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Jazz with Mr. C: “Move On Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power” by Aaron Cohen

Updated: Jun 3, 2020

The Author’s Labor of Love: A Slice of Essential Chicago Music History.

By Jeff Cebulski

Remember the Year of Chicago Music? Yeah, that was supposed to be happening right now. While some of the energy of that celebration may still exist and some of it may still happen, the virus has taken most of the wind out of the Windy City’s plans.

But it hasn’t stopped people’s interest in our musical culture. A recent publication, Aaron Cohen’s book Move On Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power, seems timed appropriately and provides a good read for anyone interested in the modern history of Chicago music. Cohen, an instructor in the City Colleges system, has built a reputation for adroit research and insight, including his work on the late soul queen Aretha Franklin, in Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace. Cohen has written for DownBeat and is a member of the programming committee for the Chicago Jazz Festival.

Move On Up is the story of how a particularly creative and powerful cultural force emerged from the Black Consciousness Movement that had its heyday in the late ’60s and carried forward into the ’70s. Some will remember: Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield, The Chi-lites. As for me, I am embarrassed to admit I was late to this picnic. I do remember being introduced to Rotary Connection and Minnie Riperton, but Butler and Mayfield and rest took more time. Thanks to a fellow grad student up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, who was raised on the music and let me borrow from his extensive collection, I was educated.

While R&B held sway, the influence of jazz from the cultural cornucopia of Chicago’s South Side was evident, as Cohen makes plain in relatively brief but vivid sections of the book.

Move On Up was a labor of love for Cohen: “My primary motivation to focus on this period [1958–1983] has always been my love for the music from this place and time. As you can imagine, undertaking such an endeavor as writing a book—where it’s always highly unlikely that the financial compensation will be close to enough to cover the time and effort involved in doing it right—has to begin with pure passion for the subject. Fortunately, that passion got reignited with each interview I conducted.”

Anyone wanting to fill in knowledge gaps about this period would do well to read this volume, as attested by Cohen’s emailed comments below.

Jeff Cebulski: What was your motivation in focusing on this unique and momentous period in Chicago cultural history?

Aaron Cohen: When I read books like Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music (which focused on Southern R&B and the Civil Rights Movement) and Suzanne Smith’s Dancing in the Street (which was about Motown and its role in ’60s political changes), I felt that similar narratives should be told focusing on Chicago. Along with the great Chicago artists who created such profound music—including, but by no means limited to, Curtis Mayfield, The Dells, The Chi-Lites—the city’s role in social, cultural, and industrial changes during this time was as significant as in any other part of the country, if not more so. As singer-turned-politician Jerry Butler told me, the politics and music walked hand in hand down Michigan Avenue.

Meanwhile, I felt that there was a lot about the stories behind this music that still needed to be told. And with the passage of time, and passing of so many great musicians, that story needed to be told now. I wanted to discuss the way that these direct connections were forged, beyond just stating that musicians and activists inspired each other, or merely quoting inspirational lyrics.

One of the qualities of soul music from Chicago that has always sounded so exciting was its diversity. The aforementioned artists sounded very different; soul/folk/jazz singer Terry Callier sounded very different than the psychedelic soul band Rotary Connection, who sounded different than the soul/garage rock band Baby Huey & The Babysitters. While these artists were underappreciated outside of the Midwest in the ’60s and ’70s, their global influence proved enduring. Another point I wanted to explore in the book—especially relevant for Chicago Jazz Magazine—is to highlight the significant role that jazz played in how soul music from Chicago sounded. This ranged from former jazz bassist Johnny Pate’s arrangements for The Impressions to Art Ensemble of Chicago saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell receiving guidance from Don Myrick who would later go on to Earth, Wind & Fire’s horn section. Public school educators who were conversant in jazz, such as Capt. Walter Dyett at DuSable High School and James Mack at Crane Junior College, also trained a host of young musicians who would become prominent players, producers, and arrangers.

JC: In reflection of the twentieth century in Black music, I get the impression that the movement from subgenre to subgenre in jazz, blues, and soul is a product of African Americans wanting to move away from expression that got white attention and, ultimately, control. Was something like that happening in Chicago during your focused era?

