One Father, Eight Sons, Nine Shiny Brass Bells

Jun 16, 2012
Originally published on November 27, 2012 2:52 pm

Over the course of 85-year-old Kelan Phil Cohran's long career as an avant-garde jazz trumpeter, he's toured the world, performing with everyone from Sun Ra to Sarah Vaughan.

When not on the road, Cohran has worked as a music educator, teaching music in schools and prisons, and to his own children.

His passion seems to have stuck — especially in the family. Eight of his sons form the heart of a group called The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, which has toured with The B-52's, Mos Def and Gorillaz.

On their latest album, Cohran's sons collaborate with their old man. Although Kelan Philip Cohran and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble is their first collaborative release, the Cohran clan has a long history of making music together.

"Well, they all came up together, and we performed here in the Chicago area as Phil Cohran and the Youth Ensemble," Cohran tells NPR's Rachel Martin.

Cohran's son, Saiph "Cid" Graves, says his father was a demanding teacher. He says he remembers having lessons for hours before — and after — going to school. But he says that all the hard work has paid off.

"I have to be honest and say, as the musician, as the student, when we were children, we didn't like or understand the need for so much practice and rehearsal," Graves says. "But now, there's no horn players in the world touching our sound and what we can create because we spent all that time working at it."

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Today is Father's Day, so what better way to spend it than to listen to a dad and his sons making music together?


MARTIN: Kelan Phil Cohran is 85 years old. And over the course of a long career as an avant-garde jazz artist, he has performed with everyone from Sun Ra and Jay McShann to Big Mama Thornton and Sarah Vaughan. He has toured the world and taught music in schools and prison.

And he has passed along his musical genes to a bunch of his kids. Eight of his sons form the heart of a group called the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble.


MARTIN: The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble has toured with the likes of the B-52s, Mos Def and Gorillaz. On their latest CD, they're collaborating with their old man Kelan Phil Cohran. And we are joined from member station WBEZ in Chicago by Mr. Cohran and his son, Saiph Graves, who plays C trombone on the album.

Thanks to you both for joining us. We appreciate it.

KELAN PHIL COHRAN: It's a pleasure.

SAIPH GRAVES: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: And Happy Father's Day, Mr. Cohran.

COHRAN: Yes, thank you very kindly.


MARTIN: If I can start with you, I know that you have played with your sons off and on over the years. But I understand this is your fullest collaboration to date, is that correct?

COHRAN: Yes, we - well, they all came up together and we performed here in Chicago area as the Phil Cohran Youth Ensemble. But they grew up and then they sought their own destiny.

GRAVES: All of us were taught by our father. He's our musical teacher, as well as our dad. And the system that we learned was about the purity of tone and notes. And so, a lot of the compositions we were playing outside were original and written by us collectively - not one, not two but all of us.

And so, it was just what liked to refer to as Now Music, as you take the experiences, the thoughts and our energy of the day, and the current moment, and put it into the song.

MARTIN: And, Saiph, you say your dad was your teacher. You grew up in Chicago. I understand that you had a lot of rehearsal time. I mean, your dad was kind of a taskmaster. Did he really insist on...

GRAVES: Oh-oh.

MARTIN: all taking music lessons for hours before school and after school?


GRAVES: I think it was totally necessary. I have to say...

MARTIN: Are you just saying that 'cause your dad is sitting right there?


GRAVES: No, I have to be honest and say like - as the musician, as the student - when we were children, we didn't like or understand the need for so much practice and rehearsal. But now, there's no horn players in the world touching our sound and what we can create because we spent all that time working at it.

MARTIN: Did you have to corral them, Mr. Cohran? Did they come willingly or was it tough?

COHRAN: No, I got to them before they woke up. So...



MARTIN: I mentioned in my introduction, Mr. Cohran, that you used to teach music in prisons.

COHRAN: Oh, yeah. I taught three years at Pontiac. And then, I got in Stateville, what they call the Big House.

MARTIN: There's a tune called "Stateville" on this album. Let's take a listen to that.


COHRAN: When I hear that I think about what stimulated that song was at Stateville, there's a big curb coming around the ridge going to Stateville. And the first thing you see is this huge green tower, sticking up like a transformer or something, you know, and it was ominous.


