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

Sun Ra

In 1946, a Black piano player, composer, and arranger by the name of Herman Poole Blount migrated to Chicago from Birmingham, Alabama. That same year, he accompanied big-band legend Fletcher Henderson at the celebrated Club DeLisa, but he took any kind of musical work that came his way, including subbing as a keyboardist at churches and playing in Calumet City strip clubs. On October 20, 1952, he changed his name in the Circuit Court of Cook County to Le Sony’r Ra. 

His new identity established, Sun Ra (his chosen business name) set about presenting his own work—which couldn’t be played by just anybody. His compositions were full of unfamiliar chords, harmonies, and rhythms, requiring a deep familiarity best acquired through hours and hours of practice. But by the 1950s, the stable big bands of the swing era had already become an economically untenable model, and it proved difficult to retain seasoned players. Nonetheless, Ra recruited a troupe of musicians, some of them young graduates of DuSable High School, who were willing to submit themselves to a grueling and unconventional rehearsal regimen in return for the chance to play some extraordinary music. Band practice, which often took place in Ra’s walk-up apartment on the south side, included lectures on race, Egyptology, numerology, alternate readings of the Bible, 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 Travel the Space Ways.

The Arkestra, as he dubbed his band, wore space-themed attire and sang about traveling the spaceways from planet to planet. They played music that blended big-band cadences and hard-bop riffs with stylistic devices lifted from exotica and Hollywood soundtracks. The idea wasn’t just to put on a show, but to open humanity’s eyes to the possibility of a future in which music and science would converge. Amongst other impossibilities, Ra claimed to come from Saturn, but such assertions could be understood as a challenge to a social and economic system whose status quo perpetuated the oppression of Black people.

The Arkestra’s ascendance coincided with the beginning of a neighborhood decline that would ultimately shutter most south-side nightclubs that hosted live music. Faced with eroding performance opportunities, Ra and the Arkestra left town late in 1960. Once situated on the east coast, they began living communally, first in New York City and then planting roots in Philadelphia. Ra died in 1993, but the Arkestra continue to perform his music and spread his message to this day—in 2020 they released Swirling, their first album of original material since 1999.

The AACM

One Arkestra musician who didn’t leave Chicago with Ra was multi-instrumentalist Philip Cohran. Inspired by Ra’s example, Cohran instead embarked upon self-directed inquiries into spiritual, nutritional, and musical matters. He connected with a similarly polymathic autodidact, 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 to workshop compositions whose uncompromising nature ensured that they couldn’t be performed anywhere else. 

In spring 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 chartered an organization that would support the presentation of original music. Members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians would book themselves into venues, play one another’s music, work in one another’s bands, and pay one another union scale. Operating collectively, they could generate opportunities and assert control over their music.

“The Bird Song” by Muhal Richard Abrams appears on 1968’s Levels and Degrees of Light.

While the AACM has been persistently identified with avant-garde jazz, its founding members avoided using the word “jazz” to describe their music. Though all the organizers played it, they insisted on the freedom to pursue anything that their creativity could generate: they didn’t want to be hemmed in by discrimination toward Black musicians, or to be told by unions, labels, critics, or anyone else that they could only play jazz. Abrams’s compositions drew heavily upon classical and electronic methods; Roscoe Mitchell’s evolved rapidly from Ornette Coleman-style free jazz to explorations of sound and silence; Joseph Jarman’s mercurial work incorporated elements of poetry and theater; and Cohran’s music combined R&B-indebted grooves with intimations of ancient Africa. But the more conservative founders soon left, making way for an influx of young radicals such as Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, and Leo Smith. Cohran withdrew from the AACM by the end of 1965.

In addition to presenting its members’ music, the AACM pursued a community-oriented educational mission. Its musicians shared their expertise with one another, and they founded a school for children that taught instrumental facility and individualism. Some of its students, including Douglas Ewart and brothers Michael and Phillip Cooper (later Michael Cosmic and Phillip Musra), went on to be creative players both inside and outside the AACM. 

Within a few years, members of the association began taking its concepts beyond Chicago’s city limits—in 1969, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the cooperative trio of Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith, and Leroy Jenkins relocated to Paris, France, for about a year. In the 1970s, many of the AACM’s founding members dispersed around the eastern and midwestern U.S. Some left the organization but continued to play music informed by its principles; others formed a chapter of the AACM in New York City. And successive generations of Chicago musicians, among them 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 to Phil Cohran’s final AACM concert, in December 1965, expressed his intention to use music to uplift the community: “We hope to present this heirloom, left to use by the great black scientists of our ancient heritage, to the blind, mentally affected, shut-ins, the very old and very young and to the general public.” After leaving the organization, he was hired by Chicago’s Urban Gateways program to lecture children about African musical instruments, and he collaborated with Oscar Brown Jr. on Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow, a musical revue that presented the words of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Cohran also formed his own group, the Artistic Heritage Ensemble, whose membership included crack R&B session musicians and future members of Miles Davis’s band 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 group 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 summer 1967, the AHE played regular concerts at the 63rd Street Beach. At the series’ end, Cohran solicited funds from the community, which seeded the foundation of the Affro-Arts Theater in a repurposed movie house. Besides the AHE, the theater hosted authors Amiri Baraka and Gwendolyn Brooks, activists Fred Hampton and Stokely Carmichael, and spiritually oriented performers such as the Spencer Jackson Family. It also offered classes in the arts, languages, and healthy living. One individual particularly inspired by the theater’s cultural and artistic affirmation was a teenager named Yvette Stevens, who later became known as Chaka Khan.

After the police murder of Fred Hampton in 1969, Cohran decided to pursue a lower profile and left the Affro-Arts Theater. But he continued to make his presence felt around the city by mentoring younger musicians, performing occasional concerts, and settling into a long run playing at the Ethiopian Diamond Restaurant in Edgewater. Cohran passed on in 2017, aged 90, but his inspiration lives on in the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, a band founded in 1999 by eight of his progeny—they got their start playing downtown street performances outside Marshall Field’s (back when it was still Marshall Field’s) before growing into an international touring act that topped the bill at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival in September 2021.

Why the AACM and AfriCOBRA still matter

Why the AACM and AfriCOBRA still matter

MCA curator Naomi Beckwith discusses a new exhibit called “The Freedom Principle” that connects the legacy of the Black Arts Movement to current cultural and political battles.