Originally published in 2011 for issue #46 of Wax Poetics, this interview with Philip Cohran was conducted by Emily Elhaj on the north side of Chicago near his home.
"Phil Cohran is the embodiment of spiritual jazz and a mainstay on the Chicago scene. He came up playing with Jay McShann and Sun Ra and now he’s found a perfect harmony in the cosmos." - Wax Poetics
Kelan Phil Cohran, self-proclaimed “sphereologist" and musical muse, has dedicated his careers in performance and education to the balance between nature, man, and music. Cohran has reached a level of discipline for performance that can only be obtained over decades of countless late-night jam sessions, multiple albums and collaborations, and years of striving for a better understanding of what a musicians role in art, community, and space is. Perhaps it was due to our previous introductions at either record stores (which he makes a habit to visit occasionally selling his albums personally) or his regular gig at the Ethiopian Diamond in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago that yielded such a relaxed exchange of ideas and conversation that turned into this interview. Whatever the reason may be, capturing these moments with a genuine Chicago, jazz legend restored my faith in the integrity of our largely muted and lethargic musical landscape.
Unknowingly, an invaluable text in preparation for this interview was the autobiography by one of jazz's largest characters, Miles Davis. Living with a larger than life persona, the self-penned Miles: The Autobiography introduced the music scenes of East St. Louis, Illinois and St. Louis, Missouri, which both musicians shared around the same time. Phil has spoken about his respect for the modal master’s approach to jazz and composition.
“He [Miles Davis] was talking about putting melodic phrases in the right spot that pulls everything in the universe together and that's what a serious artist is about. He is about bringing together a center, a sphere if you will. Something that is round and that fits all size. If he can play until he reaches that spot then everything after that is alright."
These two musicians also shared similar early influences like the new big sound which fused jazz, blues, and classical arrangements that helped form the swing group Eddie Randle and the Blue Devils.
After moving to St. Louis, Missouri and, even further along his career, to Chicago, Illinois, Cohran began amassing an impressive discography that has accompaniment credits on four Sun Ra albums (including Interstellar Low Ways and Angels and Demons At Play), the formation of the Artistic Heritage Ensemble, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), and a number of sound sculptures for Chicago's Adler Planetarium (see the African Skies Exhibit).
Drawn to nature and history from a very early age, Cohran reflects on his days in Oxford, MIssissippi fondly where he enjoyed a relatively simple life with family near by and plenty of small town pleasures. With a bottle of wine and a container of water to share, Mr. Phil Cohran and I sat on a bench near Lake Michigan by a playground. He began with the cosmos.
Phil Cohran: [In] ancient times [things] were designed to harmonize with the cosmos, the daily activities and whole thinking process… were aligned with… with cosmic rhythms…and conditions.
Have you always felt a certain kinship with nature, even as a child?
Yes, as a child, you know I was born in Oxford, Mississippi, and I used to go, in the morning and after school gets out, I would walk along in parks like to the railroad tracks, and with a friend... sometimes even just down to the store, birds would follow me and you know, a robin or woodpecker or something would follow me along... I just loved nature. I loved all of nature. I loved butterfly’s. I loved the grapes that used to grow on the side of the road. The muscadines and we used to go and pick the chestnuts and pecans... things like that. I always liked natural things.
When did you first become musical?
I was trained by a music teacher, I got my trumpet when I was nine years old - when I first started to school, my first year in Troy, Missouri.
What year was that?
1936. They decided to have a band because the principal was a trumpet player. And so, he decided to try and have a band and they ordered these instruments from the music company and they had to pay twelve dollars for the trumpets. Boy, when I got my trumpet, I played it all the way home! [laughter]
I’ll never forget the excitement of that, and that’s why I teach music because I realized how much it meant to me to be able to play and I’ve seen that joy in thousand’s of others. In my life. So, my teacher was from Lincoln University and he taught me until I graduated from grade school, and he recommended my parents send me to the Lincoln University Laboratory High School which was the only equivalent of a special school for blacks.
Mhmm, ’cause we didn’t have access to all the types of finishing schools and ‘thangs so this, I lived in the dormitory, the Freshmen dormitory, and there were about fifteen of us in the men’s dormitory going to the school and I got some of the best music teachers on the planet. [laughter]
Is that how you started performing live or were you always performing from a young age?
