Fifty years ago, the late Kelan Phil Cohran inspired a Black cultural awakening in Chicago at 63rd Street on the lakefront as the creative force behind an event called “On the Beach.”
“On the Beach was one of the first periods where the African American culture of the community of Chicago was able to gather and be inspired, not only by music but by food and by clothing and just by being able to be around each other in a way that we were expressing our love for ourselves. Phil provided that as a backdrop for the African American Black power cultural movement,” said award-winning producer Pemon Rami, explaining that it was the first event of its kind as there were no jazz or blues fests yet. The Black Arts Movement took flight from the On The Beach event.
Cohran, an influential and spiritual jazz pioneer, passed away last week on Wednesday, June 28, at age 90. For many musicians, artists, and students who worked with or under Cohran, his approach to music was transformative and life-changing. Affectionately known as “Baba,” or spiritual father, the multi-talented instrumentalist would often incorporate meditation and yoga, healthy eating, and astronomy into his teachings and work. With artistic compositions that included poetry, dance, and instruments, he believed that music was healing and uplifting, and he used it to teach Black people about our history.
“We did a lot of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Everything we did was about uplifting our race. I started out as his solo dancer and then, later on, I brought in my own dancers. We didn’t just dance. We were telling some kind of story. Everything had a meaning. So, Phil thought a lot of his numbers. I choreographed to music and had the dancers do those particular movements to whatever the story happened to be,” said the well-known and celebrated dancer Darlene Blackburn, who was one of the performers at the beach in 1967.
Cohran was heavily influenced early on by the legendary and late Sun Ra, a “cosmic philosophy” jazz composer, piano and synthesizer player, known for his experimental style. He played trumpet with the internationally acclaimed Sun Ra Arkestra in Chicago from 1959-1961 and was featured on their albums “Fate in a Pleasant Mood” and “Angels and Demons at Play.” Sun Ra motivated Cohran to absorb all he could learn about astronomy, for years “studying the heavens” and making trips to the Adler Planetarium.
“Sun Ra forced us to expand our thinking and our whole basis for playing music. He forced us to think of ourselves as living in the cosmos rather than living on planet earth. The earth is only a speck in the cosmos, hardly identifiable. My whole world opened up because of him,” said Cohran in a video interview by the Great Black Music Project (thegreatblackmusicproject.org). “When they brought the slaves here, all of them mastered the sky. Even the little children knew the phases of the moon. And they knew the important stars that were out there. All of the slave songs had references to the cosmos. Being in line and in harmony with all things…not just some things — when the music is in that vein, it is nourishing and inspirational. I don’t have a single song that is not related to our cosmic reality.”
Impact on Jazz Music
Cohran expressed his creativity in nurturing future talent in many ways. In 1965, he co-founded the internationally recognized Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a non-profit “collective of musicians and composers dedicated to nurturing, performing, and recording serious, original music.” Also, he founded the acclaimed Artistic Heritage Ensemble and, in 1967, he started the Afro-Arts Theater. He even invented an instrument known as the “Frankiphone,” named after his mother “Frankie” Cohran. It’s very similar to a kalimba or thumb piano.
Some of his more well-known proteges have been Maurice White, later of Earth, Wind and Fire, and Chaka Khan, whom he gave her first stage appearance. But the popular multi-instrumentalist Maia says she was his “best” student. In fact, she wrote a poem called Eliel and he created a composition around it. (You can read it for yourself at below).
“He was my teacher. He was my bandleader. And I learned a lot from him. Phil was in full use of his body…playing the harp, playing the trumpet, playing the French horn. He created the drum piano. He was just a good hero,” said Maia. “He agonized over finding ways to help Black people. He spoke up on behalf of Black musicians. He spoke up against the educational system that blocked out our history. He spoke up.”
A celebration of the 50-year anniversary of “On the Beach” and Phil Cohran’s work will take place on July 9 at 63rd Street and the lakefront from noon to six.