A Fireside Chat with Kahil El'Zabar
“ ...technology has brought about an insular community. I think it can be reversed when we create and work with that and we can create a community that once again comes out publicly and fills a certain comradeship with one another and we can use it without spending as much money in advertising and media in order to develop this new following that I think exists. ”
All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.
KAHIL EL'ZABAR: It was definitely a passion based on being influenced by older musicians that I have a lot of respect for, the way they lived and the music that they played and so as a child, I was able to see folks like Gene Ammons and the Freeman brothers, George and Von. Roland Kirk lived here at that time. Yusef Lateef lived in Chicago at that time. Eddie Harris lived in Chicago, Herbie Hancock, all my older peers in the AACM, Jarman, Favors, you name it. And to see so many great musicians and the personas that inspired me, the way of life that I wanted to live. I also had an uncle, who had played with Bird and Fats Navarro and between him and my father, they took me to all the cats when I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. I went on the road when I was sixteen and by the time I was seventeen, I was in Europe hanging with the cats from the Art Ensemble. I was working with Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre and then I came back and went to college for a couple of years and then I went to Africa to study. I went back to Europe around '73 and then from then on, I have pretty much been making my living as a musician.
AAJ: Why percussion? Why not pick up a horn?
KE: In the Sixties, you had percussionists like Master Henry Gibson that was playing with Curtis Mayfield and he was pretty much used as melodic accents. When you listen to a lot of Curtis' work after the Impressions, rather than a horn player, he's got Henry Gibson out front on percussions. A lot of people had missed that in the sense of compositional expression. We had a person in Chicago that taught me and Moye from the Art Ensemble and Derf Reklaw that worked with Eddie Harris and works with a lot of folks in the Leimert Park area out in LA. It was an instrument of pride. It was an instrument of leadership. It was people of African decent finally recognizing that there was a beauty and a dignity in African cultural music. I started out playing drums first because my father and my uncle played drums and so that was always in the house, but with the hand percussion, there was a certain sense of leadership that was related to that that I wanted to be part of. So I pursued it and there were a lot of great teachers and a lot of great examples and at that time, in the late Sixties and early Seventies, you could actually make a living doing it. It was kind of interesting, Fred. I came into the music and there were all kind of working opportunities in jazz and rhythm and blues or whatever and by the middle Seventies, I was one of the few percussionists that were out here, especially as a leader.
AAJ: What are the conceptual differences between playing hand percussion and a traditional drum kit?
KE: Well, with a normal drum kit, and I play that as well, we're playing with sticks and the coordination is based on having the left foot do one thing and the right foot another thing, the left hand one thing and the right hand do a different thing and it has contrary motion. With the hand percussion, when it comes to African drums and congas and Latin percussion or whatever, it is using the different parts of the hand in order to accent and bring out the notes, notes that are in the higher range of the instrument, the middle range, and then the lower range of that instrument. It takes a certain physicality that is different than the trap drums because you are playing with your bare hands, whereas with the trap drums, you are playing with the sticks. The other challenge for me was how to create a sound that had the same kind of power in terms of presence that I had with my trap kit and I think that I've been able to do that pretty well.
AAJ: Why did you journey to Africa?
KE: I went to the University of Ghana. I was on an exchange program. I studied with a master ballaphone, which is the predecessor for the marimba and the xylophone. I was studying music as well as philosophy, so the way of life for those people and how that translates into language. While I was there, I realized that my experience in the US was my ethnicity. I was of blues. I was of jazz. I was of funk. I was of gospel. I had played all those musics with great people, predominantly out of Chicago and I wasn't going to try to emulate being of Africa. They would be influences on my work, but my direct influences are Miles and Threadgill, Gene Ammons and Curtis Mayfield, Major Lance, Aretha Franklin or whatever. That is how I came up with the idea of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble before the Ritual Trio.
AAJ: What made the strongest impression upon you during your time in Africa?
KE: The honesty, that in terms of people being able to come closer together, eye contact, hand contact, telepathy that seemed to exist in everyday of life and how that translated into music because music was a way of life. It wasn't just something that you get paid to do, but it had utility in every day of your life. The most important thing was the real truth in accepting life in its purist sense and then learning to express that through art.
AAJ: Does that stem from their understanding of the fundamentals?
KE: Well, it is a relationship to the basic ecology. So there are a lot of complications in nature, right? It changes constantly and we're not in control of it, so it is actually very sophisticated. But it is a basis of nature and ecology that define your life rather than social definitions that have come from our opinions in this urban experience.
AAJ: Do the social definitions that we have in this country limit our creativity?
KE: They are sometimes contrary to nature, whereas in most traditional cultures, they are in compliment to nature.
AAJ: What was the scene like in Chicago when you returned?
KE: It was starting to go down a little bit. The scene started drying up between '73 and '75. I think it was the same time as the growth of the Republican Party.
AAJ: How did the growth of the Republican Party contribute to the demise of improvised music in Chicago?