Oh, I think in my Freshmen year we start playing for the school, you know, for the High School, we would have band things for school and then later on, God I don’t remember what year it was, I started working professionally off the campus. But, my greatest teacher, he was the band teacher F. Nathaniel Gatley, and he had taught at Oberlin for quite a number of years and he played the first chair clarinet in all the European festivals, but he couldn’t play here in America because he was black. So, every summer, when school was out, he’d head to Europe and go from one festival to another. First chair clarinetist. He could, like a, what do you call it, like a cobra snake? [He could] take a breath and play all day! [laughter]
Was he able to use cyclical breathing?
No, No that’s a, that’s a fake. [laughter]
It's not real?
Well, it’s not, well I’ll put it like this, it’s a trick. You see? But there’s a way to breath and that’s what I’ve learned from him and my yoga teacher - that you can breath as long as you want to, you know, it’s left up to you. It’s just a matter of training. But it’s not formal, like that, I had a yoga master from India and he taught me back in ‘61 and and I turned it into my music.
and so, that’s the way I go about my rituals in the morning.
Part of your meditation?
Yeah, mhmm. So, I’ve always meditated.
While you played?
Yeah, because I use a meditative state of mind. When I learned to meditate I used incense and therefore burn incense when I play and it would take me to the meditative state.
To engage more senses?
Very sensible, yeah. Anyway, I wanted to mention some of my other teachers because they was some giants. My math teacher when I got to college was, uh Walter R. Talbert and he got his PhD from Princeton under Einstein, in math. At 22.
Is that where you were introduced to the Schilliner System?
Yeah, later on I became fascinated because I had excelled in math, and I had chemistry. I was trained as chemist also, and so my chemistry teacher who was Marty D. Taylor who had got his PhD under Enrique Furman who had just completed the sustained atomic reaction under Stago Fields in 1945. So, my Freshmen year in college was ‘45, so he had just completed this and just got his PhD in that program. He was awarded a citation by Martin Santo Chemical Company later on for sending more chemist to them than anyone else. But, I think about that, I said “If I had [pause] If I hadn’t left school when I was in my second year I would of been straight to [Mount Santo] and be responsible for all this crap that’s out here.
Yeah, not a company you want to get mixed up with. Is that why you left or was there...
No, I didn’t know anything like that then.
No No, I know, maybe you left for a reason.
[Laughter] that was... no, my parents broke up.
and so, I [pause] I was just wiped out by it so I left, come back to St. Louis but the school is in Jefferson City, MI and I had gone all my high school years there and I always excelled in my studies and things so I was working for a masters in chemistry, actually I was playing music all the time and my chemistry teacher didn’t like it, Dr. Taylor didn’t like me playing all those gigs. [laughter]
Yeah Yeah! He said I could be a good chemist if I put that horn down. [laughter] I said, you don’t know what’s happening! I’m so glad I didn’t listen to him. But yeah, I had great teachers. My vocal teacher, also [Arthur B Wise] had starred in Porgy and Bess on Broadway. So, I had a very rich cadre of teachers at Lincoln University because they couldn’t teach anywhere else. There were restrictions against positions for blacks, in those days. The minute they broke down the segregation thing, all the Lincoln University teachers [whizzing sound] went to University of Missouri. [laughter]
That’s why I think it’s part of the reason they broke it down. Mhmm, so, I had a very good education and I like to give credit to them because I couldn’t be who I am if I didn’t have the [pause] length and depth of music in its entirety. Now...
It also inspired you to teach as well.
Yeah yeah, you know when you have teachers like that you have to justify that work, because they labored on us, with us.
So, I played in East St. Louis when I quit school. And so, that was where I got down, now. This is before Ike and Tina. They played over in Brooklyn, and I played in East St. Louis and I got hooked up with a bunch of musicians who didn’t know how to play their music that well and I started rehearsing them and we became the Raja’s of Swing.
Raja's of Swing.
Mhmm, you know, Raja’s. [laughter] We wore turbans and everything.
You know Duke Ellington, Count Basie, all of ‘em... [receives phone call] ... Yeah, so anyway, getting back to...
The Raja’s of Swing...
Raja’s of Swing. Well... they was some hot shot guys, you know and we played at the Blue Flame which was an institution in East St. Louis.
What was the line-up?
