jazz aficionados, Chicago native Kahil El’Zabar (pictured left) is one of the
great unknown geniuses in music. For over three decades his pioneering work in
avant garde jazz as a musician, composer and teacher has earned him legions of
devoted and enraptured fans around the world.
despite all the acclaim that El’Zabar has garnered over the years, he’s still not
a relatively familiar name to the masses and, what’s more, his rather
complicated, controversial and chaotic private life has been mentioned by some
as one major factor as to why he isn’t a more familiar name.
in an attempt to answer the riddle that is Kahil El’Zabar, screenwriter and
filmmaker L.A. based Dwayne Johnson-Cochran (pictured right), a longtime friend
of Kahil’s, has made a remarkable and absolutely compelling “warts and all” documentary
about him, “Be Known”, which will have a sneak preview later this month, starting
on January 24th, at the Gene Siskel Film Center in
Chicago before it hits the film festival circuit.
last week I talked to Dwayne about his film, why he wanted to make it, what he
hopes to accomplish with it and if he thinks his film finally reveals the genius
and the mystery that is Kahil El’Zabar.
SERGIO: First off I’ve always heard that usually
when someone sets out to make a documentary, the finished film is completely
different from the film they originally had in their mind and set out to make.
Did you find that true?
experience was that Kahil asked me to do a documentary about him on the road in
the midst of these crazy things that were happening in his life. I think he
wanted the project to be a sort of counter to, maybe, some of the negative
things that were happening and I told him “No you don’t really need that. You can
weather that storm”. I think it would be good to just sort of show
what’s it’s like to be on the road. It was the 35th anniversary of
the his band, the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, and he wanted me to interview
people who really knew him well, people who love his music all over the world
from directors Renny Harlin and Julie Taymor to Gary Sinese, Common and Kanya West,
all these people. So many people are fans and they love his music and he plays
everywhere, all around the world. So I said “What’s the budget for this?”
(laughs). And he said well “Ah… this is what I have…” and I
knew that I was going to have to spend my own money and raise moreto make that kind of film
So I had an idea of how I wanted to make the film and at
first it wasn’t sitting well with him because he had something else in mind.
But it wasn’t his film, it was my film and he knew that. And so I went off and
made the film that I wanted to make which is mostly the exploration of one
man’s journey. Why he, in my mind, is not known after knowing how well he does
as a musician. It was a mystery. Why don’t people know who he is?
what was the answer to that question?
When you see the film you can come to your own
conclusions, but I believe that it’s luck or bad luck. I think that sometimes
Kahil gets in the way of himself and, of course, he performs a type of music,
avant garde jazz, a sub-genre of jazz, where he plays an earth drum, which is
not the traditional sort of drum. All these things enter as to why he is not
more known as a musician, a composer, an improviser, and band leader. But what
people don’t know about him, and what I wanted to illustrate and to illuminate
in the film, that he’s also an amazing teacher and teacher of improvisation and
he was able to give this gift to many, many people. And maybe if you can’t be
known for one thing, you can be known for something else.
one thing that you do so extremely well in Be Known is to chronicle to the
day-the-day job, the day-to-day struggle and the hard work it takes to be a
working musician. It’s not the life of Beyoncé. It’s an unglamorous, daily hard
grind going from gig to gig dealing with some pleasures and also some really
Thank you. Well look, there are times where they don’t
know where they’re going to play, where they’re going to set up, will there be
a technical set up, will there be a drum kit, will they get paid, will they get
food (laughs) The grind of making, maybe, just a few thousand dollars sometimes
just enough to get to the next gig and this whole idea of playing this kind of music,
which is a very interesting form of jazz. It’s jazz in its most basic way taking
rhythm to another level. And there’s a great crowd for it, but he had to build
that crowd going from place to place playing, like he’s a troubadour from the
olden days. He’s going to find that crowd and play to that crowd and he spent
years building that up and he’s done that.
But it‘s not easy and I see that there’s a sort of
ceiling on how well you can make a living at it. He’s able to survive just barely
sometimes, other times he does better, but it’s not easy. And what I say about
that is that he is committed as an artist. He’s a committed artist. No matter
how many things can be attributed to his human frailties, he is an artist who
is committed to the art. And that is
something which in this day and age is not too common.
In fact people are right now looking for the next corporation
or sponsor to back him. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if someone backs his career
or backed his tours, but he’s going to do them one way or another. It’s his life.
since the both of you have been friends for a long time, how did that friendship
affect the making of the film? Did you
feel that you had to be protective of him or did you disregard that and just
concentrated on making the film you wanted to make and whatever happened to
your friendship so be it?