KE: Well, the infrastructures of how we are socialized really started to change from an autonomy kind of control situation. We had come out of the Sixties where ideas were pretty open and there was a passion for investigating other ways to live. Then because there were many consequences with that, trying to fight the Vietnam War, the political struggles of the Panthers, the Yuppies, or whatever and then a more conservative ethic coming in with political shifts that were there, media becoming much more censored, which meant less music of Trane, Trane after '64, not being on the radio, not hearing Shepp, not hearing Art Ensemble, not even hearing Lennie Tristano or anything that had to be more thought-provoking in its programmatic style, the dawning of the marketed jazz musician, that wasn't necessarily tenured from the street experience of performing, but could come from the conglomerate, EMI, Columbia, Warner Bros., or whatever. A lot changed between '75 to about '85 and in the process, some of the most original voices in the music were subjugated to secondary positions. But what I also find interesting is that many of the players from the business, marketing, and the areas of scholarship associated with the music, those that were there, Cuscuna (Michael Cuscuna), Lundvall (Bruce Lundvall), Stanley Crouch, as a writer and as a musician, these were all vanguard people that you see in the Eighties that became part of a more established environment because they were able to get jobs and there were certain requirements with those jobs and so the people who inspired their earlier careers were left out of the mix in the Eighties through the Nineties.
AAJ: You mentioned Archie Shepp, whom you featured on the last Ritual Trio album.
KE: Well, I mean the record Bright Moments with Joseph Jarman and Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre and the new Ritual Trio album that is one of the newest records with Pharoah because Verve dropped Pharoah. I find it interesting that David Murray, Henry Threadgill, Archie Shepp, Sonny Simmons, Sonny Murray, there are so many important musicians, who are still in their prime, that is what people forget, that these musicians are between forty-five and fifty years old and so this is a very healthy time for people. It is a time where they have really developed their ideas and chronicled them in ways that may not be the so called impassioned youth that we once were, but we are at an age where we express things based on a historical analysis that we lived and we can express it honestly and there is no celebration of our tenure and our commitment of twenty-five, thirty-five, forty-five years and I think Shepp is just a prime example of a person who can intellectually articulate the commitment to this music. He is still an extremely expressive and creative person. Some people talk about the technique of Shepp at twenty-five, but why would you compare Shepp at sixty to twenty-five. It is a different scenario. The point with art is your ability to bring something honest and pure from yourself in an original way. I think he is still successful at that.
AAJ: Let's put the shoe on your foot and tell me what you would do to advance the presentation of this music if you were president of a major label.
KE: I would love to see a label that had the economic and politic support to be non-genre specific and that the purpose of it would be to promote the creative commitment and that it would be a decision that would be more of an A&R kind of analysis. In other words, you would have some folks who would be aware of someone like Darrell Jones, who is a bassist, electric bassist, no matter of whether he is playing Madonna or Sting or Miles or whatever, at his instrument, he is an extraordinary technician and he has been influential without people really realizing it in terms of that style of playing. I would love to see him play with Sonny Simmons, who has the ability to translate his vernacular, his harmonics in any style of music, but he is not given the opportunity. I would love to see more projects like the Olu Dara project. I would love to see a Masters Series like they did at Columbia in the Forties, where they did that Masters Series with Duke and Louis Armstrong. I would love to see a thing done where we understand the importance of Threadgill, the composer. What would you like to do Henry? Would it be a symphonic set or a chamber situation, a small jazz combo or combination of that? At least document a project that gives him the full plethora of opportunities of his creative resource. A great project would be, Joseph Jarman says he is retired from the Art Ensemble, well, where does that happen? Is there a thing that Yo-Yo Ma would like to do with Shepp or Pharoah? Why can't we stretch some of the boundaries and deal with people who have the creative sensibility, the chops, the dedication, and the love for it? Why can't we find some young musicians like a Graham Haynes, who are not just focused on bebop is the only way in which to research as a younger artist the next directions of the music? It would be a cornucopia more so of celebrating the creative spirit. Yusef Lateef turns eighty years old and there are no major birthday parties. He has no major recording contract and he has stayed honest to his directions, whether we agree with his directions or not, he has been honest and creative for over sixty years as a performing, improvising musician, and there is no major celebration of such a testament.
AAJ: A shame.
KE: It is a travesty.
AAJ: What was your vision behind the formation of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble?
KE: It was in '73 and it was upon returning from Africa and a desire to make a statement that was inclusive of my heritage as well as my contemporary lineage. The Ethnic was developed as a larger group, originally of about thirteen people, including Don Moye and a couple of other percussionists and it became a quintet for about two years. We went to Europe in '76 and we recorded a record in Italy and in Germany and what happened was that we lost the bassist and other drummer. It ended up being the three of us and we had developed this book of music that I had written and we wanted to continue and we decided that since we were the guys that had hung through everything, that that's what it would become and it became this two horns and a drum. So it came down to the three of us and then we had Kalaparusha after that and then Joe Bowie and then Wilkerson left about three years ago and Ernest Dawkins, who is a former student of mine and he's been a wonderful replacement for Edward. Recently, we added Harold Murray on a record called Continuum. We are trying to keep going.