AC: That’s a complex question, but just like the music was so diverse during this era, so were musicians’ means of addressing issues of racial control in Chicago. Everyone who I focus on for this book was seeking empowerment in their work, artistry, and lives, but it was not always through collective efforts and not always to create such artistic or industrial opposition—though sometimes it was. Often, Curtis Mayfield is regarded as an exemplar of this statement, and rightfully so. He took it upon himself to own his own publishing and start his own record company when he was still a remarkably young man—though his early manager and business partner Eddie Thomas (the “Tom” in Mayfield’s Curtom company) deserves much credit. These moves matched the sense of Black consciousness in his songs, like “Move On Up” and “We’re A Winner.” But even with Mayfield, it’s not so clear cut; Curtom became racially integrated in the 1970s.

Then there was Phil Cohran, who formed the Affro-Arts Theater in response to wanting to maintain a space for Black expression away from what he saw as the diminishing power of Black musicians with the recently integrated musicians’ union and as an ongoing reaction against white racism within the city. But, here too, he had a multifaceted agenda that was not just about resistance, but also about educating young people in his community on the South Side about their cultural history. Meanwhile, other musicians like James Mack felt that integrating the musicians’ unions was the right decision. Others, like composer/producer Charles Stepney, worked within the white-owned Chess Records to record his own innovative compositions and also used the integrated band Rotary Connection as his vehicle to do so along with members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Being a Black composer in Chicago, there was hardly anywhere else for Stepney’s symphonic works to be performed outside of this environment. Then, there have been musicians like Syl Johnson, who still believes in Elijah Muhammad’s principles of self-sufficiency, yet at the same time he has been crafty about receiving due compensation from the predominantly white record industry (in the twenty-first century, that meant successfully fighting for sampling royalties). Even Boscoe, the most militant musical group I mention in the book, received some white backing.

JC: Without giving too much away from the book, how/why did Phil Cohran become such a significant figure during this time?

AC: Phil Cohran (or Kelan Phil Cohran, as he became known later) had an incredible life story even before he influenced so many people at the Affro-Arts Theater as a musician and musicologist. There was his extensive work in big bands, most significantly the Sun Ra Arkestra. Outside of jazz, he also studied music from around the world, from Africa to India to European classical traditions as well as gospel and blues from this country. In so doing, he was able to become a significant teacher and mentor to musicians about looking into their own culture as well as building up resources to open up their own music in several different directions. He also had many holistic ideas regarding personal health and spirituality that were unlike anyone else at the time. All of this made Cohran such an important voice within the Black Arts Movement in Chicago and, as I describe in the book, made the Affro-Arts Theater such an important venue. Even though I got to know him decades later, he also had incredible personal magnetism and charisma that came out during our conversations and when I saw him perform. So I can imagine that he was the type of teacher that attracted people of all ages.

JC: As I read, I felt there was a form of tension—like, insider vs. public—within the Black arts community in relation to what was more important, self (cultural) expression or socio-political expression, and this was sometimes self-defeating while trying to create momentum of a minority presence in an historically racist society. Am I perceiving things correctly based on your observation/study?

AC: Certainly, in any crucial artistic movement, there will be many sources of tensions and these are part of what could make not just interesting art but also interesting books about that art. And, inevitably, mistakes get made by everyone, but I wouldn’t go as far as to describe them as self-defeating. Cohran and the Affro-Arts Theater was the most prominent musical hub of the Black Arts Movement in Chicago and, ultimately, proved to be the most influential (as its regular attendees Maurice White and Chaka Khan would go on to worldwide fame). And, as Chaka told me in the book, it was especially important for a Black teenager like herself as she grew up in a historically racist society.

