South Central LA’s street fighter-turned-saxophone colossus is bringing jazz into the 21st century, on a cosmic scale. Snoop and Kendrick are along for the ride.
OUTSIDE A FANCY ITALIAN RESTAURANT IN NORTH LONDON, the world has stopped. After spotting Kamasi Washington at one of his tables, the manager has asked if the 37-year-old jazz saxophonist might pose for pictures. A small crowd gathers, some from recognition, others simply to check out this big, handsome African-American, clad in a mustard-and-cream dashiki with heavy amber and turquoise necklace, holding a hand-carved lion-handle walking stick, and staring out over Highbury Corner roundabout. It’s a powerful look, one that made its first appearance on the cover of Washington’s triple-disc 2015 debut studio LP, The Epic, which saw the musician, father’s saxophone in hand, sporting a black dashiki – his first, bought from a Senegalese tailor called Bob in downtown Inglewood – in front of a sci-fi spacescape. The Epic was praised as an expansive restatement of visionary celestial jazz. Washington had previously played with Raphael Saadiq, Erykah Badu and Flying Lotus, and had recently scored strings for Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, but he was soon being
compared to such sax visionaries as John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, and being anointed by African-American writer Greg Tate, as “the jazz voice of Black Lives Matter”. Now, he has written a sequel, Heaven And Earth, an autobiographical two-disc journey into his own past and future that moves from maximalist cosmic gospel to tight, modal postbop, from cinematic keyboard freak-outs to wild harmonic choirs; a rallying battle-cry of 21st century multicultural astro-spiritualism, aimed at the head, heart, and soul of modern America. “We’re fighting against the notion that it’s OK to kill someone because you feel threatened by how they look,” explains Washington, in deep, dancing, scholastic tones. “If you’re a big dark-skinned black man, you’re taught ver y early on to be careful, because you’re seen as a threat. Our music represents that fear – that my life is not as valuable as yours – but it’s about loving life too, and the possibility of what you can be. Before I started wearing these African clothes, people would assume I was a threat, that it was OK to be violent toward me. That’s a reality I’ve lived with my whole life.” Impromptu Highbury Corner photo-shoot over, the manager says he might put Kamasi’s photo in the restaurant window. “Yeah!” says Washington, laughing. “‘Do not take cheques from this man! Ask for payment first’.”
’VE LIVED MY WHOLE LIFE IN SOUTH CENTRAL LA,” says Kamasi Washington, “but that first house I grew up in, on 74th and Figueroa, was a pretty dangerous place to be. Deep in the hood. We weren’t even allowed out on the sidewalk.” We’re sitting in a high-windowed suite of a London hotel, looking out over Regent’s Park and marvelling at how close Kamasi Washington came to the gangbanger lifestyle. Washington’s parents divorced when he was three years old, but the influence of his father, Rickey, a professional jazz musician, and his chemistry teacher mother kept him away from the Bloods and the Crips, if not N.W.A. “I kept my N.W.A tapes secret,” he says. “If my parents found out they’d have taken them away. But N.W.A was the first time I felt anyone was talking about where I came from.” Like the other six Washington children, Kamasi learnt an instrument from an early age, starting on drums at three, before graduating to piano then clarinet, which he’d take to school, playing Boyz II Men and Jodeci songs for his fellow pupils. Some kids carried guns, and Washington was still drawn to gang culture. Then, a panAfrican group called Ujima visited Washington’s school, handing out copies of Malcolm X’s autobiography; reading it, Washington realised he could be a force for betterment. And around the same time, his older cousin, Lamar, gave Washington an Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers mixtape. “I’d grown up around jazz,” says Washington. “My dad would play me heavy John Coltrane, like Ascension. But this was different. My cousin – way cooler than me – was reaching out, asking me to learn these songs so we could play them together. Secondly, Art Blakey’s style fit that hardcore hip-hop vibe. It spoke to me.” Struggling to replicate Wayne Shorter’s protean sax sound on clarinet, Washington asked his dad if he could switch instruments. Rickey set him a test: learn Shorter’s Sleeping Dancer Sleep On on clarinet, and sing him a Charlie Parker song. “I sang him Now’s The Time,” says Washington. “He was like, ‘OK, you serious’. Two days later I was playing in my uncle’s church band, for the first time playing music for people. It fast-forwarded my development.” Such life-stages are referenced in Heaven And Earth’s odyssey of realisation and discovery. Recorded across three LA studios, with a twin-rhythm section 13-piece band, plus 26-piece orchestra and 13-piece choir, the double album is dramatic in ambition and operatic in scope, referencing both Kamasi’s real life (Earth), his imagined, potential life (Heaven) and the way the two intertwine. “With each of us, our reality is so much based on our imagination,” explains Washington. “The hard part is believing your little pocket in the world can be what you want it to be, that no one can affect