AAJ: And how does that led to the advent of the Ritual Trio?
KE: The Ritual Trio were actually guys that I had played with even before Wilkerson and Bowie. They are like my big brothers. I was on the bandstand with both Ari and Malachi in '68 and '69 and they were teaching me how to swing and the dynamics and just learning how to play this music, not in the Ritual Trio, but in various situations, I would encounter them and they would share with me and in '80, we did the original recording for Sound Aspects with Lester Bowie and Malachi and it was about working with my mentors in a pure situation, which I have tried to do in various sets and give respect to the continuum of generations sharing in the dialogue of this creative music. When the Ritual Trio comes together, it is about creating this moment that has a sense of sacrament to the purity of creating music, coming out of the idea of swing, whereas with the Ethnic, it is much more in the polyphonic relationship associated with kind of the transition of African music into the language of Africans in America. I'm very fortunate, Fred, in that there are musicians, who are some of the greatest musicians in the world, who happen to be my friends and have been patient with me with my various projects and ideas and have helped me make those projects happen.
AAJ: Let's touch on your most recent Ritual Trio record with Pharoah Sanders.
KE: Well, you have got Malachi Favors, who actually played the last gig with Coleman Hawkins before he passed. You have got Ari Brown, who has been in both the McCoy Tyner band and Elvin Jones' bands and Chicago has always been known for having great rhythm sections, people like Wilbur Ware and Jack DeJohnette developed his chops as a pianist and a drummer here in Chicago and Steve McCall and what he did in terms of pulse and translating that music in the Seventies and Eighties and no one has given Steve recognition for being a link for what happened from Sunny Murray on the outside and cats like Billy Higgins on the inside of swing. That sound that is related to creating a groove and keeping an open space at the same time, that is what we've worked on with the Ritual Trio for years and so there is a fraternity in terms of those ideas. Shepp and Pharoah, they express things in very different ways, but they get to the crux with a certain honesty of expression that is an important lesson in terms of these very talented young technical musicians, that if they could lend themselves to some of the inherent qualities that we have in our hearts and can bring that out with that technique, that is what both these cats do so well. I'm really proud of both of those records. They are very different, but at the same time there is a continuity that is there.
AAJ: And let's not forget the heavy record in CIMP with Bluiett.
KE: Oh, thank you, Fred. Bluiett is very under-recognized, but it's the baritone so.
AAJ: Let's talk about this venue that you are developing.
KE: It is called the Ascension Gallery and Performance Space. It is my fourth performance space. In the late Seventies, when I came back from Europe, I opened a space. Then I opened a place called Rituals, that was a club in downtown Chicago, where everybody played, Blythe, David Murray, James Newton, my bands, everybody played. I closed that after three years and then I opened a restaurant that had music and food. This next space that I am doing is a space working with predominantly young artists, a lot of indie rock musicians and I am trying to do what Jarman and Malachi Favors did for me. They created situations in order for me to develop as a musician. At this point, I can kind of afford the situation that I'm doing. I learned from younger artists. We are working with spoken word artists, hip hop artists. We are working with older jazz and creative improvisers. But the idea is creating a new audience and that new audience I think is within the internet and the email mailing lists. That technology has brought about an insular community. I think it can be reversed when we create and work with that and we can create a community that once again comes out publicly and fills a certain comradeship with one another and we can use it without spending as much money in advertising and media in order to develop this new following that I think exists. If you think about that college radio is the only true outlet for alternative music right now. So since we have so many wonderful young people who are diligent to the task of exposing their communities to what exists, that they may not find in popular forms of media, then we need to support that and create environments where they can create. So it is the Ascension Gallery and Performance Space based on Coltrane's great composition, "Ascension," which is what we are doing. We're trying to aspire. We are trying to ascent.
AAJ: How far along is the venture?
KE: Well, we have been here for about six months and we're building up the space. It is a 5,300 square foot space and it can hold about a thousand people. Adjacent to it is a 6,000 rooftop in the center of downtown with the skyline of Chicago. It is the top floor of the building. We have had a couple of events in the raw with the space. We hope to be in full motion by the end of August around the time of the Chicago Jazz Festival.
AAJ: How can the general public support the music?
KE: I think the most important way to support the music, Fred, is to actually participate by coming out to live performances and also supporting the ability to promote that. It is not just about the artists or the promoter or the gallery space or the club doing it. The public has to realize that in a sense we are being starved by not taking the responsibility to demand what we want on the radio, to come out to events and say these are the kinds of things that we want to share and experience, and so we need an interactive community that realizes that there is an unfair void that only through our own responsibility can we fulfill.