COHRAN: So that's what I could see the song depicting that feeling of coming around the curb, and realizing that there were a lot of teenage boys there who had only been in the wrong car and the wrong place, and got time in the Big House.


MARTIN: So, how would you define Hypnotic Brass music?

GRAVES: Hypnotic Brass music is a mixture. What we do is take rock, jazz, soul, hip-hop - and the better elements of all of these different genres - and try to mix it into just one feeling. And every song is just a feeling. So...

MARTIN: And now, what's it like to play with your brothers? Each of you have gone off and, you know, lived your own life and had your own set of experiences. I imagine you bring that to bear on the music in the songwriting process.

GRAVES: Oh, yes. I have to say it's just as amazing as it is hard.


GRAVES: I invite everybody out there to think of your siblings and imagine, like, being in a group with them, touring, and then in the hotel or the plane together, on the show. It's just like...

MARTIN: That's a lot of quality time.

GRAVES: Yeah, a lot of love.


GRAVES: That's all.

COHRAN: They've been playing since they were 5 and one started at 3.

MARTIN: Oh, my. And is there a healthy sense of competition or are you guys just over that now?

GRAVES: Yes, healthy sense of competition is a great way to put it because...


GRAVES: ...that is exactly what keeps us. It's like a fire that we light under each other. It's even to the point of you can't play one bad note when we're checking each other on it, in always trying to be the best and become better.

MARTIN: There is this mesmerizing quality to a lot of these compositions. And I'm thinking specifically of the track "Ancestral," which is characterized in the liner notes as a kind of a meditative drone.


MARTIN: The band is all horns and the set of drums. Is that limiting or liberating?

COHRAN: No, it's neither one. You know, it's the expression. See, first of all, the mind or the spirit of the person that's playing is the prime foundation that you work with. It's not the difference in the instruments. But it's the difference in the person's mind and heart. And so, you have a lot of great spirits playing this music.

MARTIN: Mr. Cohran, you wrote the track "Aspara" back in 1967. Why of all your hundreds of compositions, why was it important to you to include it on this album, your most recent work?

COHRAN: Well, we like to do our neatest things and "Aspara" is a seven-four tune. So, we like to do our neatest - they have a little bit more juice.


MARTIN: Saiph, what do you like about playing that song?

GRAVES: We listened to this music as kids so it means so much for us to just play it and be able to hear it live. Like, you know, here's this music that still ring in our heads. We can sing the melody, although it's been like 20 years.


MARTIN: When you're in the studio and you finished tracking a version of "Aspara," and you're sitting there with your brothers and your dad, and you just hit that last note and you know you just nailed it and it was hard. What's that like? You kind of look around and you're doing this with your family.

GRAVES: Well, we never really agree like, yeah, we got it.


GRAVES: And so, that's part of the process, too, is sitting there all still analyzing - yeah, and this part and that note - like we're so critical in breaking down the music and putting it back together, 'cause we just want it to be perfect and right to the right point. And this being our father's music, we even more want to get it sharp.

MARTIN: What about you, Mr. Cohran? I mean, you must be pretty proud.

COHRAN: Oh, yes. I've told people that there's a millionaire - a multi-millionaire in Mexico who is supposed to be the richest man in the world. And I tell everyone I feel like I'm on his level because I have sons who are productive and I have daughters who are productive.

MARTIN: And you would have been fine if none of them had gone into music - just an added bonus that they did?

COHRAN: No, I wouldn't have been fine.


COHRAN: I'm not going to lie.


MARTIN: Well, Happy Father's Day, Mr. Cohran.

COHRAN: Thank you, appreciate it.

MARTIN: Thanks to you two so much.

GRAVES: Thank you. .

COHRAN: Thank you very kindly.

MARTIN: OK, take care.




MARTIN: And finally, I'd like to wish all the dads out there a Happy Father's Day, including my husband, Luke, who is a father-to-be.

This is my last show for a while. I'm taking some time off for maternity leave. David Greene and Linda Wertheimer will be sitting in the host chair while I'm away. But I'll be back in late September. Until then, have a great summer. I'm Rachel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "ASPARA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.