Well, there were eleven of us and uh, we had uh lets see alto, tenor, and a baritone saxophone, the trombone, and three trumpets, lets see.... one, two, three, yeah, sometimes we had four trumpets but three trumpets I know and we had a rhythm section - bass, piano and guitar... not guitar but drums. Each member had a feature number so we could entertain people for an hour, just straight, they couldn’t close their mouth. ‘Cause one after the other we’d get up there and play our featured number. See? So that was our format with the Raja’s. I remember... we had two altos, we had Will Carter and Sam Spraggins, yeah there were two altos, one tenor, and a baritone, and four saxophone. I remember playin’ and it was a custom in the 60s that, in St. Louis, when name groups came to town they would work an hour and a local group would work an hour. So, they would give a local group exposure to that audience, see? We had an occasion to work with, oh what’s his name... oh boy... oh my goodness. Coltrane and Jimmy Heath were there backup saxophones and he... played alto. I’ll think of his name. Yeah, I’ll think of it of his name. But he had, there was a big show.... “Cleanhead” Vinson! Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. [laughter]
So, he came to town, you know, at the height of his popularity and ev’rbody said “Cleanhead, Cleanhead!” and so, uh, they stuck us in there with him we played the first hour and then “Cleanhead” would come on and then we’d play the third hour. That is when I first met Coltrane and he and Jimmy Heath they were “fiddlin’” what you call playin’ - “Cleanhead” would sing maybe two or three songs and then he would walk off the stage and let them play, stretch out awhile, and then come back and knock the people out again. You know, I mean it was outrageous in those days. Women would just crawl all over his legs and everything.
They were crazy for him.
They’d lay on the stage. I’d never seen anyone behave like that before. [laughter] So, he was a big act. but I got to play with several groups like that, with the Rajas. They were quite recognized in St. Louis.
What brought you to Illinois?
Well, we got into a dispute. We got into a dispute over coming to Chicago to record.
Did you have a studio date?
Yeah, Joe Grazer, who was Louis Armstrong’s manager saw us and realized we didn’t have any management so, he decided to cut a record for us and see how it’d work - this was ‘49. I remember because they had that strike. He told us to come to Chicago and he’d record us, and I didn’t think it was good to come to Chicago to record because if the guy’s that big and got all that money and he couldn’t spend money for us to come to Chicago, he definitely was not going to treat us too good later on [laughter]. And that’s what I broke down to them, and they said “No, this is our chance! Take it” So we argued over it, so I said, “y'all go ahead, leave me out of the picture” but they didn’t go without me. I went to the union and said “the first guy that wants a trumpet player, call me up,” and that was McShann. Jay McShann called me up and said “Yes, we’re in Quincy, Illinois and I am sending you a ticket.” So I got on the bus, went to Quincy, Illinois and I stayed with him a whole year. Until October the 27, I got drafted.
When is it you finally made it to Chicago? I saw you were saying--
Like I said, I was with McShann and we played here once and I was really impressed. Yaw yeah, it knocked me out, you know because Chicago was liiive. St. Louis, the pace was slow [laughter], but it was live here. I mean, seven nights a week, you didn’t have no off night. St. Louis had a law that all the joints have to close at twelve o’clock... So that’s why we’d played East St. Louis ‘cause they’d open up when St. Louis closed. Alright, so here in Chicago you could play in the joint until four a.m., all the gigs were until four a.m. and then you could leave there and go to another place and sit in with somebody.
That sounds great.
You know they played all through the day, you could find gigs seven days a week, there were no weekends in Chicago then.
What were some of the clubs you were playing around that time in Chicago?
Lets see. We played at a hall, I’m trying to think, I can’t think of the name of it. It might have been Princeton Hall. We played at a Hall, and we lived in, I remember, the Crye Hotel on 55th Street and I was just totally impressed by the energy of the city. See, but we didn’t stay any time, we just come through here. We were traveling the first part when I got with McShann, then I joined them in January and we were in Quincy and we stayed there awhile and then we went to Kansas City and that was a ball. Boy, Kansas City was unbelievable. Yeah, they loved musicians in Kansas City. So it was continuous party. You had to fight to go to sleep. You know?
You were on tour, having a good time.
You know, Kansas City was his head quarters. The Street Hotel was our number one residence. And so we would work out of there all in Nebraska, in Kansas, and...
How old were you at the time?
Oh, my twenties. I don’t know twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, I don’t know. Green. [laughter]
But I knew music, see, and so I tightened the band up. I rehearsed them and they got really good. So then we went down south and wiped everybody out. We got to New Orleans and Dallas and that was like paradise, you know? Went down to Houston. Oh, it was unbelievable and he got a job at a gambling joint on the Sabine River in port Arthur, Texas. So, we stayed there the whole summer. Actually, they were there into the fall. So we played this gambling joint, uh, six nights week and we’d have Monday night off and we would play in various places for black people on those nights. And then, we got a contract to record for Peacock Records, which was a multi-millionaire guy [Don Robey]. He owned all kinds of establishments, a barbecue joint, I remember that. [laughter] and a recording studio. So we would ride from Port Arthur to Houston five days a week and record all the stars and I remember T Bone Walker and Percey Mayfield and some of them sisters, but I didn’t know them people because I hadn't been in the blues field. You know?
