Chicago’s black musical visionaries paved the way for their communities in the 1950s and 1960s

Since the 1950s, Chicago has been home to a succession of visionary black musical groups and societies. They’re best known as purveyors of avant-garde jazz, but that characterization sells Sun Ra and his Arkestra, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), and Phil Cohran’s entire artistic heritage short. Each was – and in some cases still is – an artistic community-building enterprise informed by esoteric philosophies, practical priorities, and a redemptive sense of mission.

Sun Ra

In 1946, a black pianist, composer and arranger named Herman Poole Blount emigrated to Chicago from Birmingham, Alabama. That same year, he accompanied big band legend Fletcher Henderson to the famed Club DeLisa, but he took on any type of musical work that came his way, including standing in as a keyboard player in churches and playing in strip clubs. -tease of Calumet City. On October 20, 1952, he changed his name in Cook County Circuit Court to The Sony’r Ra.

His new established identity, Sun Ra (his chosen company name) set out to showcase his own work, which could not be played by just anyone. His compositions were full of unfamiliar chords, harmonies and rhythms, requiring a deep familiarity best gained through hours and hours of practice. But by the 1950s, the stable big bands of the swing era had already become an economically unsustainable model, and it was proving difficult to retain seasoned players. Nevertheless, Ra recruited a troupe of musicians, some of whom were recent graduates of DuSable High School, who were willing to submit to a grueling and unconventional rehearsal regimen in exchange for the chance to perform extraordinary music. The group’s practice, which often took place in Ra’s walk-up apartment on the south side, included lectures on race, Egyptology, numerology, alternative Bible readings, the need for clean living, and the coming space age.

Recorded in 1960, “Interplanetary Music” is the first track on Sun Ra’s 1967 album We are traveling in space.

The Arkestra, as he dubbed his band, wore a space-themed outfit and sang about traveling the space lanes from planet to planet. They played music that blended big-band cadences and hard-bop riffs with stylistic devices drawn from exotic, Hollywood soundtracks. The idea was not just to put on a show, but to open humanity’s eyes to the possibility of a future where music and science converge. Among other impossibilities, Ra claimed to be from Saturn, but such claims could be understood as a challenge to a social and economic system whose status quo perpetuated black oppression.

The rise of the Arkestra coincided with the beginning of a decline in the neighborhood that would eventually close most of the South Side nightclubs that hosted live music. Faced with eroding performance opportunities, Ra and the Arkestra left town in late 1960. Once located on the East Coast, they began to live as a community, first in New York City, then in put down roots in Philadelphia. Ra died in 1993, but Arkestra continues to play his music and spread his message to this day – in 2020 they released Whirling, their first album of original material since 1999.


One Arkestra musician who did not leave Chicago with Ra was multi-instrumentalist Philip Cohran. Inspired by Ra’s example, Cohran instead embarked on self-directed inquiries into spiritual, nutritional, and musical matters. He bonded with a similar autodidact polymath, pianist Richard Abrams. Abrams (who would later adopt the first name Muhal) led a rehearsal combo called the Experimental Band, which gave musicians a venue for workshop compositions whose uncompromising nature ensured they could not be played anywhere else.

In the spring of 1965, Abrams, Cohran, pianist Jodie Christian, and drummer Steve McCall invited other African-American artists to meet at Cohran’s house on East 75th near Cottage Grove. They created an organization that would support the presentation of original music. Members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians booked rooms, played each other’s music, worked in each other’s bands, and paid union scale. Acting collectively, they could generate opportunities and assert control over their music.

“The Bird Song” by Muhal Richard Abrams appears on 1968 Light levels and degrees.

While the AACM has always been identified with avant-garde jazz, its founding members avoided using the word “jazz” to describe their music. Although all the organizers played it, they insisted on the freedom to pursue whatever their creativity could generate: they did not want to be surrounded by discrimination against black musicians, or be informed by unions, labels, the critics or anyone else. that they could only play jazz. Abrams’ compositions drew heavily on classical and electronic methods; Roscoe Mitchell quickly evolved from Ornette Coleman-style free jazz to explorations of sound and silence; Joseph Jarman’s mercurial work incorporated elements of poetry and theatre; and Cohran’s music combined indebted R&B grooves with hints of ancient Africa. But the more conservative founders soon left, giving way to an influx of young radicals such as Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill and Leo Smith. Cohran retired from the AACM at the end of 1965.

In addition to presenting the music of its members, the AACM pursues a community educational mission. Its musicians shared their know-how and founded a school for children that teaches instrumental facility and individualism. Some of his students, including Douglas Ewart and brothers Michael and Phillip Cooper (later Michael Cosmic and Phillip Musra), became creative actors both inside and outside the AACM.

Within a few years, members of the association began to take its concepts beyond the city limits of Chicago – in 1969, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the cooperative trio of Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith and Leroy Jenkins moved to Paris, France for about a year. . In the 1970s, many of the founding members of the AACM dispersed throughout the eastern and midwestern United States. Some left the organization but continued to play music informed by its principles; others have formed an AACM chapter in New York. And successive generations of Chicago musicians, including Avreeayl Ra, Mwata Bowden, Ernest Dawkins, Nicole Mitchell, Tomeka Reid and Mike Reed, have led the association’s Chicago chapter into the 21st century.

Phil Cohran

The program notes for Phil Cohran’s last AACM concert, in December 1965, expressed his intention to use music to uplift the community: “We hope to present this legacy, left for the use of the great black scientists of our ancient heritage, to the blind, the mentally ill, the confined, the very old and the very young and to the general public. After leaving the organization, he was hired by Chicago’s Urban Gateways program to lecture children on African musical instruments, and he collaborated with Oscar Brown Jr. on Lyrics of Sun and Shadowa musical revue that featured the words of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Cohran also formed his own band, the Artistic Heritage Ensemble, whose members included crack R&B session musicians and future band members of Miles Davis and Earth, Wind & Fire. Their original music combined elements of gospel and modal jazz with ethnic elements from around the world and often conveyed messages of cultural pride; the band also covered popular songs, such as Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears”.

On February 25, 1968, Philip Cohran and the Artistic Heritage Ensemble performed a four-part suite for Malcolm X.

In the summer of 1967, the AHE gave regular concerts at 63rd Street Beach. At the end of the series, Cohran solicited funds from the community, which seeded the foundation of the Affro-Arts Theater in a repurposed movie theater. Besides the AHE, the theater has hosted authors Amiri Baraka and Gwendolyn Brooks, activists Fred Hampton and Stokely Carmichael, and spiritual artists such as the Spencer Jackson family. It also offered courses in arts, languages ​​and healthy lifestyles. One individual particularly inspired by the cultural and artistic affirmation of theater was a teenage girl named Yvette Stevens, later known as Chaka Khan.

After the police murder of Fred Hampton in 1969, Cohran decided to lay low and quit the Afro-Arts Theater. But he continued to make his presence felt in the city by mentoring young musicians, performing the occasional gig, and settling in to play long at the Ethiopian Diamond Restaurant in Edgewater. Cohran died in 2017, aged 90, but his inspiration lives on in the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, a group founded in 1999 by eight of his descendants. ) before becoming an international touring band that topped the bill at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival in September 2021.

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