At 63rd and Cottage Grove, that blasted patch which was once the center of bebop in Chicago, haints in grey suede shoes lurk in tore-down doorways to run just one more murphy and echoes of "The Theme" hang in the air. Jump a dozen rows down Cottage, past the cemetery and under the Skyway, there are streets lifted from Kansas City in the 50's, beaten flat by poverty and dusty sun. Nearing 75th, there's a resale store. An apartment upstairs. Behind the apartment, and separated from it by a narrow swath of tarred roof, Phil Cohran has his performing space. Call it a loft, ghetto version. A large, raw room with slightly raised stage, an array of instruments and equipment, a few folding chairs. Here he conducts a 30-piece community youth orchestra, free to the kids, each Thursday; rehearses his own band, the Circle of Sound, on weekends; and practices daily with his "family" band.
When told Downbeat wants his profile, he responds, "I didn't even think they knew my name." Aside from the musicians and Chicago's black community, few know his name. And of the few who do, most don't know his music. They've only read somewhere that he was a co-founder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) or recall that he played trumpet on those Sun Ra recordings from 1960: "Angels and Demons at Play", "The Nubians of Plutonia" and "Fate in a Pleasant Mood" are the ones that come to mind. Scant sightings for a lifetime in music.
"I was born in Oxford, Mississippi on May 8, 1927. We moved to St. Louis when I was about 10. My stepfather had a job outside Troy, Missouri, so we moved to Troy. That's where I started trumpet." A star musician in high school and Lincoln University, thin finances forced him from college. "It wasn't long until I got with this fellow named Chuck Terry, who was Duke Ellington's valet. He quit working for Duke when he decided to start his own band. He didn't know anything about music, but he knew all about the business." In 1946, after serving as Terry's musical director, Cohran tried Chicago. "It was too much for me. That war energy was out of sight." Back in St. Louis, he hooked up with a newly formed band. "We called it the Rajahs, got some turbans. They made me leader. The Rajahs did pretty good around St. Louis from 1947 on up to 1950 when we split up. It got to be everybody (other bands) wanted our musicians. So they got to squabblin' about it. I put my name up at the union, said 'Next guy wants a trumpet player, call me.'"
"Next guy was Jay McShann. That was where I really learned to swing. He kept that jug up there on the piano. Chank, chank-a chank-chank. That was it! Everywhere we went, we rocked the house. When we went down south, those dance halls down there, you were lucky if you had one mic. And the crowds would be so thick, people would be falling on top of you and drinking and everything; it got so bad you'd have to lean back and play. And at every intermission you'd have to take up your belt some more notches because you'd play so hard. But you'd always enjoy it because the people got so much out of it."
Drafted in October 1950, Cohran was one of a handful of army musicians selected to attend the Naval conservatory of Music at Anacostia, DC. After the service he came to Chicago and, except for one brief retrun to St. Louis ("That's when I worked with Oliver Nelson, 1954. He was driving a bus and going to Washington University. We had a ball."), has remained, at first working with the Morris Ellis big band and in smaller formats with players such as Walter Perkins, Johnny Griffin, Wilbur Ware and Ike Cole.
"Around '59 all the cats pulled up here and left. I didn't want to go to New York. So I was stumblin' around, and John Gilmore and I got to be friends, and I started rehearsing with Sun Ra. That's when Sonny was rehearsing six hours a day and playing six hours a night. We played all around here. His music was more difficult than anything I have ever seen. I didn't run up on anything in Anacostia that would touch what Sun Ra was doing - Wagner or anybody else. It wasn't no funny thing. Sometimes he had us trumpet players skipping two octaves, with eighth notes.
"He left in 1961. Gilmore came by and said, 'Man, we're gettin' ready to go to New York. We need you to go with us.' Sun Ra's music was so great. He 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.
"So I stayed here and became a recluse. I started walking the streets in my GI clothes, let my hair and beard grow out. My mother thought I lost my mind. But I just got serious and started working seven days a week on music, at least 16 hours a day. I made the Frankiphone (an amplified thumb-piano, named after his mother) and some other instruments.
"Around April 1965, I ran into Steve McCall and Muhal walking down Cottage Grove, by the cemetery. We talked about how everybody had gone to new York and there was nobody around here and nothing happening. So we said, 'Man, we ought to do something about this ourselves. We'll just get together. You call all the guys you know, send them a card; I'll take the guys I know.' I had a place at 740 East 75th Street, and it had a large living room. So everybody met there on May 8, that was a Saturday. And that was the first AACM meeting."
The Artistic Heritage Ensemble, which Cohran put together at that time, was one of the best received of the early AACM groups. "A year before that, I had a rehearsal group, but that's all that it was because I didn't think that the music I was writing would be accepted for 10 to 12 years. That first concert, when we got a standing ovation, I was really shocked." But differing philosophies drove Cohran from the AACM tent. "Everybody wanted to play OUT, see. 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 sound centers, and we always knew where we were going."
STAY TUNED ... MORE TO COME !
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