What were your early musical influences?
Classical. I was in the symphony when I was in High School and then I had my teacher that was playing first chair in Europe. I liked Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, yeah, ‘cause I heard Bird a long before he became famous. They used to play all the fraternity and sorority dances down there in the gym. Bird get up and turn everybody out! [laughter]
I couldn’t even imagine.
Yeah, that’s when he was really playing. After he got to New York, he was so deep into drugs and stuff that his music kept growing but, it wasn’t like it was... he was like a workman with McShann when they played in the gym. I mean, he would solo every other number.
That was his thing.
Yeaaah, that was his thing. He could play. You had to dance - you know that’s what I really thought about when you said you wanted to interview me. I wanted to point out my opinion of why the music has declined so.
Absolutely, what do you think the future of jazz is?
We lost the people who dance, see? Music was dance music. It’s always been dance music. It was dance music for Africans, ya know? So, the juke houses and places where the people would dance, that’s where the musician - that was his thing. In New Orleans they had the houses of prostitution and they hired musicians but for the black people it was always dancing. The dance halls proliferated in every city in the black community. That was a form of recreation. You’d take your children out with you and they’d sit at the table and you’d have a big 5th of something [laughter]
With the kids.
Yeah, everybody you know! Yeah, and they’d get up and do their thing. So, the music on the stage was for the dance, and therefore there was a strict rhythmic regiment involved in the music and that’s what they lost. Actually Bird and Dizzy were the two culprits [laughter] because they started playing so much that people stopped dancing and started walking up to the stage and listening to these guys.
That’s an interesting point.
Yeah, because I can remember when we stopped dancing. You know, I’d take my girl to see Bird or Miles and all of them when he first came back to St. Louis, and there was a dance hall, you know, but so much was happening on the stage we all went up to the front of the stage and were just plastered there until the end of the show.
So, instead of it being a recreational activity it became more of a spectacle?
Yeah, it was a spectacle and it was a different type of presentation. The guys, the musicians, start trying to become more, more demonstrative and some guys would do all kinds of tricks and things - gimmicks! Where as before, for the dance, you played good solid dance music and the soloist new exactly when to play, he had maybe sixteen bars that he could do his whole thing and he might not have anymore the rest of the night. So when he played those sixteen bars, it was everything he had. [laughter]
Do you have contemporary artists or musicians that you enjoy?
That’s a tough question. [pause] Because my concept is, I departed from the old traditions and went in as a musicologist I began to study the musics of other nations. I studied Lithuanian, Irish, Polish, aah, Scottish music, Greek music. I loved the Greeks. I got into Ethiopian music, African, different African cultures and so the more music I got into I realized I didn’t have a grid to measure them by. So I had to devise a rhythmic system and a melodic system to define the musics that I was listening to and then I realized it was all one thing and when I realized that then I began to write out of that one thing which I call the Melodic System. Now, you know I came here to study Schilinger’s System, which was mathematical - an extension of melodies and rhythms. It was very impressive but the thing that happened, hm... it was cold. It didn’t have any feeling to it. It was cold. When the music was played it was like, I can’t describe it really, it just didn’t have any feeling in it and I’m very sensitive to the music’s feeling.
So, I turned that loose and I started going to the library. The public library had a wealth of recordings and movies so I got me a Bell & Howell movie projector and I would go and take out as many records and as many movies as I could each week. I got an education just going through those tapes and music, then I caught performances. They always had performances of ethnic music at the Studebaker Theatre in the 50s and I saw Ravi Shankar before he became a star when he was playing with his brother Uday Shankar.
How do you feel you’ve incorporated world music into your performances?
With melodic music. Like my frankiphone doesn’t have any chords on it so I just play melody. In order to play melodies, you have to be very creative because you have to play many melodies. Thousands of melodies in one performance.
To keep it interesting?
Yeah, to keep it alive, and to send energy out to the people. That’s what I do at the Ethiopian Cafe [Diamond]. The Ethiopian is when I first started at back in ‘96, people would look at me and say, “Who is this? What is that?” and then I’d tap up my frankiphone and they’d sit there and they’d look and they never heard anything like that before, you know.
Why did you pick the frankiphone as an instrument?