your whole world unless you give them your power.” That optimistic philosophy is particularly embodied in one of Heaven’s stand-out tracks, Street Fighter Mas, where Kamasi draws on a misspent youth, playing Street Fighter with local gangbangers, in service of a joyous cinematic theme song for kids like himself who triumphed in arenas many might dismiss as ‘low culture’. “I was really good at Street Fighter,” he explains, “and I was this little kid playing with these scary gangster killer dudes at the local liquor store, but I felt safe. I realised no one is all bad or all good. A pretty important lesson to learn from Street Fighter.” At 13, Washington’s street-corner education ended when he graduated to the prestigious Hamilton Music Academy in Castle Heights, where he met young piano prodigy, Cameron Graves. “Kamasi was playing first tenor, next to me on piano,” says Graves. “We were both into Coltrane, so after class we’d hang out in the band room, jamming a little trio. It started from there.” Enter Inglewood music educator Reggie Andrews. Concerned that Hamilton graduates like Washington and Graves had created a brain drain in South Central, Andrews had started up the MultiSchool Jazz Band, allowing young local musicians to play together. Andrews invited Washington; Washington invited Graves. “Suddenly I’m seeing kids I’d grown up with, like Ronald and Stephen Bruner,” says Washington. “Kindred spirits, but these kids were… goood. At Hamilton I’d been front of the pack, into Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Ravel, [but] at Multi-School Jazz Band everyone was way ahead of me. They had professional gigs. They sounded like The Jazz Messengers!” “Kamasi unified us,” says Ronald Bruner Jr. “I was the crazy person, Stephen was the super-artistic, quiet person, Cameron the super-focused person, and Kamasi, every time he got on each one of us, we’d feel comfortable in our skin, no matter how messed
up we were. Kamasi has always been an advocate for his people being good people. His music and writing is very encompassing, just like his hug.” The Multi-School Jazz Band started playing at Leimert Park, a focus of the Black Arts movement and LA jazz nucleus since 1965’s Watts riots. “We started to see the connections and the history,” says Washington. “It gave me a reality check.” Another reality check came in 1997 when the Multi-School Jazz Band played the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl, in front of 10,000 people. Washington, tapped for a solo, hadn’t prepared. “I didn’t sound good,” he says. “It just ate at me.” Determined it wouldn’t happen again, he began practising, hard; on his own, with Cameron Graves and the Bruners at Graves’ father’s house in Inglewood, and at a coffee shop off Crenshaw called Doughboy Dozens, playing hardcore R&B with comedian/poet, Brandon Bowlin. It paid off. In 1999, Washington, Graves and the Bruners entered LA’s John Coltrane Music Competition. “It was a competition for grown-ups,” explains Graves, “and we won it! As kids! Some writer called us ‘young jazz giants’. We took it.” After graduating from college, Washington enrolled at UCLA’s Department of Ethnomusicology, where he met Kenny Burrell and Billy Higgins and began playing with Ethiopian and Cuban bands to expand his chops. Then the Bruners’ cousin, Terrace Martin, got him a gig in Snoop Dogg’s horn section. “Snoop knew we were good,” says Washington. “It’s where the jazz came in. Be in the moment and not be scared. Plus, I got this lesson in feel. Like, you can play all that stuff, but can you feel it, and play that feel? And if you don’t, you suck.” Washington started a residency at 5th Street Dick’s coffee shop in Leimert Park, playing with whoever was in town. One weekend the Bruner brothers and Graves all cancelled. Washington called up drums-bass-guitar trio Tony Austin, Miles Mosley and Brandon Coleman. Then everyone showed up. The Kamasi Washington double-rhythm section was born. “It opened the music up in an amazing way,” says Washington. “I started telling ever ybody to come all the time. That became The West Coast Get Down.” Back from gigging with the likes of Snoop, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Stanley Clarke, and Kenny Garrett, the Get Down members started adding hip-hop, gospel R&B, funk, neo-soul and post-bop knowledge, with no sense that one music was superior to the other. “I made a pact with Kamasi that whatever we learned we’d bring it home,” says Ronald Bruner Jr. “We started jumping ahead really fast.” With money from the Snoop tour, Washington built a home studio, using the gear to record a live album at 5th Street Dick’s. After another self-produced LP followed in 2007, Stephen Bruner also caught the recording bug. “All of a sudden Stephen’s playing with Flying Lotus,” remembers Washington. “Then Golden Age Of Apocalypse comes out and everybody’s calling Stephen ‘Thundercat’. That was a real eye-opener. We’d always felt we had something special, but there was no way to get it out of LA. Especially with everyone saying ‘jazz is dead’. Then Thundercat makes a 100 per cent jazz record. He blew up. We were like, Man, we need to push on.” On the back of Thundercat’s success, it finally felt like The West Coast Get Down were getting their music heard outside of LA. Then Flying Lotus asked Washington if he’d be interested in putting an LP out on his Brainfeeder label. “It was a dream come true,” says Washington. “Like hearing about the land of milk and honey, and then someone comes back
