Astronomers now accept that Sun Ra came from Saturn, but none of them can place the spaces where trumpeter and composer Phil Cohran has called home. Since jumping ship from Ra, he has spun new orbits in the black firmament, his Artistic Heritage Ensemble serving as the missing link between Renaissance Venice, Chicago's AACM, Miles Davis's Agharta and Earth Wind & Fire.
"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. It is the Hour of ringing, rouse, of ferment-festival. On Forty-third and Langley black furnaces resent ancient legislatures of play and scruple and practical gelatin. They keep the fever in, fondle the fever. All worship the Wall." - Gwendolyn Brooks, "Two Dedications: II The Wall August 27, 1967"
The history of jazz is largely the chronicle of musicians who tried to play, think and live outside the lines; the story of visionaries, heretics, misfits, cranks and miscreants; the history of square pegs and round holes. But what of the square pegs who don't even try to fit into the existing spaces and spend their careers attempting to carve out their own shapes? Sun Ra gets begrudging acceptance from the establishment's left wing because he fits perfectly with that hoary old model of 'black genius/black madness', others are valourised in academic circles or by their fervent cults, but there has yet to be a paradigm designed that can successfully map the contributions of trumpeter, instrument designer, scholar, shaman, community activist and educator Kelan Phil Cohran and The Artistic Heritage Ensemble.
If you've heard of Cohran at all, it's either because of his stint as trumpet player in Sun Ra's Myth Science Arkestra between 1958 and 1961, or you're an obsessive rare funk collector and own one of the two reissue compilations containing The Artistic Heritage Ensemble's "Unity". Otherwise, he has largely been written out of jazz history, partially because his most lasting influence has been in the unseemly world of popular music, and partially because The Artistic Heritage Ensemble's albums were originally released in tiny runs on Cohran's own Zulu Records label and probably never got out of Chicago. However, their rather astonishing debut album On The Beach is about to be reissued by Aestuarium, a new label set up by local resident Jamie Hodge (otherwise known as Techno producer Born Under A Rhyming Planet), which should prompt a reappraisal and at least a couple of footnotes in the jazz textbooks.
Kelan Phil Cohran ('Kelan' is an honorific meaning 'holy scripture' bestowed on him by Chinese Muslims during a visit to China) was born on 8 May 1927 in Oxford, Mississippi and grew up in St Louis, Missouri, where he played trumpet with Chuck Terry in the late 40s. In January 1950, he joined the group led by that Okie from Muskogee, Jay McShann. "I played with him for a year," Cohran says, reminiscing down the phone from his home in Chicago. "It was the best year of my life, too, because I got to see the rest of the world. I'd been holed up in St Louis and Jefferson City, where I went to school at Lincoln University, and that little area was all that I knew. We had a fierce tradition back there then, and we had quite a few good musicians. But everywhere I went with McShann, I found good musicians and I was shocked because it seemed that if you were so good you would become famous. But that wasn't the case; we had giants around here in every town... The rock 'n' roll, I believe we had something to do with that because there was a record company called Peacock in Houston, Texas and we recorded for them all summer. Don Robey brought McShann in to be the house band. They brought singers in from Louisiana, Mississippi, everywhere [he probably recorded sides with Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown and Big Mama Thornton]. Five days a week we were in the studio, putting backgrounds to different singers. That was a great experience because that's what made me really a musical historian, a musicologist. During those sessions Walter Brown and Jay McShann would sit at the piano and go through thousands of old songs that I never heard of, and they would select certain backgrounds and idioms to go behind the vocals. We had to put heads to the stuff they were doing. I'm sure that's why I became a composer. In those days most musicians didn't think of being a composer, they thought of just playing other people's music and just being good at it."
In October 1950 he was drafted, but managed to avoid going to Korea by joining a military band at the Naval Academy in Maryland, where he spent much of his time absorbing books in the library. "In 1953 I came here [Chicago] because the market was dwindling in St Louis," he recalls. "When I got out of the army I had the best gig in town, but it wasn't good enough. So I came to Chicago and I got completely out of it; it took me two or three years to get caught on here. In the meantime, the guys I was playing with in St Louis all became famous: Oliver Nelson, Jimmy Forrest, all of them. I stuck it out, but nothing really happened till I got with Sun Ra... John Gilmore and I were playing gigs with Walter Perkins before he left Chicago. He kept telling me about Sonny [Blount, Sun Ra's real name] because he would rehearse every day with him. And he said, 'I'm going to take you by there', so one day I went by there and the music was very challenging. You can imagine how a composer would be stimulated by Sun Ra's music. So I started rehearsing with him and the next thing I know, we were rehearsing six hours a day and playing six hours a night. I don't know, you looked up and three years had gone by... That opened my world up as a composer. I had written a few songs of merit before I got with him, but he 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."
