Kahil El'Zabar Preview- Interview with a Chicago music legend

Kahil El’Zabar, born in Chicago, Illinois on November 11, 1953, is a composer, multi-instrumentalist, poet, educator and artist. His discography for Delmark includes some 60 records, mostly jazz or jazz-inspired, with other artists, including his Ethnic Heritage Ensemble and Ritual Trio groups, both founded during the 1970’s, when he joined the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, (AACM), becoming it’s chairman in 1975. In early 2014, Dwayne Johnson-Cochran’s documentary about the brilliant but enigmatic jazz innovator, “Be Known: The Mystery Of Kahil El’Zabar” was released, revealing the triumphs as well as the troubles of this much-decorated musician’s life; El'Zabar scored the film.

Kahil El'Zabar with an Atenteben, a Ghanaian flute; photo courtesy of Bill Tucker

El’Zabar, known for his creative and prolific profile, is Executive Creative Director of the Chicago Academy of Music, holds a PHD in Inter-Disciplinary Arts from Lake Forest College, (2006), has worked and recorded with such greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderley, Nina Simone, and many others. He’s a "musician's musician", a versatile composer and  a sophisticated cultural arts specialist, appointed in 1994 by President Bill Clinton to the National Task Force on Arts in Education. He received the International Ambassador’s award in 2012 from President Barak Obama’s administration, and the title “Chevalier Medal of Letters” from the Counsel General of France in 2014.

This week, on Thursday, April 28th, 2016, at DuSable Museum of African American History, there will be a panel discussion from 3:00 to 5:00 P.M. to provide insight into The Fulcrum Point New Music Project’s April 29, 2016 concert, “Proclamation! The Black Composer Speaks”, at Promontory Chicago, 5311 S. Lake Park Ave. The concert and the panel discussion will feature El’Zabar, internationally celebrated composer Jeffrey Mumford, and other renowned performers and composers, including Fulcrum Point’s music director, Stephen Burns.

Kahil El'Zabar; photo courtesy of Sandro Miller

Looking ahead to both the panel discussion and the concert, this reviewer had the opportunity to interview Kahil El’Zabar about the upcoming concert and his current perspectives about the direction of new music. His candid, caring, and extremely articulate remarks are paraphrased, in pertinent part, as follows:

For this project, he is part of the talent. He will be appearing with his group, The Kahil El’ Zabar Quartet, consisting of Robert Irving, Jr., Miles Davis’ pianist; Harrison Bankhead, jazz bassist; and Dennis Winslett, saxophone powerhouse, who was trained by Charlie Parker’s teacher. They will later combine with the full ensemble of the evening’s program, and during the last half of the program he will act as conductor. The set he’s composed and will perform “is a mélange of thought and spirit” incorporating the traditional ideas of theory and form to implement new ideas of creative musical expression.

Kahil in the snow; photo courtesy of the musician's son, Katon Black

He is also a constant collaborator of Stephen Burns. He respects the work Fulcrum Point has done to bring new creative classically based music to the fore. Indeed, he salutes them for having the courage to bring to the larger community the work of the black composer. It’s obvious that he, El’Zabar, can write at the symphonic level, but there are few outlets he has as an African American to present his work. He is always looking for more “cultural constituency”. If we can figure out “positive ways to exchange” as humans, we can actually establish “meta-connectivity”.

The fact is that African Americans compose wonderfully well on a very high level. Developing an enthusiasm for their inclusion is a very important issue. We have to help each other appreciate cultural diversity; after all, the aesthetic contribution of a different culture can only increase the growth of audiences. There are audiences who desire to hear and to be exposed to the brilliant work of all creative Americans.

Kahil El'Zabar; with large and small drums; photo courtesy of Bill Tucker

New Art Music stands as directly contradictory to pop music. It has serious intent for its creation. Both thematically and theoretically, it contains a “sense of thought” not usually associated with commercial consumerism.


Kahil El’Zabar has been described as a percussionist; he describes himself as “a rhythmist”. While some might see rhythm as a primitive agent compared to melody, he brings into his work ideas of a sophisticated form with which to orchestrate.  Rhythm, of course, “fuels our mathematical system”, and our very breathing; “all people are connected through the vibratory rhythm of breath.” He hopes to share “transcendence” with his listeners, and he “hopes his work is useful”. We are all “oracles of humanity”, if an oracle can be defined as “the affirmation of a higher thought”. We can all resonate on a higher level in our cultural network -there has to be a better way.

Kahil El'Zabar; photo courtesy of Katon Black

To hear El’ Zabar, Stephen Burns, Augusta Reed Thomas, Professor of Composition at The University of Chicago, and others speak about African American artists and their experiences in our modern music scene, come to the DuSable Museum this Thursday, April 28 at 3 P.M.

To experience the music of Kahil El'Zabar and the many fine artists presenting the concert “Proclamation! The Black Composer Speaks!” come to Promontory Chicago this Friday night, April 29, starting at 7:30 P.M.

For information on this and other great upcoming concerts go to Fulcrum Point






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