phil cohran


H and I went to see Phil Cohran play a tribute to Sun Ra for free at Millennium Park. How could it be bad? Even if it wasn’t a totally out show, it would still rule cuz it’s Phil Cohran.

We sat at the edge of the lawn looking down over the chairs and the people sitting in them. Eating our dinner – a shared sandwich, some crackers and cheese. Some water, a salad and a little dessert. The sun slowly setting behind the buildings to our left.

We were surrounded by NPR wine snobs sitting at little tables brought from home, eating full dinners, drinking bottles of wine. Families with babies running wild. People talking loud into their cel phones. A couple who sat directly in front of H and I in the 3 feet between us and the concrete walkway.

Talk. Talk. Talk. We played spot the jazz nerd and marveled at the most mod security guard ever, little pointed beatle boots with a zipper on the sides, tight brown pants and a security uniform shirt that looked as if he had had it tailored. We wondered what people would think of what they were about to see and hear. “I hope they skronk it up tonight and blow these peoples’ minds,” H said.

Speculation about what they would play – Rocket Number 9! Next Stop Mars! Magic City! Nuclear War! We both laughed. “It’s a motherfucker!”

More bottles of wine surrounded us. The sun lower behind the Loop.

The performers appeared on stage. All in white. Women singers and dancers. Percussionists. Pianist. Drummer. Some older men sat on chairs on the right side of the stage. Then Phil Cohran appeared all in white with Sun Ra’s Pharaonic head piece. A smaller old man, Phil Cohran. Looking like a miniature Sun Ra. He sat in a chair in the middle of the stage surrounded by the other performers.

The group launched into a full blown ensemble piece. The women singing over each other. Phil Cohran playing a giant harp. Not totally out, but not totally straight either. A good opener. Slightly weird. The second song was a slow quiet drone that was led by Phil on the zither. A slow singular string scraping out of it. It was so good. And the people around us kept on talking on cel phones. Chatty chat. Not paying attention. We were done with dinner and way into the song.

Do you want to move? H asked.


We grabbed our stuff and moved down into the actual seats where we could see better, hear better, and where people were actually listening.

After another song or two, Phil’s sons The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, came out to play some songs. 8 brass players and one super tight drummer. All but one are Phil’s sons. They were amazing! The horns playing over each other in hypnotic phrasing and repetitious cycles. They had the crowd moving. The other performers on stage were dancing, shaking their arms and hands. Shouts from the audience up front closer to the stage. Huge cheers and applause. How many up there in the audience were friends and family? How many of the performers were related? The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble ended up joining the performers for the rest of the show.

A six year old in the doorway on stage right with her mom. Both in the same white as everyone on stage. She was dancing. Looking like she wanted to be out there on stage.

Two hours of amazing music bliss. A few times I felt choked up and tears formed in my eyes. The music was so good and the crowd was so into it – shouting their support and approval.

Towards the end of the night the group began a song that featured the women singing prominently and within a few notes the majority of the mostly black audience was on their feet with their right hands raised in a fist. I got chills. H and I didn’t know what to do and as much as we wanted to show solidarity, we didn’t want to act without knowledge of what we were in solidarity with. One white woman and her daughter stood up. The woman with her arm in the air, hand in a fist singing the words to the song along with most of the audience.

Feeling overwhelmed and in awe of the song and the response of the audience, choked up now writing this, remembering it. Dark. Dark. Summer night. Stage lights. Little bugs in the air. H and I in our seats and hundreds of people in front of us responding to this song with hands in fists in the air.

When it was over, Phil explained that it was the South African national anthem and it was for Nelson Mandela’s birthday. A cheer from the audience. He spoke some more about Sun Ra. Blackness. Africa and what it mean to the African American community in the 50’s and 60’s. Some stories about playing with Sun Ra. Then a bit about how in many African traditions news, information and music was transmitted by travelling musicians who would tell the news and then play with the local musicians to exchange music ideas.

He then began playing on his thumb piano. We heard the first two notes and both said, No way! And the band followed him into The Minstrel and we were happy. And as the song went on I felt choked up again. Everyone dancing. The dancers and singers on stage. The people in the audience. The MC spieling about positivity. The little girl dancing on stage. Everyone freaking out. The song went on. So happy.

Then, when the show was over, Phil said that there would be an after party at Ethiopian Diamond from 9 until midnight. Everyone was invited. “Let’s go,” H Said. And quickly added, “I wish we could.” Then the audience in the front rows rushed to the foot of the stage to celebrate with the performers.

We headed home. We were both blown away. H said she had gotten choked up too. To me it felt cathartic. I couldn’t stop smiling. I had been smiling all through the show. Seeing how the music affected others, all those people, was amazing. It was a tangible thing. It wasn’t like most shows we go to where people are into it, but just sitting around nodding, drinking their beer, talking to their friends. At most shows I feel like there’s a lack of mass emotional connection or power. And this isn’t a criticism. A show can still be good without this tangible electricity. But the difference was so amazing. The feeling. Like the musicians were channeling what everyone was feeling. Like they were reaching out. Building up. Communicating and sharing. Allowing everyone to access something shared and common that’s just out there waiting to be touched.