Well, I made it. After I saw some in South Africa, I saw some pictures of some, and then there were some pretty tired ones down at the Field Museum. So I said, “I think I can beat that.” [laughter] So, I put together one, it wasn’t much better than what they were doin’, but then I kept goin’ ‘cause I have a way of approaching things. I just kept making them, and somewhere, maybe the fifteenth or sixteenth one was really good. I used to walk the streets of Chicago playing it. People would be lookin’ around, hearing strange music, saying “What is this?”
When was this?
1961. Mhm, I’d play all over the city, walking the Lakefront and stuff. Just playing to myself. No one had ever heard it before so they didn’t know what it was, jus’ thought it was just some crazy guy. Then I got the idea, I got a record player with a big speaker that hang up in the corner of the ceiling and I had had an auxiliary input [with a] Japanese microphone, a little lapel mic, and I stuck it to my frankiphone and put it in that auxiliary thing and bam! It came out at loud as a horn. I said, “that’s it!” Yeah, now in the meantime, the Moog guy, he was bringing his instruments to Sun Ra all the time to test, to get Sun Ra’s opinion on them. Sun Ra had a clavier and melodic instruments and he would test all this stuff for Moog. I was aware of electronic music, being a scientist, it stimulated me quite a bit, but when I got that frankiphone up to where it could be played with horns, then I had my thing together.
That was a productive time for you.
Around this time I was writing music - musicians don’t like anything new. They like to play the old stuff so they don’t wanna rehearse. [Laughter] They just want to stick up their horn and play. That wasn’t going to work for my music ‘cause it was entirely different. I had a friend I’d play gigs with, his name was Lou Whitward and he was the music teacher at Philips High School and he said, “I got some students. I can bring them over.” and he said “They read pretty good. So we can see what you’re doin’.” So he brought an alto player, a trombone player - who later turned out to be one of the Principal's at one of the local school’s... and Aaron Dodd on tuba. So I had my four voices there that I could listen to, for my compositions. That’s how I started. Then I got with my old friend Eugene Easton who had played in St. Louis with me while I was in Army. We got Brother Charles James Williams in the middle, made a sandwich out of him, and we taught him how to hear the frequency’s, because we didn’t play music like other people - we played according to the frequency relationships. So, it was a system you had to learn. We got it down pretty pat, the three of us, alto tenor and trumpet, and that was the beginning of the Artistic Heritage Ensemble... with the AACM. I have recordings of that. We played the Harper Theater in Hyde Park. That’s when it really took off. I think that’s the first time we played the Spanish Suite.
Is this the group that played on the Malcolm X Memorial album?
Yes, all of them. They were the heart of the Artistic Heritage Ensemble.
What was your role in the civil rights movement in the 60s?
My music is always about the liberation of Black people through understanding they, their eternity is the foremost thing in their lives because as slaves we were brought here and separated from all of our ancestral knowledge, at least five million years of history on this Earth and not knowing about that or even caring for it. We were taught Africans were ignorant, backwards, etc. so no one had a desire to deal with that and all the standards of dignity and intelligence were those things endemic to white people. We have been indoctrinated against ourselves. When you reject a people, they reject themselves. So, my music is about one thing only, the knowledge of who we are.
When did you get interested in space and the cosmos?
Well, Sunny, Sunny turned me on to it, but he was dealing with it in a way... his music was all cosmic and he had his own system. It turned me on greatly, you know? He turned me on with it, and on it, one of the best songs that I played on his album was "Tapestry From An Asteroid." Everyday, we rehearsed six days, six hours a day, six hours a night. Since then, I’ve found so much beauty and so much feeling... and sensitivity in the lunar cycles and cosmos.
Did you live in the house he had?
No, no. Here in Chicago he didn’t have a house. Everybody lived separately. He was just getting his thing together. And he was growing all the time, but he had problems getting musicians to play his music. Like I had when I first started, ‘cause musicians don’t want to practice. Can you imagine somebody is married, and they need to practice from twelve to six everyday? Seven days a week? That’s why I play by myself now because I don’t want to play with people that don’t rehearse.
So, I’d go play that six hours with him, and then I go play those six hours at night, and we never had a day off. We lived music. I discovered my horn for the first time after all of that training, I really didn’t know music at all. So I thank [Sun Ra], he was a blessing to me and to the whole planet Earth. ‘Cause he taught me, and anyone who was willing to learn, that music was the language of life.
Do you believe in the evolution of people’s minds in addition to natural evolution?
We were brought here to rediscover ourselves through our souls and to produce a culture that will reward us and Earth, our home. I believe in eternity. [pause] Yes, I believe that I am an eternal being, that I have been here before, and that I will be here again.