Jazz musician and composer Kelan Philip Cohran played and taught music, primarily in Chicago, since the 1950s. He was best known for his work as a member of Sun Ra’s Arkestra and as one of the founding members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in the mid-1960s.
Born in Oxford on 8 May 1927, Cohran moved with his family to St. Louis when he was about ten. He learned to play numerous instruments and early in his musical career played trumpet behind Sara Vaughn and Jay McShann, among others. Cohran was drafted in 1951 and studied at the Naval Conservatory of Music in Washington, D.C.
Cohran was influenced by the music of jazz composer and bandleader Sun Ra, for whom Cohran played from 1958 to 1961. He saw Sun Ra as a searcher inspired by the stars and a quest for knowledge. Self-described as a “sphereologist,” Cohran was interested in math, astronomy, and music history as well as the relationships among them. Always an experimenter, Cohran invented a new stringed instrument, the frankiphone, which he named for his mother.
In May 1965 Cohran, Muhal Richard Abrams, Steve McCall, and Jodi Christian invited many of their jazz musician friends in Chicago to Cohran’s home to form a group encouraging creative, original music. That group became the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a leading force in experimental jazz in the 1960s and 1970s. Cohran’s Artistic Heritage Ensemble played the second concert organized through the new group. The AACM set professional practices, encouraged music at “a high artistic level,” and embodied issues in the search for creativity among African Americans in the midst of the civil rights era. Almost all AACM participants were African American, many had roots in the American South, and many faced questions about whether they should play music rooted in history. Cohran left the new group in part out of dissatisfaction with AACM’s concentration on originality: he also wanted to deal with musical heritage, including ancient music.
In 1967 Cohran established the Affro-Arts Theater in the Bronzeville section of Chicago. It became an important site for both music and African American political activism, with events by LeRoi Jones and Stokely Carmichael. Cohran formed the Zulu record label and in 1968 and 1969 recorded four albums, On the Beach, Spanish Suite, Armageddon, and The Malcolm X Memorial.
Cohran spent much of his life teaching—at schools and colleges, in prisons, and in his own family. Cohran taught his eight sons to be musicians, and they performed together, first as Philip Cohran and the Youth Ensemble and later as the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. He died in June 2017 at the age of ninety.
- Jason C. Bivins, Spirits Rejoice! Jazz and American Religion (2015)
- J. B. Figi, Downbeat (December 1984)
- George E. Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (2008)
- National Public Radio, “One Father, Eight Sons, Nine Shiny Brass Bells” (17 June 2012)
- Peter Shapiro, The Wire (May 2001)