But, here, too, the Affro-Arts Theater was not so far removed from such popular artists as The Impressions, who performed on its stages and, not coincidentally, Affro-Arts percussionist Master Henry Gibson would contribute to Curtis Mayfield’s widely popular solo projects. Of course, with The Impressions, they were experts at navigating the “insider vs. public” divides that you state: on the one hand, singing popular songs that had wide crossover appeal but also creating records that were popular in the Black community that made light of the supposed lack of white media interest to those songs (“We’re A Winner” being the big case in point). Then there were Black record executives like Carl Davis (Dakar/Brunswick) who proved very successful at creating African American creative spaces within a white corporate structure. And then there were groups like The Pharaohs, the house band at the Affro-Arts Theater, [that] recorded Afrocentric commercials for Afro Sheen but still wore their dashikis while also recording commercials for Harris Bank. Not all of this was harmonious—like you say there was tension—but I’d be surprised if there wasn’t such tension.

JC: While jazz does have its moment in the book, it seemed to be limited to the context of the Afrocentric culture. Did the more conventional jazz musicians have much to say or do during this time? Or were they (by necessity) too close to the white milieu to manifest their views outwardly?

AC: The short answer to your question is that so many different facets of jazz in Chicago shaped so much of soul (and pop) music during this period, I had to focus on just a few aspects of jazz to tell a story within the space that I was provided to tell it. There are also clear through lines connecting Sun Ra to Phil Cohran to The Pharaohs to Earth, Wind & Fire, which make for a cohesive narrative. Another one of my reasons for writing this book was to emphasize that there are these ties between seemingly disparate idioms. I remember before I started really diving into this book, I was speaking with trombonist George Lewis, who was then writing his excellent history of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (A Power Stronger Than Itself). George mentioned how cool it was that Charles Stepney and Muhal Richard Abrams were studying the Joseph Schillinger theory of composition together and that while Abrams brought these ideas to the AACM, Charles Stepney brought them to The Dells. So while nobody would mistake an Abrams album like Levels and Degrees of Light for an album like The Dells’ There Is, they are, in core ways, part of the same family.

Also, at that time, popular jazz musicians with Chicago ties, like Ramsey Lewis and Eddie Harris, did express a lot of outspoken social and cultural beliefs, but that’s a subject for another book entirely.

Aaron Cohen (photo by Keith Ammann)

JC: In your view, will the Afrocentric culture here survive the passing of the generation that spawned it?

AC: Absolutely, and we’re certainly seeing that with so many great young Afrocentric artists here who represent so many artistic disciplines. Here’s a little anecdote: One of the musicians I interviewed for the book, Gavin Christopher, wanted to go to Hyde Park Records to see if they had any of his ’70s albums. So we went, and I introduced him to the young woman working behind the counter who was excited about getting her picture taken with him. That young woman, Angel Bat Dawid, is now becoming a prominent musician herself. (I wish Gavin, Phil Cohran, and so many others were here to see her perform). But there are so many others, like classical singer Julian Otis. And then there are the many artists who are taking the Afrofuturism of Sun Ra into new directions, like poet Eve Ewing. The people who were creating this culture in the ’60s and ’70s, and the people who are creating it today are not just brilliant, but so committed to passing this culture onto subsequent generations that I’m looking forward to being in the audience for performances and demonstrations of new iterations of this movement when I become an even older old man.

JC: When you talked with your sources, what kind of impression did you get about how they feel now about what was accomplished back then, either artistically or politically?

AC: The predominant impression I received from everyone I interviewed was great pride in what they accomplished, artistically and politically, although politics was not always a major topic of our conversations. One of the joys in these interviews for the book was listening to Gene Chandler describe how he and his group devised the phenomenal “Duke of Earl” or Sidney Barnes, Shirley Wahls, and Judy Hauff talking about their adventures in Rotary Connection. The spirit inherent in the music was clearly palpable in these conversations. The ongoing—and completely understandable—resentments that some sources had were regarding the music/media industry itself or dominant political social/power structures.

But, here too, the people I interviewed all described the stands they took to confront these situations and I wanted to describe, and applaud, the ways they stood up for themselves. Some examples on the business side of things include singers Jackie Ross and Mitty Collier looking into where the money was going when they recorded for Chess. Or it could have been Phil Cohran giving platforms for young musicians as well as such activists as Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton to speak at the Affro-Arts Theater. Many of them also were aware of how beloved and influential their artistry has always been throughout the world and the political impact, locally and globally, is still evolving.

