New Frankiphone Blues: A Guide to Philip Cohran’s Avant-Garde Jazz

Zaid Mudhaffer highlights five key tracks from the Sun Ra collaborator and AACM co-founder’s catalogue

Musician, composer, educator and astrologist Philip Cohran was born in Oxford, Mississippi in 1927 and aged 10 moved to St. Louis, Missouri. His musical diet early on was jazz-led – classical figuring in amongst a slew of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Charlie Parker – and aged nine he picked up his first trumpet.

Sun Ra taught me that music was the language of life.

An early professional stint was in Jay McShann’s Kansas City-based band, with which he travelled the US and abroad. The Korean War draft in 1950 brought an end to his stay in McShann’s ensemble but he escaped active service by enrolling in Naval music school; afterwards he relocated to Chicago where, through tenor saxophonist John Gilmore, he met Sun Ra.

Cohran became a key member of Ra’s Arkestra in its heyday, and his spell there, though short at just a year, was profoundly important to him. “He taught me – and anyone who was willing to learn,” Cohran told Wax Poetics in 2011, “that music was the language of life.” For a long time Cohran was a marginalized, mysterious figure: he released very few records of his own and eschewed a traditional music career in favour of pursuing equal passions of music, science, astronomy and activism. But his achievements have carved out for him a unique place in jazz history. Here are five indispensible recordings.

Sun Ra - The Others in Their World
(Fate in a Pleasant Mood, Saturn 1965)

Sun Ra removed all the borders in my mind.

Cohran played on five Sun Ra LPs in the 1960s, contributing zither to the title track of the classic Angels and Demons at Play and trumpet to Interstellar Low Ways. Released on Ra’s Saturn label five years after it was recorded in 1960, Fate in a Pleasant Mood kicks off with the sleek “The Others in Their World,” with Cohran’s trumpet the track’s driving force. “We didn’t have any models, so we had to create our own language. It was based on sound,” Cohran told John Szwed for his book Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. “You had to think space, to expand beyond the earthly plane – that’s why everyone was so creative.”

His departure from Sun Ra came in 1961, when Ra decamped to New York and Cohran chose to stay in Chicago. Later, Cohran reflected on going his own path, telling Downbeat in 1984 that 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. That’s the reason I didn’t go with him.”

Philip Cohran & The Artistic Heritage Ensemble - Unity
(On the Beach, Zulu 1967)

Cohran released just two albums and a handful of singles on his own Zulu imprint, their scarcity today suggesting very small pressings with little distribution outside Chicago. Found on his first LP On the Beach, “Unity” is a mesmeric, percussion-led, grooving jazz-funk jam which rumbles along for eight minutes. Prominent on the track are Charles J. Williams’ alto sax and Cohran’s violin uke (an instrument like a zither which is simultaneously bowed and picked). Elsewhere on the album Cohran plays frankiphone, a small, amplified kalimba of his own making. Casting his mind back to 1961 for Wax Poetics, Cohran recalls its creation. “I just kept making them, and… maybe the 15th or 16th one was really good. I used to walk the streets of Chicago playing it…. When I got that frankiphone up to where it could be played with horns, then I had my thing together.”

Philip Cohran & The Artistic Heritage Ensemble - Malcolm X
(The Malcolm X Memorial, Zulu 1968)

“My music is always about the liberation of black people through understanding,” Cohran told Wax Poetics in 2011. Chants, claps and congas form the backbone of this section of Cohran’s tribute to the black rights activist in four parts: Malcolm Little; Detroit Red; Malcolm X; and El Hajj Malik El Shabazz.

Acutely aware of the musician’s role in the twin concerns of community and art, Cohran himself was a bastion of social change. In response to swathes of Chicago musicians fleeing to New York and California as a result of a cabaret law being passed in 1965, Cohran co-founded AACM: the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Two years later, he opened Chicago’s Affro-Arts Theater. In addition he taught music in schools and prisons, and nurtured young local talent. One of his students was Maurice White, later of Earth, Wind and Fire – “a group which borrowed many ideas from Cohran,” notes Szwed, “including the use of the thumb piano.”

Recorded three years after Malcolm X’s death, Cohran’s tribute was reissued by Mississippi Records almost 40 years later. Also recorded by Cohran in 1968 (though not released until 2012) was Spanish Suite, a heartfelt tribute to the musical legacy of Moorish Spain; and Armageddon, finally released in 2011.

Kelan Phil Cohran and Legacy - White Nile
(African Skies, Captcha Records, 2010)

Recorded in 1993 for the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, not long after the death of Sun Ra, and by which time the name Kelan (“holy scripture”) had been bestowed on Cohran by Muslim monks in China. Recordings from the ’90s of ’60s generation jazz artists are not generally cause for enthusiasm, but African Skies is one of Cohran’s greatest records, in particular its centrepiece, the sublime, stunning “White Nile,” carried elegantly by Cohran’s harp, doleful trumpet and signature frankiphone. The LP’s back cover shows the session in full swing, a pared-down group against a projected backdrop of the cosmos, lost in space. Gone is the tension and rough edge of his late ’60s recordings, and a more plaintive, sober mood prevails.

Kelan Philip Cohran & The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble - Cuernavaca
(Kelan Philip Cohran & The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Honest Jon’s 2012)

In 2012 Honest Jon’s released an album of music by Cohran with the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, eight of his sons.

Well into his eighth decade, the indefatigable Cohran was holding down a regular gig at the Ethiopian Diamond restaurant in suburban Chicago. In 2012 Honest Jon’s in London released an album of music by Cohran with the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, eight of his sons. The record’s themes are snapshots of Cohran’s history: the kinetic “Stateville” is named after a notorious Illinois prison where he ran workshops in the mid-’70s; the album’s vigorous opener “Cuernavaca,” with its looping horn swells and high drama, takes its name from a town in the mountains south of Mexico City. “I was there in 1950 when I was on the road with Jay McShann’s band,” he recalls. “It’s a place close to paradise, a city filled with the fragrance of flowers. I always wanted to go back.”

By Zaid Mudhaffer on February 11, 2014

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