Music, philosophy and society according to Chicago jazz legend, Kahlil El'Zabar

Eric Neel

Kahlil El'Zabar is a true believer. As a percussionist, composer and ensemble leader, he hears music that moves the body and lifts the spirit, and creates sounds and rhythms meant to show us not only what is, but what might be.

When I spoke with El'Zabar, he was excited about playing the Chicago Jazz Festival and about his role as curator of the upcoming African Festival of the Arts. He described the way musical performance and poetry readings were tied to the prospect of building new relationships in the century ahead. "People of African descent from throughout the world have to move with the inspiration of the twenty-first century," he says. "And the opportunities are infinite. We need to move with a breath of inclusion, because it represents power, rather than exclusion, which limits us."

For El'Zabar, "breath of inclusion" is both a metaphor for communalism and description of an ambitious and eclectic musical methodology. As a master of African-inspired polyrhythmicity, and a student immersed in traditions from New Orleans hot to free jazz and beyond, he creates music full of echoes, dialogues and experiments that can't easily be described or categorized, but should always be listened to.

After Ken Burns' nineteen-hour PBS opus, it's easy to think that the jazz world revolves around Wynton Marsalis, whose impeccable brand of neotraditionalism has long charmed the popular imagination. But the heart of jazz always has been at its experimental edges, in the improvisatory pockets where musicians pursue new sounds and audiences come ready to be both pushed back to roots and pulled out toward edges.

For more than thirty years, Chicago has been home to one of the music's most vital scenes, thanks in large part to members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, including Kahil El'Zabar. Since 1965, the AACM collective has fostered adventurous, original music and promoted the musicians who play it. As the leader of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble (along with Ernest Dawkins) and the Ritual Trio, El'Zabar has helped chart the exhilarating blend of intimacy and exploration that's become the city's musical signature. Though El'Zabar finds Chicago's musical community somewhat scattered, he thinks of the city as a crucible of his art. "You had large communities celebrating the idea of creative expression," he explains. "This entire city was steeped in a certain feeling and affinity for the music, the music of improvised acoustic conceptions."

El'Zabar gets closest to that feeling for the music when he's in the midst of rehearsals. "I enjoy rehearsal a lot, because it's intimate, which means it's uninhibited," he says. "It's focused toward the craft, and toward development within your skills. I actually work to rehearse. Some people rehearse to work, [but] the better opportunities I have to work allow me to spend time rehearsing, because I can afford to. Rehearsals are casual environments with people that you have intimate chemistries with. For me they're very special rituals." He suggested that recording sessions were difficult, because they are usually "in a cold environment, and it takes an enormous amount of discipline to express something that's not cold."

The Ritual Trio's last two records are anything but cold. In 1999, El'Zabar and his colleagues, Ari Brown and Malachi Favors, put out "Conversations," along with free jazz giant Archie Shepp, and last year they released "Africa N'Da Blues," which features former Coltrane collaborator Pharoah Sanders. (Both records are on Chicago's Delmark label.) Each combines traditional and avant-garde impulses and reveals El'Zabar's simultaneous feel for various styles. I asked him whether, in playing with Shepp and Sanders, he was trying to recuperate something from a time when the music seemed particularly powerful as a cultural and personal force. "Really the sixties is the culmination of mind, body, and spirit—this time they call Fire Music. This music still has this element of swing, it has a rage of urgency, based on the political constructs of the period, and it has an immediacy in terms of its impact, its ability to affect the libido as well as the mental side of every human being."

But El'Zabar is interested in more than just preserving some sound from the past, no matter how adventurous. Instead, he's trying to create music that recalls and reconfigures what's come before. "Life has been in a continual motion through change," he suggests. "If change is not a part of it, then life will not sustain. If we don't support the idea of challenging conceptualizations of the music-based on information of an earlier period, but redirected for the inspiration of the moment-then we limit the possibilities of future creative expression. I attempt to reflect [what] I was given and then try to give it back in a way that is useful. That is my desire."

Challenging the conceptualizations he's inherited, whether they be swing, bop, or free, has meant that El'Zabar often works the margins between familiar schools and traditions. How does he think of himself? Is he an avant-garde artist? "I just find labels are useful for particular contexts of communication, but they really have nothing to do with the substance of an expression," he answers. "And, to be an artist, if one is able to convey mind, heart and spirit through their chosen discipline, they must be beyond all labels in their desire." He concedes that "folks need dialogue through category," but insists that "people are a lot more unique than those situations that they're associated with."

The AACM always has been conscious of potential relationships between music and social change, and I wondered whether and how El'Zabar's attention to human and musical diversity translated into politics. The music, he says, "is related to the broader sense of politics, which is not necessarily a part of a direct, socially engineered environment, but more about the negotiation of ecology in terms of the ebbs and tides of nature and the relationships of human exchange. I think that artists, through their devotion, connect to constants."

This is a key point for El'Zabar—being attuned to a musical moment means transcending the whims and "conjectures" of a given political moment and appealing to something more enduring. As a musician and teacher (he has been a professor of interdisciplinary arts at the University of Illinois), he's devoted to the idea of extra-political, universal connections. Some may dismiss this sort of talk as airy utopianism, but there is something earnest and brave about El'Zabar's delivery that makes you believe him. Talking to him, you begin to feel silly about your postmodern pretensions, and uneasy about your corporate habits and technological comforts. The music's "connected to something elemental and something metaphysical," he says. "You know, it's like you can hear the sound but you can't touch the notes, but there's that element that we are all connected to, and it's life, and there are constants in that life, you know, relativity, polarity, gender... and no matter how abstract an artist may be, he or she can never get beyond what is in nature."

