Creative Quarantine: Writer Aaron Cohen

Aaron Cohen | Photo Credit: Lavonne Cohen

Aaron Cohen checks in with Esthetic Lens to talk about positive quarantine rituals, maintaining creative discipline, his latest book, and suspended book tour.

1. How are you holding up?

I’m holding up reasonably well and for that I thank my wife, Lavonne, who has been especially vigilant regarding our health—before the pandemic and especially now. While I have not been exercising as actively as I was before, Lavonne and I have made daily walks a big part of our lives, and that has helped with our mental stability along with our cardiovascular health. Some days are difficult for me to get started on projects and my motivation can flag, but turning off the news helps. Still, it is a constant battle to retain the discipline and optimism that’s necessary to do the writing and teaching work that I do. We’ve also been diligent about wearing masks and maintaining social distancing. A friend of ours lost his life to COVID-19, other friends have gotten seriously ill and all of us need to do all that we can to stop its spread.

Move On Up, Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power | Published by The University of Chicago Press | Curtis Mayfield, Photo Credit: Bruce W. Talamon

2. Has Covid-19 had an effect on your work? If so, in what way?

COVID-19 has made my work considerably more difficult. At the end of 2019 and in the beginning of 2020, I had been touring across the Midwest and California to promote my new book (Move On Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power). These readings were going so well that I had an event set up in New Orleans and had been in discussions about bringing the book to other cities in the South and East Coast. The pandemic cancelled all of those plans. Since both of my books and many of my major articles depended on getting to know people well enough to have lengthy interviews with them, the pandemic has curtailed such social interactions. With COVID-19 also curtailing live music events and putting a financial strain on publications, I’m losing more freelance income than it would be healthy for me to think about. Meanwhile, I’ve adjusted to teaching exclusively online and changing my fall syllabus accordingly. When I teach humanities, my requirements included students’ attending concerts and art exhibits for their papers. Those assignments are impossible now, so now the focus is on virtual performances and galleries’ web sites.

Amazing Grace 33 and 1/3 | Published by Bloomsbury | Aretha Franklin, Photo Credit: Ken Cunningham

3. Is there anything you’ve added to your practice that you’d like to keep after this is over?

This summer I started taking courses for my master’s certification to teach online. While it remains uncertain if such a credential will be required for my work in community colleges, it is important to be prepared for anything that the future may bring. I would also like to sharpen my skills at online teaching, as I was thrown into this new situation so suddenly back in March. I’ll continue with this certification program into 2021. Since I haven’t been able to go to concerts or movie theaters in more than six months, I’ve been reading several books that I’ve had on my shelves that were waiting for my attention. This month, I hope to get through Marlon James’ novel A Brief History of Seven Killings and David Treuer’s history of Native America, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee. My more constant spring and summer reading has given me more incentive to acquire new books—I recommend Eddie Glaude Jr.’s Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. While Glaude discusses what Baldwin’s 1960s and 1970s writings mean for this country during the Trump era, all of this will be relevant long after this year’s election. Maybe renewing my time with so many books will help inspire me to start researching and writing my next one, but it’s too soon to know.

4. Of the artists you follow, who is handling this particularly well?  

The artists who I admired before the pandemic have continued to inspire me, especially jazz musicians. Before COVID-19, they were creating great music and were dedicated to their craft and their community in the face of formidable challenges. That has not changed. Here in Chicago, drummer Mike Reed continues to compose, practice and perform. He’s also been doing great work in sustaining his venues—Constellation and Hungry Brain—as well as steering the Chicago Jazz Festival’s planning committee (of which I’m a member). Another great drummer and composer, Charles Rumback, reaffirmed to me the urgency for us to gird ourselves up for a future that’s been more uncertain than it has ever been. Others, like saxophonist Greg Ward, cellist Tomeka Reid and pianist Eric Reed are actively seeking new ways to be a performer and educator in this difficult situation. I could easily list hundreds more across the country! At the same time, I’ve remained friendly with many of the veteran R&B performers who I interviewed in Move On Up and just as they’ve created great music during hard times decades ago, they are continuing to do so today, such as Daryl “Captain Sky” Cameron and The Notations. There are also numerous wonderful gospel singers whose voices and work provide inspiration especially in times like these, such as Pastor Mitty Collier and Pastor Donald Gay. We can all learn a lot from their example, especially from their life stories.

Aaron Cohen teaches humanities and English composition at City Colleges of Chicago and writes for numerous publications, including the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Reader. Cohen’s recent book, Move On Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power (University of Chicago Press), looks at the social and musical changes that shaped R&B in Chicago during the 1960s and 1970s. His first book, Amazing Grace (33 1/3; Bloomsbury), analyzes Aretha Franklin’s popular 1972 soul-gospel album. Cohen has been a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar, DownBeat editor, and two-time recipient of the Deems Taylor Award for outstanding music writing from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). 


Move On Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power:

Amazing Grace: