Kelan Philip “Phil” Cohran, the multi-faceted, multi-talented jazz musician, composer, bandleader, and instrument-maker who mentored generations of musicians and created a cosmic, soulful, unorthodox musical palette of plucked and bowed instruments—including the harp, the ukelin, and the Frankiphone, a type of electrified thumb piano he invented—died Wednesday at the University Of Chicago Medical Center, according to the Chicago Tribune. The venerable Chicago jazz mainstay, who added the honorific “Kelan” to his name in the early 1990s, was 90 years old.
Born in Oxford, Mississippi and raised in St. Louis, Cohran first found recognition as a cornet and trumpet player for The Arkestra, the legendary Afrofuturist ensemble led by the greatest eccentric in jazz, Sun Ra, who was then based in Chicago. Given the visionary bandleader’s fondness for unusual instrumentation, it was perhaps inevitable that Cohran would begin experimenting with some of his own; his squeaking ukelin—a sort of bowed zither—can prominently heard on Ra’s album Angels And Demons At Play (1965), recorded in 1960. Cohran remained in Chicago after the Arkestra left the city in 1961, and lived and regularly performed there until his death.
An avid reader and musical omnivore who considered his compositions to be part of a lifelong self-education—“When I learn things […] I write about them,” he would tell the music magazine The Wire—and cited everything from astronomy to early Renaissance musical theory as influences, Cohran created an idiosyncratic personal vision, first captured in full on the On The Beach, his 1967 debut album as a bandleader, released on his own Zulu label. The album would be the first of a trilogy of 1960s recordings that reflected Cohran’s political beliefs and his historical interests, along with The Malcolm X Memorial (1968) and the dazzling The Spanish Suite (1968; released 2009).
Cohran recorded infrequently; apart from the three 1960s recordings, his only other major album was African Skies (2010), a beautiful chamber suite dedicated to Sun Ra, recorded live in Chicago’s Adler Planetarium shortly not long after his former bandleader’s death in 1993. But he was a tireless educator, collaborator, and live performer, often backed in later years by his many, many children. (Just how many children Cohran had is unclear, but enough for eight of his sons to form their own band, the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble.) As a co-founder of the Chicago-based Association For The Advancement Of Creative Musicians (AACM), Cohran played a key role in mentoring composers and performers; among his most famous students were Earth, Wind & Fire founder Maurice White and singer Chaka Khan.