Kahil El’Zabar, Spiritual Jazz’s Dapper Bandleader, Keeps Pushing Ahead

Upon first glance, you might not think Kahil El’Zabar, 70, is a spiritual jazz musician. Tall and sprightly with taut skin and a thick mustache, wearing dark sunglasses and a stylish black suit on a January afternoon, he looked more like a fashion model or a recently retired athlete. That’s not to say avant-jazz guys can’t be chic, but rarely do they look this dapper.

“My mother owned a bridal formal-wear business, so fashion was always a part of my life since I was a little kid,” he said over cups of green tea at the Moxy Hotel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “I have friends that are 70, and they’ll look at me and say, ‘Why you got those little silly clothes on?’ It’s like, ‘We wore wingtips and khakis in ’69. This is 2023, and just because I’m a senior citizen does not mean I can’t be current.’”

For the past 50 years, El’Zabar has toed the line between fashion and music, the present and the future, American jazz and West African compositional structure. In 1974, he founded the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble as a quartet blurring the edges of traditional jazz, Afrocentric rhythms and cosmic expanse. Much like the Pyramids, the Ohio-based band that wore African finery and played polyrhythmic arrangements lifted from the continent, El’Zabar’s group wasn’t fully appreciated by American listeners. The quartet came at a time when jazz musicians started blending their sounds with stadium-sized funk and rock, and psychedelic African jazz was considered a bridge too far.

El’Zabar has been sewing his own clothes since he was 11. Today, he runs an invite-only resale shop in Chicago.Credit…Lyndon French for The New York Times

As a result, El’Zabar has been underrated in the pantheon of spiritual jazz luminaries, despite his healthy résumé. For someone who’s played with Don Cherry, Archie Shepp, Nina Simone and Dizzy Gillespie, his name doesn’t ring like those of Pharoah Sanders, John Coltrane and Sun Ra.

It’s because “he’s a percussionist,” said the film director Dwayne Johnson-Cochran, who’s made five documentaries on El’Zabar, during a phone interview. “With Kahil as a drummer, it’s kind of discounted because he’s the guy keeping the beat. He has melodies that are simple yet complex in the counterpoint; in a lot of ways, he’s a genre within himself. People are not in tune with what he’s putting out, but it’s really quite spectacular.”

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