El'Zabar was born and raised in Chicago, and his approach to musical creation both comes from and contrasts with his relationship to the city. "You know, growing up in this city, at a time when I considered that the city had great dignity, was an enormous source of inspiration," he explains. But he feels that we've lost touch with some basic principles of humanity and kindness: "As technologies advanced, and our languages became similar across the board, in different parts of this country, as well as different places around the world, for me, it has changed the fabric of the city. For instance, when I was a child, if one lived on the street, they were still given the dignity of humanness. Today, if a person is unfortunate enough to live on the street, they are treated and looked upon as being inhuman and I think that's an enormous reflection on the loss of dignity for life that we once had. As we measure ourselves by how much we've accomplished or who we think we are, or by economic accomplishment and how much we have, the greatest thing that we have is Life, and it's a mystery and a miracle beyond our control. "

With the Ritual Trio, El'Zabar tries to carry on a tradition from "the turn of the twentieth century until the early seventies, when there was enormous communal celebration and the music represented the life, and it was able to take people out of some of the daily drudgery that you go through working and sacrificing and whatever, and you could relate to others in communion to say that the life is still wonderful."

For El'Zabar, the height of such communion, and the birth of his own life as a musician, took place in the 1960s. He rejects the conventional wisdom that avant-garde musicians from that period turned their backs on listeners, abandoning them in pursuit of ever more challenging sounds and structures. He recalls a time when "we were having concerts in the late sixties and seventies with thousands of people, all over America. I mean, I remember concerts at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago... three-thousand... two-thousand young people, politically oriented people, flower children, Sun Ra-ites. I mean everyone was mixed in the idea of rebellion to the conservative [structures] and a desire to learn to love freely."

El'Zabar is most interested, however, in developing and sustaining productive relationships between musicians and the larger communities in which they live and play: "It's a given that Charlie Parker is considered a genius," he says. "But if there hadn't been such a strong community in Kansas City that had an overwhelming attraction to the desire to become excellent, could he have become so excellent? I doubt it. There are things that push us."

If the artist is pushed by the community, the community is also pushed by the artist, and for El'Zabar, that works on the most basic levels. "What we do is extremely valuable, because we do give service," he says. "On a physiological level, we affect everything—the endocrine system, the nervous system, the circulatory system. The intensity of our music affects the blood stream. We impact the philosophical and the emotional, and we show an example of alternative lifestyles at a time when people have a need to find an outlet, and when media is so condemning of anything outside of mainstream, accepted behavior. We have consistently given examples of the possibilities of humanness."

The rise of a conservative ethic in jazz, the sort of aesthetic that since the eighties has put Wynton Marsalis at the top of the capital food chain, frustrates El'Zabar most, because it undermines the music's commitment to discovery and possibility. We need to get beyond the idea that musicians are entertainers, he argues: "The idea has always been to be of service, being conscious of that, and unconscious too, accepting that we don't know everything. And that is a big part of our beauty, you know, to me that's the big difference between the intimate vulnerability of a tone that Miles Davis comes about with and then the replication from a Wynton Marsalis direction, which doesn't have the same purity—even though it's excellent in terms of its quality."

El'Zabar asks us all to listen for the unpredictable, to understand, for example, that "Miles is saying I'm accepting the possibility and won't you travel with me. I'm cognizant of some really strong reference points, I have studied the possibilities of this approach, but I am not afraid to accept the moment, with the fear that I may not get there." "That tension," says El'Zabar, "is what creates the swell of inspiration. But the idea of that kind of frailty and simultaneous strength, by just accepting the moment ... that's too rare these days. We're coming into a world today, through this system of education where there's hardly any exposure to, and no celebration of, improvisation. I don't hardly know any young people that can invent a meal. And those things are really important—to take nothing and find a way to make it special. What was always celebrated [in the music] was the idea of invention, regardless of the success ... the success was based in the attempt, and the result may not always have been understood in the most concrete of terms, but the acceptance of the possibilities is always what was urged and what was pushed."

He describes this approach in terms of a kind of listening. "It's a matter of listening within the unique calling of the moment," he explains. "Some things speak out louder than others at times in terms of what to approach or how to adapt or what the intent of expression an artist is receiving in order to give."

He hopes, through his listening, to give his own listeners a different understanding of time and space: "Time is just continual motion, which means that past, present, and future are all going on all the time, rather than in the linear sequence that's been thought of in the calendars we've developed.

Well, the musicians were on that... way back. The same things that are being discussed in some of the highest institutions and academies of science are what we have been reflecting, expressing and conceptualizing for years."

The promise of participating in these alternative, nonlinear conceptions of time rests in listening to improvised music and the interactions that take place within ensembles. And, according to El'Zabar, to listen this way is to let go of what we know. "I think we have become so fascinated with the idea of category and the possibility of brain matter accepting an enormous amount of information," he says, that "everybody's become authorities of knowing things."

Ever the faithful creator, and always working toward and from what he calls the "moment of vulnerability," El'Zabar believes the possibilities of improvisation and ritual rehearsal ultimately will be heard because they enable a kind of cultural and individual openness. It is the music that allows us to acknowledge our distance from one another and express our desire for connection. "I think that we are in a vital moment of ultimate opportunity," he said. "But honesty is at the crux of the challenge. And we've gone through centuries of dishonesty in regards to human relationships, in regards to the quality of our involvements with one another, in past histories that are laden with insurmountable wrongs. But [maybe] we can be honest in these times and open up to the vast possibilities of an alternative. We can't get there unless we accept what we have done and then give retribution, but if we can, then maybe the possibilities with all this wonderful technology we've developed, with the proper usage, it can make connections, can create new audiences, develop new communities, can inspire and educate children and give them the possibilities of adventure, innovation and improvisation. That's what my hope is."