records house band. The group recorded two LP’s and a live album during this time, all released on Cohran’s own Zulu label, and all of which have been given the reissue treatment in the past few years in line with the current renaissance of Cohran’s work. When, in 1968, Cohran left the Artistic Heritage Ensemble to teach at the Malcolm X Junior College in Chicago, he had created a band that was about to take the world by storm, mutating first into The Pharaohs and subsequently into Earth, Wind and Fire.

After parting company with the AACM, Cohran attempted once more to found an organisation that would adequately reflect his musical aims, opening the Affro-Arts Theatre in Chicago in 1967. Similar in aspects to the community ideals of the AACM, Cohran used the Affro-Arts Theatre to guide participants and musicians towards an understanding of their African musical heritage. The theatre became a stomping ground for Cohran’s own Artistic Heritage Ensemble and its reincarnation as The Pharaohs. The Awakening LP by The Pharaohs includes a photo of what it dubbed “Chicago’s oldest weekly black experience – The Affro-Arts Theatre” and it’s influence can certainly be heard on tracks like ‘Damballa,’ with its gut-busting percussion and heavy afro-funk groove.

Kelan Phil Cohran’s was a life and career dedicated to the musical, pedagogical and spiritual development of his art and that of those around him. An earthly practitioner with otherworldly ambition, the records he made and the artists he influence will continue to live on.

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