Put ‘Em Together and What’ve You Got?

Percussionist and composer Kahil El’Zabar is best known on the Chicago music scene for the meditative, African-accented take on jazz he’s developed in his long-running groups the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble and Ritual Trio. But in the end it might be what El’Zabar does offstage that ensures his place in the city’s arts pantheon.

Like his mentors and fellows in the prestigious black jazz musicians’ organization the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, who set up their own gigs when no one else would, El’Zabar has been promoting shows and festivals for decades. He’s also a teacher, and has served in arts organizations from the Campaign for Freedom of Expression to an NEA interdisciplinary panel. Many of his endeavors reflect his interest in art forms other than jazz–El’Zabar is a published poet and has scored several films, and in recent years he’s brought major jazz figures like Henry Threadgill and Julius Hemphill to town to collaborate on theater projects. So last year, when the Steppenwolf Theatre came to him, offering funding and full support for an eight-show interdisciplinary arts series called Traffic, El’Zabar made the most of it.

“The Steppenwolf thing was right up the alley of stuff I’ve done–the Underground Fest, One Flight Up, the First Amendment series–and for 25 years it’s pretty much been coming out of my pocket to create these situations,” El’Zabar says. “For the first time someone was saying, Here’s a budget, here’s a marketing director, here’s a publicist, here’s a theater manager, here’s state-of-the-art sound–it was a blessing.”

While this year’s Traffic schedule, which includes two more events than last year’s, features several straight musical lineups–Monday’s AACM tribute with the Ernest Dawkins Trio, Samana, and El’Zabar’s quartet with Fred Anderson and Jodie Christian is one; a rare performance in December by the Art Ensemble of Chicago is another–most of the programming builds on the interdisciplinary theme. In November actress Catherine Slade will read from the works of author and Northwestern professor Leon Forrest with original musical accompaniment written by flutist-whistler Joel Brandon and performed by Ari Brown and Threadgill. Writer Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones), known for his incisive readings with jazzmen from Albert Ayler to David Murray, will perform in February with saxophonist Oliver Lake and pianist Steve Colson, while in March the young choreographer Robert Henry Johnson will dance to music improvised by the Von Freeman Quartet. Perhaps the most ambitious concert in the series is a revised version of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale with a new libretto by Kurt Vonnegut. It’ll be performed in May by the adventurous new-music ensemble Orchestra X with guest violinist Rachel Barton.

El’Zabar hopes such collaborations will foster interaction not only between artists but also between audiences. “What I like about interarts is that I see a lot of people who don’t necessarily agree–the gay-lesbian community, communities of color, the white community–dealing with each other’s cultures and philosophies in a way they don’t in mainstream society,” he says. “The arts community is one of the strongest for accepting the ideas of tolerance. It’s still not perfect–there’s lots of politics and games–but the idea of tolerance doesn’t even exist in lots of other communities.

“I like to see things going on,” he continues. “‘Cause if stuff’s going on, it’s counter to the abuse all of us receive from television; it’s counter to the abuse we receive from censored media; it’s counter to the abuse of the stoic alienation that has people not participating or engaging on any level. The onslaught of the last ten years by the right has opened up onto other communities, but it was originally aimed at artists. Why? Because they’re not McDonald’s, cookie-cutter, subliminally seduced individuals who can’t invent themselves.”

Not in My Backyard

Metallica may well be more popular than the Chicago Bears these days, but that hasn’t stopped the city from sticking with the home team. The LA metal stars want to celebrate the release of their forthcoming album, Re-Load, due in stores November 18, by playing a free outdoor concert, but their efforts to secure a venue somewhere, anywhere, in the U.S. have all been stymied. In a press release (which also announces the band is now taking suggestions for a concert site from its fans at 1-800-804-1400) Metallica’s label, Elektra, blames “the bureaucracy” for the situation.

In Chicago the band made a play for Soldier Field. “We have nothing against Metallica,” I was assured by Margot Horn, a spokesperson for the Park District, which handles bookings at the stadium. “We’d love to have them.” Unfortunately, she says, Metallica has bad timing. The band initially asked to use Soldier Field’s parking lot, but ongoing construction there made it impossible. A subsequent request for the stadium itself was denied because the proposed date wouldn’t allow the turf enough time to spring back before the next Bears game.


Last December this column described the efforts of the local Future/Now Films to put together a feature-length documentary on Detroit rock legends the MC5. On September 30 Jeff Economy, David Thomas, and Laurel Legler, the company’s principals, accepted a Roy W. Dean film grant, one qualification for which is that the entry “contribute to society.” They’ll get some $30,000 in film stock, processing, equipment rental, and other services to help them complete MC5: A True Testimonial, tentatively scheduled for release in October 1998, the 30th anniversary of the recording of Kick Out the Jams.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Kahil El’Zabar photo by Nathan Mandell.