Cohran can be heard with The Arkestra on Rocket Number Nine, Fate In A Pleasant Mood, Holiday For Soul Dance and We Travel The Spaceways, but his most striking contribution was his ukelin zither playing on Angels And Demons At Play. Cohran's harp-like fills working against Sun Ra's organ on "Music From The World Tomorrow" and his abstract stabs against astral flute on the title track epitomise The Arkestra's 'black to the future' concept like no other early Sun Ra recordings. "I saw a little instrument in a music store window and that was this little zither," Cohran recalls. "The reason I wanted it was that it had tuning pins on it, and I wanted to tune my own instrument to some of the modes I had discovered through mathematics. In fact, that's why I really came to Chicago: to study the Schillinger system which was available here at the time, but they were charging $25 a lesson.
"The Schillinger system is a system of mathematical variations. You get an infinite number of melody and harmonies using this system. Anyway, I'm glad I never took it because everyone I've heard using it, they have no spirit, it sounds mechanical. Once I heard it was $25, I went to the library and I bumped into folk music accidentally. I saw that there was [Indian shenai player] Bismillah Khan on Folkways, and I made selections and I'd listen to them, and I began to see the common thread in all of the music. I began to pursue it and study its structures, and little by little, I made some discoveries that all the music had come from a single source, then it became a mission once I discovered that. The little instrument, I just kept developing my technique, how to play it...
"[The Arkestra] were playing in a place on the West Side called The Fifth Jack and everybody in the place was paralysed when we started playing "Angels And Demons At Play"," he continues. "It was a multi-faceted place that had a bar, a tavern, a restaurant, a barber shop and something else. Everybody emptied all the other businesses and came over to our place - they even left the cash registers and stuff. Because we had them all mesmerised in this one corner of the building. I looked around and it was the first time I really realised how much power we had. Everybody in that place was holding their breath. It was proof that music had that power over people whether they're conscious or not. It gets inside of your body, inside your body rhythms, it mixes with your chemistry. Ever since then, I've lectured on those subjects. I've expanded on that for 40 years. That's what I deal with: music's effect on the body, and the ancient tuning systems and how ancient people were aware of these properties. They didn't have the analytical terms for it, but they knew it existed and they knew how to reach it. So with those forms of teaching, that was how we fit this concept, the modal concept really, of playing. I don't want to go into it really, but you know a lot of people got that concept from me, but they don't acknowledge it. I could name a lot of very well known people who came to me. Just like with Sun Ra, no one acknowledges anything. I'm not a crybaby or anything like that, but if people want to know the truth about how certain areas develop in an artform, then they would have to search for what happened here in the 60s. It had everything to do with the way it's being played today."
Miles Davis and the rest of the Kind Of Blue group may beg to differ, but what is certain is that when Sun Ra and The Arkestra went to Montreal in 1961, Cohran stayed behind in Chicago. "I stayed here because I decided to spend 24 hours a day on my thing," he says. "It worked. As soon as I started out, I redefined music. I started in the ABCs and went through everything I ever learned and redefined it. That's when I started to study the sky; I went into flora and fauna, I was already a historian and a mathematician, so I was just broadening the bases. I composed songs according to principles that I had learned and discovered, so all of my over 500 songs are based on something that I learned. Let's take Gioseffo Zarlino [1517-90], he was the musical director of St Mark's Cathedral [in Renaissance Venice] for 25 years. His greatest composition was called Negra Sum which means 'black is great' [sic], so I wrote a composition to Zarlino. Vincenzo Galilei challenged his theories and he used his son Galileo Galilei, who was about 17 at the time, to help him construct his arguments against his teacher Zarlino. This was the deviation from the old music laws in Europe, because up to Zarlino's time they held to include the elements and everything in the music - the stars and all of that, the colours, the time of day - but after that they took it all out of the music. Galileo started the revolution you might say, and Bach probably ended it [laughs] with his Well-Tempered Clavier. That's a different spin on history than what is usually taught. So when I learn things like that, I write about them."