JC: In the long run, has this period of time had any lasting effect in Chicago’s socio-political environment? I ask because with the twentieth century I see cycles of activity where art and politics mesh, only to die out and then eventually be replaced with a new one that seems to address the same issues in different cultural language.

AC: One of the important stories of this period is that Chicago musicians who sought how to change their environments—personal as well as political—offered blueprints on the different ways to do so. Entrepreneurship was one way, and we can see its lasting effect within the Black-owned advertising companies that arose in the late 60s and early 70s and used local soul musicians to form their own corporate identities. Artists who used their performance skills to become directly involved with running for public office presented another way, as Jerry Butler exemplified. Rapper Rhymefest followed Butler’s path when he ran for alderman about twenty-five years later. Sometimes contemporary inheritors of these models do use different cultural language; Chance the Rapper may be an example of someone who owns his own self in a way that Curtis Mayfield envisioned, but he moves in a different world and, in so doing, speaks in a different language than his 60s and 70s predecessors.

But then there are others, like musician Mike Reed, who is very much aware of the traditions that preceded him in terms of his ownership of the Hungry Brain and Constellation. It’s interesting, too: last year Salamishah Tillet wrote a great article in The New York Times, “Black Women in Chicago, Getting Things Done” (May 18, 2019 edition). She described Black feminist activists and the impact that they have in the city’s socio-political environment. Meanwhile, Chicago has seen a rise of young African American women who are creating exciting new music that touches on jazz/R&B/hip-hop/spoken word and other idioms. These women include Jamila Woods, her sister Ayanna Woods, Tasha, Ravyn Lenae, Angel Bat Dawid and undoubtedly many others. While it may be too soon to tell, I’m inclined to believe that the rise of the activists who Tillet wrote about and the rise of these musicians are happening now for similar reasons and may be part of a singular definable cultural movement with roots in a shared heritage. That’s also a topic for another book!

I asked Cohen for a list of albums that would best represent the time period he wrote about. Here’s what he sent me:

Jerry Butler, The Spice of Life (Mercury, 1972)

Terry Callier, What Color Is Love? (Cadet, 1972)

The Chi-Lites, (For God’s Sake) Give More Power to The People (Brunswick, 1971)

Mitty Collier, Shades of Mitty Collier: The Chess Singles, 1961–1968 (Kent, 2008)

The Dells, Freedom Means (Cadet, 1971)

Syl Johnson, Is It Because I’m Black (Twinight, 1970)

Curtis Mayfield, Curtis (Curtom, 1970)

The Pharaohs, Awakening (Love ‘n’ Haight, 1996)

Jackie Ross, Jerk and Twine: The Complete Chess Recordings (Kent, 2012)

Rotary Connection, The Rotary Connection (Cadet Concept 1967)

I noticed no jazz artists, per se, were included. He told me, “That’s for another book!”

So, I decided to research, and, with a bit of help from Aaron, here’s a suggested list for relevant jazz during that period:

Ramsey Lewis, Wade in the Water (1966)

Roscoe Mitchell, Sound (1966)

Joseph Jarman, Song For (1966)

Phil Cohran and the Artistic Heritage Ensemble, On the Beach (1967)

Roscoe Mitchell, Old Quartet (1967)

Muhal Richard Abrams, Levels and Degrees of Light (1967)

Art Ensemble of Chicago, Reese and the Smooth Ones and Message to our Folks (1969)

Kalaparush Maurice McIntyre, Humility in the Light of the Creator (1969)

Sun Ra, Atlantis (1969)

Les McCann and Eddie Harris, Swiss Movement (1969)

Johnny Pate, Outrageous (1970)

Von Freeman, Doin’ It Right Now (1972)

George Lewis, Chicago Slow Dance and Shadowgraph (1977)

Fred Anderson, Dark Day (1979)

Cohen suggests that those who are inclined to purchase the book buy it from either their favorite independent bookstore or from The University of Chicago Press.


“Jazz with Mr. C” is written by Jeff Cebulski, a jazz enthusiast and regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine. Contact Jeff at

Jeff Celbulski

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