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jazz great & teacher Kelan Phil Cohran, RIP

Kelan Phil Cohran

Iconic Chicago jazz musician Kelan Phil Cohran has died at age 90. Cohran was in the Sun Ra Arkestra from 1959 to 1961 and helped found the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. From The Chicago Tribune:

Said Chicago percussionist-bandleader Kahil El’Zabar, who helped organize a 90th birthday tribute to Cohran on May 8 at St. Adalbert’s Church on West 17th Street: “He was an innovative cultural institution unto himself.”

That’s not an exaggeration, considering that Cohran played and recorded with the groundbreaking Sun Ra Arkestra in the late 1950s; invented an instrument he dubbed the Frankiphone — a version of an African kalimba or “thumb piano,” which White brought to Earth, Wind & Fire; created the Affro-Arts Theater, which in the 1960s was a South Side epicenter of experimental arts; and founded the Artistic Heritage Ensemble, which influenced bands as far-flung as El’Zabar’s avant-garde Ethnic Heritage Ensemble and Earth, Wind & Fire.

“He was definitely one of my mentors at an early age,” said Roscoe Mitchell, a founder of the pioneering Art Ensemble of Chicago, one of the first AACM bands to attain international acclaim. “I had nothing but respect for him as a musician and a teacher.”

Indeed, the two roles were inseparable to Cohran, whose long career in music essentially linked early jazz traditions to its most contemporary off-shoots.

Born May 8, 1927, in Oxford, Miss., Cohran moved with his family to St. Louis when he was about 10, immersing himself in the city’s robust jazz scene and playing alongside trumpeter Clark Terry in the late 1940s. Pianist-bandleader Jay McShann, who had given a young Charlie Parker his first major job, hired trumpeter Cohran and “that was where I really learned to swing,” Cohran told DownBeat magazine in 1984. “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.”

A planned 50th anniversary celebration of Cohen’s iconic “On the Beach” had already been planned for July 9 in Chicago at 63rd Street and the lakefront and will now be a tribute to the master.

Cohran’s sons play as The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble who have collaborated with Mos Def, Prince, Damon Albarn and others.

Rest in peace, Phil. Your music and influence go on. Listen to a few of Cohran’s key works, below.

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