Doctor Doctor

Billy Cohn wanted to be a rock star, and he is — as a trombone-toting heart surgeon and medical inventor.

Dr. Billy Cohn is running late to our interview. He texts: "I'm standing by for a LASER lead extraction. They need me another 20 minutes."

It may seem like a cliché, but Cohn, who makes his DJ debut Friday night at Leon's Lounge's "Celebrity DJ" series, is something of a renaissance man: Heart surgeon, inventor and professional trombonist currently playing with local Latino rockers Chango Man and popular '70s cover band Disco Expressions.

Cohn recently made big news and medical history when he and Texas Heart Institute elder statesman Dr. Bud Frazier ("my mentor," says Cohn) successfully implanted a continuous-flow turbine mechanical heart in a terminally ill patient in March.

Billy Cohn takes an unscheduled trombone break in the St. Luke's operating theater.
Troy Fields
Billy Cohn takes an unscheduled trombone break in the St. Luke's operating theater.
Cohn's continuous-flow tubine mechanical heart brought him international attention.
Courtesy of Dr. Cohn
Cohn's continuous-flow tubine mechanical heart brought him international attention.

Location Info


Leon's Lounge

1006 McGowen
Houston, TX 77002

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: Downtown/ Midtown


Billy Cohn's "Celebrity DJ Night"

9 p.m. Friday, August 25, at Leon's Lounge, 1006 McGowen, 713-659-5366. No cover.

Given the man's condition, the medical team really didn't know what results to expect, but they were ecstatic when after a few days the patient came out of his coma. Lucid and alert, he was able to spend a few precious final days with family members. Although the patient's rare disease was incurable, the device extended the man's life by several months, and the worldwide medical community took notice.

Cohn rushes in 45 minutes late, still in pale blue St. Luke's scrubs.

"I'm sorry, they've been delaying this since 3:30," he says. "They'll call me if I need to run back over there."

Over the next hour, Cohn unveils a diverse and interesting life. A member of the Memorial High School marching band, he initially intended to make music his career, enrolling in the music school at Oberlin College in Ohio.

"My ambition was to be a rock star," Cohn declares with a wry, look-at-me-now smile.

"I played trombone, but I also taught myself guitar and eventually bass," he recalls. "Punk was what my friends and I were into, and it was like everybody in music school had a band. We used to have these crazy parties that would last all weekend with a bunch of bands playing at someone's house."

"But even as a kid I was always fascinated by all the amazing developments that were going on in the Houston medical community. My mom used to cut out articles and put them by my cereal bowl so I would read them while I had breakfast."

He laughs: "I guess it must've soaked in."

Somewhere in college, Cohn realized that maybe music wasn't going to be a financially viable career choice.

"I wouldn't say I grew up, but I suddenly at some point right in there just got much more serious about what am I really going to do," says Cohn, who is now married with five children between ages 11 and 19. "And then I got into medical school."

"The funny thing is all my buddies in the program thought I'd end up being a plastic surgeon," he continues. "No one believed me when I'd say that I was going to try for the heart surgeon program. But I finally got accepted into a group of 35 students at Baylor College of Medicine."

Dr. Denton Cooley would eventually winnow that group of 35 until only seven emerged from the program as chiefs. Cohn was one of the seven, and he became the last chief resident for renowned heart surgery pioneer Dr. Michael DeBakey.

"Believe me, I had people all along who didn't believe I would ever go for it, much less get there," Cohn says.

After his Baylor residency, Cohn moved north to Boston to join the faculty of Harvard Medical School, where he rose to Adjunct Professor of Surgery. He wound up staying for 12 years, but even before he left, Cohn had immersed himself in the local music scene.

"I was always into art and I got a summer job working at a T-shirt shop where I'd help with layouts and printing," he recalls. "And that's how I met Little Screamin' Kenny."

Kenny, local musical legend and Rockin' Robin guitar salesman, was then working with the band Dr. Rockitt, who happened to be looking for a horn section. Upon learning that Cohn played trombone, Kenny asked if Cohn could put something together. Through that brief exposure to the local scene, Cohn came to the notice of Ezra Charles.

"Ezra was in his heyday, playing everywhere, so I was thrilled to join his band," says Cohn. "He's always had good bands, but I think that group of people may be the best combo he ever put together. I played about 90 gigs with Ezra, and it was just smoking hot. Maybe the most fun I ever had in music."

These days, when he's not in the surgical theater, attending board meetings or working in the Texas Heart Institute laboratory — where he, Frazier and Cooley are currently studying a yearling calf with one of the mechanical hearts walking on a treadmill — Cohn plays with Latino rockers and Continental Club regulars Chango Man. He also works with cover band Disco Expressions and put together a one-off horn section for a Gourds gig a couple of years back at Warehouse Live.

"If you look at my office, you'll see that it's a lot like my life — all over the place," grins Cohn. "I love my medical work, but a lot of that takes place in a high-stress environment, so playing music helps take the edge off and put some fun into the equation."

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My Voice Nation Help

Congratulations Billy and Happy Birthday It was a great interesting article. Hope your DJ debut went well! Cousin Ellen Manshel

Gary Packwood
Gary Packwood

Just getting accepted at Oberlin College in Ohio is a pretty good indicator that the good Doc was a star-in-the-making.

Great article!


Dr Heart Rock~ I'm NOT worthy..........*smirkJohnnie Walker~

Mr. J
Mr. J

What no slight of hand?


Billy what the hell are you doin with a trombone in the operating room?


Yeah yeah: Harvard Medical School, blah blah, saving lives, blah blah, miracle inventor, etc.

What about Billy's single greatest achievement:The Mall Band?!

Top THAT, Da Vinci.


great piece on Billy...these kinds of special interest stories don't come around everyday!

Jesse Dayton

Chuck Savage
Chuck Savage

I have known Billy for about 28 years since he played with Ezra in"The Econo Brass"... their motto was "show, blow, get the dough, and go"...he also had one season of reality TV on ABC as his own bad self back in '05. I too wish this article was longer... and I am proud to call Billy my friend.

Chuck Savage


What an amazing person. I bow to his unflagging energy. All that and 5 kids too. This article needs to be about 6 pages longer.

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