Well when I first him I immediately knew he was special
and I told that I had to make a film about him and that was over 30 years ago.
And I did I did a small little doc film and then another narrativer one and then a third one,
always trying to find some different aspect of him to illuminate. But with Be Known, yes, I
had this idea of how I wanted to make this film and it’s a friendship that’s a
very, very strong friendship that’s been, as shall we say, frayed at times.
When your creative instincts are maybe not on the same
page or the protectiveness, as you put it, that he wants you to have for him
may not serve best for the art. My art is film, his art is the music and they
are maybe at counter purposes. There were times when I told him “Look
I’m going to shoot this thing this way” or “I’m going to cut it this way, I
have an idea a story I want to tell” and he would go ”So
why are you telling that story? (Laughs)
But the one thing I have to respect about him or any
great artists is that they know that this is your art and that he is the canvas
and you’re the painter as it will and that he wasn’t going to get in the way.
There was no “it’s my way or the highway”. I mean there were a few times when
he would tell me “Why don’t you try this song?” or “Why didn’t try out this in that
section of the film because the band played better?” and I took his
advice a couple of times and did it and it was better because he has a keen
eye, a strong creative thinker. But at the end of the day it’s the film that I
wanted to make. Yeah, we bumped heads a few times, but I think he respects it
and respects the outcome and as raw as it is, he has to embrace it.
And I must also give mad props to my co-producer/editor Christopher Scott Cherot, a great filmmaker in his own right, for pushing me in finding the best film possible.
bring up the point as I’ve mentioned before about Be Known that it’s definitely
“a warts and all” documentary. It’s at times not very flattering considering
the things he says, the things he does, the messed up personal situations he
gets involved in. The camera was there all the time capturing all this. Didn’t
realize how he would come out or did his ego just get in the way?
Yes, but that comes out in one of the first things he says
on camera regarding ego that some of the greatest works in the world would not
have been created if it wasn’t for someone’s ego. Someone’s ego saying I have
to put this work out there. And I think in a way his ego supersedes some of the
things that may be protective of him. He wants you to know on camera know how he
feels about this or about that, but he knows that this could be also
entertaining for the camera. He’s like: ”Hey I’ve got this story to tell you about
this little midget….” (Laughs) and you’re like “WHOA!” and that’s entertaining, but it’s also very self-effacing and it can be
difficult to watch specially for women or anybody. There’s no filter, but he is
who he is. And these are events that happened
to him that are absolutely memorable.
And I think that in a lot of ways I am happy that he
shared those memories with me because they make him and his personality come
alive. I’ve seen documentaries where you’re struggling to find the
personality of the subject, trying to find what drives this person. And what
drives Kahil is that he wants people to listen to what he has to say and
sometimes it is a lot of stuff trying to explain who he is and other times it’s
very salacious things that happened to him. But he’s a great storyteller, a
girot, like in a small village telling you a story. He has great stories to
tell and it also happens, he’s a great musician.
you say it’s very common that great artists can be also difficult, egocentric,
people who are hard to deal with? But isn’t that also what makes them so creative?
Yes it is. That engine that makes somebody a genius or a
great artist. As someone says in the film, the music that he plays is a certain
type of music and the way how his personality is, if he had a different
personality we wouldn’t be hearing the type of music that he’s playing, that’s he’s composed over the years. We would
not have had this gift.
It’s like Picasso or any artist who creates music, or
paints or writes, make movies and anything that is considered a form of
artistic expression, these things do not come out from someone who’s satisfied
with a 9-5 job. It comes from a person with a very colorful mindset, lots of
things going on, lot of things that we may or may not approve of or has happened
in the backstory of their lives. And in Kahil’s case, he has had so many
experiences and so many things that he has wanted to do that I think that that
ambition, that desire comes out in his music.
speaking of Kahil what are his feelings about the film? Is he surprised or displeased
or rather like “Hey it is what it is. I put myself out there and that’s me”?
That is his opinion about it. He said that is who
I am and what I was going through at that time. It captures a moment in time
when you caught me and there are things that are said about me and things that
I say about other people that he wishes, perhaps, he should not have said. But
there are things in the film that he has remedied since then and changed and
done better and made incredible leaps and bounds in his own life. So in a way I
think that I caught him at this crucial moment where he had to make changes and
But I think that with that “lighting in a bottle” that I caught in the film the result is a
better person. But he has embraced the film and calls it “a long, raw look” of my life during a period in
time. I do remember once he said to me “This
is not the film I wanted to make” and I said to him “Kahil
you can’t say that. This is the film that I’m making about you if you wanted to
make a film by yourself that’s a whole other different film’ and I
think he got that.