with a bunch of milk and honey shouting, ‘IT IS THERE!’” Pulling from a repertoire developed during a residency at The Piano Bar in Hollywood, Washington and friends booked a month of studio time at Kingsize Soundlabs in Echo Park where they recorded nearly 200 pieces, 17 of which became The Epic; three hours of music, across three discs. With three horns, two drummers, two bassists, two keyboardists and a vocalist (plus choir and strings), The Epic was a new maximalist, multicultural jazz philosophy that spoke to old and young alike, all tied together by Washington’s raw, rangy tenor. “Real hardcore jazz went away for a while,” says Cameron Graves. “But The Epic brought it back. And people weren’t asleep. They were waiting for this. The Epic did what Black Panther’s doing now. It reinvigorated interest in African heritage and ancestry.” In the wake of The Epic, Washington’s friend, saxophonist Terrace Martin, got him a gig adding strings to a Tupac skit on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. One track led to five: “It just kept building. Me sitting on a couch with my keyboards, Kendrick next to me. I’d never worked like that before. Normally I’m a hermit.” A year after The Epic’s release, Washington started work on the follow-up, Heaven And Earth. In the midst of preparations, he was asked to create an installation for the Whitney Biennial. Comprised of five songs about the five stages to truth – Desire, Humility, Knowledge, Perspective and Integrity – Washington dubbed the project and a resultant EP Harmony Of Difference, a term that would come to describe the sound and philosophy of Heaven And Earth. “There was all this social noise around about building walls and getting rid of foreigners,” explains Washington. “It helped me understand what Heaven And Earth is really about: the celebration of multiculturalism and the power of individual thought.” “With The Epic we reached out and found our ancestors,” says Cameron Graves. “It was the pieces of the puzzle. Heaven And Earth is the solving of the puzzle.”
DAMP THURSDAY IN DALSTON. Dwarfing the tiny DJ booth of cool Japanese restaurant Brilliant Corners, Kamasi Washington introduces his new LP to a small gathering of musicians, label types and jazz hipsters (and MOJO). “It’s not about actual earth and actual heaven,” he says, with a dry chuckle. “It’s about how we experience the world, and how we imagine it. If you had the power to change this world, would you do something about it?” He presses play on Earth’s opening track, a heavy, squalling battle-cry cover of Joseph Koo and Ku Chia Hui’s Main Theme from 1972 Bruce Lee kung fu film, Fist Of Fury. As it plays, MOJO spots Florence Welch dancing expressively, all undulating arms, to vocalist Patrice Quinn’s defiant words: “When I’m faced with unjust injury/Then I change my hands to fists of fury.” “That’s the bleakest point of the whole record,” explains Washington, later. “I want people to realise that to live is to struggle, but also that life is beautiful. We’re at the bottom of the mountain, but look up.” Conceptually, Earth “starts at the bottom”, says Washington, moving from the Black Power stance of Fists Of Fury to the choral Mwandishi urgency of Can You Hear Him into an Afro-Cuban refit of Freddie Hubbard’s Hub-Tones, rising to the wild melodic crescendo of One Of One. “That’s a track we couldn’t have played two years ago,” says Washington. “As we’ve grown we’ve had to let go, like on a sheer rocky hill – if you tighten up you’ll fall.” By contrast, Heaven starts at the top, with a cosmic dance of ascending strings, choirs and horns that is The Space Traveller’s Lullaby, moving through the Latin vocoder ballad Vi Lua Vi Sol – written in Brazil with Stanley Clarke, for a girl who told Kamasi she could talk to the moon – and Street Fighter Mas. But it’s dominated by numbers for those who have passed, whether it be the tender, dancing Song For The Fallen, a tribute to the late West Coast Get Down pianist Austin Peralta, or the urgent, impassioned Show Us The Way, written for American slave rebel Nat Turner, before ending on the celebratory Will You Sing where the 12-strong choir cry out, “With our song one day we’ll change the world, will you sing?”, over Robert ‘Sput’ Searight’s skittering drums, Ryan Porter’s squelching trombone and Washington’s weeping sax. Heard through Brilliant Corners’ stateof-the-art surround-sound speakers, the album sounds almost excessively rich, textured and uplifting. It is a celebration of all its influences. This is just as Washington intended. “That’s why I put everything in it,” he says. “Right now it’s easy to feel dehumanised, expendable and disposable, so it’s good to have something to take you out of that low place. There are dark parts to life. We all want to tuck our heads down and cry somewhere. But there’s a lot that’s really beautiful. It’s amazing, a blessing, that we have all these influences. That’s what this album is saying: you don’t have to be overwhelmed.”
Street fighting Mas: (above) Kamasi Washington wielding spiritual staff; (left, from top) suits you – Washington playing with AC Timba Jazz at the Playboy Jazz Festival, Los Angeles, 2006; 2015’s cosmologically tuned-in masterpiece The Epic; Washington walks on water for new album Heaven And Earth.