Cohran tried out his compositions in his group The Story Tellers, and would also participate in some of Muhal Richard Abrams's Experimental Big Band sessions. With jobs for musicians becoming increasingly scarce, Cohran would also peddle his wares in the pit band of the Regal Theatre, and in various travelling companies, showbands and circuses - anywhere that would pay. Instead of completely relinquishing his soul to the paymasters, however, Cohran had a plan up his sleeve - one that would result in the formation of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). "We had 2000 musicians working out of the Southside union. Once it integrated, all of our jobs evaporated," he declares. "All the professionals, and we carried a nice representation of good musicians, and there were a lot of great gigs and they all dried up, primarily from a cabaret law that was passed. Once the gigs dried up, everybody went to California or New York... I was walking in my neighbourhood by this old cemetery, and Steve McCall and Richard [Abrams] was coming up the street. We stopped and talked about things, and we said, since everybody had left there was nothing left in town. But we were committed to staying in Chicago, so we generally agreed that we should do something about it. I had a big apartment at the time, so I said, 'Let's send out postcards and next Saturday have everybody meet at my house.' So we sent out postcards and it turned out to be on my birthday, 8 May 1965, and we brought about 40 musicians to argue about what is creative music. At the end we said, 'We've got to organise, and we're gonna come back next week and set up our structure'."
Cohran formed The Artistic Heritage Ensemble - Cohran on harp, drummer Ajramu, Larry King on bass, Eugene Easton on flute and vocalist [Amina] Claudine Myers - for the first AACM show. "I named it that because there were no ensembles at the time except for classical ensembles," he proclaims. "Now they've got ensembles everywhere [laughs]. My whole mission was to... most of the people here didn't even know that our music was our legacy. They really didn't look at it like that. It was either 'I like it' or 'I don't like it'. They didn't pay any attention. There was no one to stand up for the music. The music was constantly being pushed aside for something new or tricky. People didn't understand that there are some things that represent you... See, a lot of blues players get up and explain the blues, they don't know what they're doing, man. They know how to play, they know how to sing, but they don't understand the context in which it took place...
"That's the reason I didn't stay with the AACM: we had a difference in approach. I came from St Louis, where I had been in a tradition that did a lot of things, and those were some of the things I wanted to do with the AACM, and that's why I supported it. When we got into the actual nuts and bolts of how we were going to structure this thing, that's when we started having a lot of differences. My studies put me in the vein of studying the ancient music, and I became one who submits to his ancestors. In that way, I embrace their concepts of sound and thought, and I hope that someday I will be eligible to receive some of the knowledge they had and was lost. But most of the guys that came into the AACM wanted to take the music that Sun Ra was playing when they would play 'out'. They want to play 'out' all the time because it didn't require any discipline. That was my opinion. Later on, they developed tremendous discipline, but at that time it was just playing notes. That didn't do it for me. When we were playing with Sun Ra, we had objectives and sounds and we knew what we were doing... I supported it, but the people who came to my concerts came to other concerts and when they heard all of the 'out' music, they wouldn't hang, they'd get up and leave before the end of the concert. And they'd be like, 'Phil, what are you doing to me?' So here I was a defender of their concept, which I didn't appreciate either. But I stuck it out because I do believe that musicians should be provided the energy to go anywhere they choose in their art, so I supported them for that reason."
Luckily, Cohran found a group of musicians who shared his respect and admiration for tradition, but who knew it so well that they could take it into rarely explored realms of trance and freedom. Musicians from the Chess Records session group - tuba player Aaron Dodd, bassist Louis Satterfield, saxophonist Donald Myrick, trumpet player Charles Handy, drummer Bob Crowder and guitarist Pete Cosey - joined The Artistic Heritage Ensemble in the summer of 1967, when the group was playing on the shores of Lake Michigan. "Before that, no one played in the park," Cohran says of that time. "We'd have a parade once a year or a band playing for a special group, but no one played in the parks for the general public before this grant we got from a sister named Betty Montgomery. She secured a grant from a wealthy man to have art exhibitions on the lakefront in an old boathouse that wasn't being used. So they brought together sculptors, writers, poets, dancers, painters and musicians and I had the music. It was next to Lake Shore Drive, so people would drive by and hear this strange music because we weren't playing like other people, and they would hear the thumb piano and the zithers, so they would come back and check us out. At our last performance we had 3000 people, so that place was just run over, and that's where we got established. That song, "On The Beach", was written August 16. I prayed at the lakefront - I have meditations at sunrise, and that particular morning the sunrise was perfect and I heard the music and wrote [it] down and went to rehearsal. In about three hours we were performing it. That first performance that we ran down is the one that's on the record; we tried to beat it, but we never got as good at that performance... Incidentally, that's how [Earth Wind & Fire's] Maurice White got on the bandwagon. He copied that. He would come to the theatre when he was playing with Ramsey Lewis and sit on my side of the stage. I understand that because he was Satterfield's friend, and Satterfield was sat on the other side of the stage [laughs]. Ramsey started at ten, we started at eight, he'd be at our place. Later, I found out what it was. [Maurice's brother] Verdeen also played with me in the summer of 70."
In the autumn of 1967, Cohran set up the Affro-Arts Theatre as a permanent home for the kind of events that were taking place on the beach that summer. "The band played Friday, Saturday and Sunday, that's how we paid our bills because we had a popular band," Cohran says. "We trained music, history; we had Hebrew, Arabic and Swahili taught free; civilisation classes, forums. We also held conferences there, one conference of Third World countries." The reissue of On The Beach includes a live version of their most famous track, "Unity", recorded at the Affro-Arts Theatre on 15 February 1968. It features Cohran venturing close to Moroccan Joujouka territory with his zithers and an absolutely mindbending guitar solo from Pete Cosey, six years before his memorable contributions to Miles Davis's Agharta and Pangaea: splashes and prismatic shards of intense colour that not even Hendrix was approaching at the time. "You see, when you get in an environment, it magnifies things in you," Cohran says of the milieu surrounding "Unity". "All of those musicians were dedicated to music. At first I kind of questioned that about one of the musicians, but eventually he gave himself to it too. But we were all people who were born to play, and we knew that, and we weren't going to accept any alternatives because there's a tremendous energy against black musicians making a living. When I saw that, that was one of the things that stimulated me to look in other areas like schools and churches and places like that, just to keep a band working. That was a very difficult thing and we made it through the 60s. They were all great musicians, but the concept was something that we developed with Sun Ra. Being free and not having to be inhibited with specific chord structures gave me a sense of freedom that I didn't have before, and I began to explore the ancient approaches to that concept and that really opened it up. So that's what it's based on - the original system of speaking through musical mediums. There were times when through our circular energies we were able to transcend normal borders. That's one of the things I liked about that "Unity": it showed that we were locked in. There were places in there where we really became just one thought."
Unfortunately, not everyone involved in the Affro-Arts Theatre was of one thought. After some internal turmoil, at the end of 1968 Cohran left the group and the theatre to teach at Malcolm X Junior College. The AHE mutated into The Pharoahs and later into Earth Wind & Fire, and the theatre eventually closed in 1970. "Sammy Davis Jr and Lola Falana came down and promised to perform in the theatre," Cohran recollects. "He got busy and couldn't perform there, but he sent us $5000. But by that time we had been split up by J Edgar Hoover and company... We all opened the theatre as a group, about 25 people, [gospel group] the Jackson Family, Darlene [Blackburn] and her dancers, equipment people, it was a whole staff. We did this out of our commitment to the community, we didn't accept salaries, we did it to further our mission. I had an interview with two guys at Look magazine, a photographer and a writer. At that time, Look was pretty big and they worked six months ahead. They sent this team in July or August and they asked everything, what colour was my toilet paper? They followed me around for four days. They went to my performances, they talked to people I performed with, they went in the theatre, they went in schools, they went everywhere asking people stuff. They left and said I would be in the January issue of Look.
"But in September the whole group disintegrated. Someone charged me with doing some negative things and we had a meeting and it got to arguing. I had taken each one of these people in on a basis of respect and so I separated from them. I told them they could run the theatre, but I'm not going to travel with the group in disrespect. So I left. I found out later on who it was and what had happened. I guess I responded a little wrong because we were all a bunch of victims. They were playing dirty pool with us, the government was, because of us setting our own agendas. We were marked. I guess we should have expected it. It didn't bother me," he concludes with a laugh. "I call it respect."