We are a culture lost at sea.
The internet has created an ocean of information capable of flooding our brains. Too many of us are drowning in an age of high-speed surfing, infinite scrolling, and instant gratification.
More than ever, we need artistic anchors — works of art that are dense and layered. Books, films, music, anything we can spend time with and fish for intellectual, emotional, and spiritual nourishment.
Kamasi Washington — a 36-year-old tenor saxophonist and composer from Los Angeles — is a leader in the effort to arouse our wayward souls. His debut record — 2015’s The Epic — spans 174 minutes of explosive, mind-bending jazz music.
Kamasi made his Wisconsin debut at Turner Hall Ballroom in downtown Milwaukee on November 7, followed by a performance at the Majestic Theatre in Madison on November 8.
As I spoke with Kamasi on the phone from Europe, I did not get the impression that the title of “jazz savior” has gone to his head. He may be considered by critics to be the biggest thing to happen to jazz since the Marsalis brothers appeared on the scene in the 1980s, but he carries himself like a humble warrior.
Calling Kamasi a “savior” of jazz presupposes the genre is in dire straits. It’s true, as a commercial product and as a form of music — analog, mostly instrumental, rooted in improvisation — jazz is not as popular as it once was.
However, as a style of music, jazz has informed almost everything on the radio since the middle of the 20th century.
Kamasi’s critical and commercial success is partly indebted to his contributions on Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 hip-hop masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly. But Kamasi doesn’t explore the intersection of jazz and hip-hop so much as he embodies it.
There is no scratching, beatboxing or guest rappers on the two releases that bear Kamasi’s name. This is the tradition of John Coltrane and Sun Ra transmitted by an artist who first looked up to Dr. Dre and Myka 9.
This is a kid who turned his friends onto Art Blakey, but whose first tour was in Snoop Dogg’s band. This is a man who assembled a 10-piece band, 32-piece orchestra and 20-piece choir for a debut record on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder Label.
Kamasi’s Afrocentric aesthetic and grandiose sound has placed his work among the essential cultural achievements of the Black Lives Matter generation, in the company of To Pimp a Butterfly, Ta-Nehisi Coate’s memoir Between the World and Me, and Solange's A Seat at the Table.
The penultimate track on The Epic incorporates Ossie Davis’ eulogy for Malcolm X, as well as a clip of the Civil Rights leader speaking. But it is the sheer magnitude of Kamasi’s music and how it challenges listeners that makes it inherently revolutionary.
South Central suites
Kamasi Washington grew up in Inglewood and South Central Los Angeles. He was no stranger to poverty and gang life. Like his peers, he wore baggy pants, listened to N.W.A. and ended each sentence with ‘cuz.’
His parents were musicians and educators, instilling a work ethic and curiosity in Kamasi that kept him from the escapades of his homies in the Bloods and Crips. Ultimately, it was music that put Kamasi and his peers on a path to righteousness.
Kamasi’s father Rickey led a Christian jazz band and was respected in the L.A. music scene. He exposed his son to jazz, but as a child Kamasi was drawn to the sounds of the streets and the West Coast underground — Ice Cube, The Pharcyde, and Freestyle Fellowship.
A cassette mixtape of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers is what eventually got young Kamasi hooked on jazz.
“Unfortunately, in the '80s, a lot of instruments were taken away from inner-city schools. But music is so beloved in the black community,” explains Kamasi.
“I was blessed that my dad was a musician. I had a lot of instruments at home. So I used to bring my clarinet to school and would play tunes from the radio like Boyz II Men, whatever was coming out. Then I started playing Art Blakey songs and everybody liked it.”
From that point on, Kamasi and his friends became jazz heads. His peers included Ronald Bruner Jr. and Stephen Bruner — better known as Thundercat — whose father played in a band with Rickey Washington.
Kamasi attended the renowned Academy of Music at Alexander Hamilton High School. During that time he was recruited for the Multi-School Jazz Band where he met producer Terrace Martin (who brought Kamasi on To Pimp a Butterfly), pianist Cameron Graves, bassist Miles Mosley and trombonist Ryan Porter.
Growing up, Kamasi’s father had him read a lot of non-fiction. Some of the artistic anchors from Kamasi’s childhood included autobiographies of jazz legends and notable scientists.
“I was really into Mark Twain for a minute. Musically, I’ve always been into full works of art. I like Stravinsky and I’ll listen to the whole Rite of Spring and Fireburst suites. There’s a perspective you get when you listen to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On from the beginning to end. [Stevie Wonder’s] Songs in the Key of Life is another great record.”
“And then there’s people like Kendrick. Even though I worked on To Pimp a Butterfly, there’s so much music in there beyond what I did that amazes me every time I hear it.”
During an appearance on WTF with Marc Maron, Kamasi mentions turning “extra hood” people onto jazz. Presumably, he is referring to folks who mainly listen to hip-hop and R&B. I ask Kamasi what he thinks attracts them to jazz.
“It’s a feeling. Once you open yourself up to that feeling, that freedom that jazz has, it’s hard to go back.”
The similarities between hip-hop and jazz are abundant, from freestyle rap battles resembling jazz cutting contests, to sampling being used in hip-hop in the same way jazz musicians turned Broadway show tunes into standards and bebop.
“Jazz is almost just a way of thinking. It’s thinking of music in terms of group self-expression — individuals expressing themselves with each other and really emphasizing the moment,” says Kamasi.
“What makes me a jazz musician is that I’m expressing what’s happening to me in the moment, and that includes everywhere I’ve been and everything I’ve been through.
“Hip-hop and jazz share that idea of self-expression. When a rapper is freestyling, their flow, what they’re saying, and how they’re saying it, it all speaks to who they are.”
Like so many young jazz musicians, Kamasi started gigging in backing bands for hip-hop and R&B acts such as Snoop Dogg, Lauryn Hill, Nas, and Raphael Saadiq.
While an ethnomusicology major at UCLA, Kamasi found that his first tour with Snoop Dogg offered an alternative education.
“I was being challenged in a new way and learning a different approach to music. And, you know, Snoop was such a celebrity. In L.A., it’s weird because there’s so many celebrities that we’re kind of used to them. But on the road it was almost enhanced, like a higher level of fandom. The music was really moving those people. That kind of energy was a trip.”
For years, Kamasi and his friends would play in front of huge crowds supporting marquee acts, then reunite to perform together in small clubs around L.A. They called themselves the Young Jazz Giants and later would form the West Coast Get Down collective.
Naturally, the allure of New York City tempted Kamasi and his squad. Only one of them sprung for this rite of passage, while the rest stayed home.
“We all thought about it. New York was and still is the mecca of jazz. So many of our heroes lived there, and so many great musicians live there.
“The fortunate thing was that we had each other and so many great musicians living in L.A. There was a sound and a feel to L.A. that was special to us. At the time, most of us didn’t really want to leave each other.”
In December 2011, Kamasi and his crew decided to forgo their responsibilities, clear their schedules and spend a month in the studio. They emerged with 192 songs — 45 under Kamasi’s leadership, with 17 of those ending up on The Epic. I ask Kamasi how they found the will to bring their artistic ideas to the forefront.
“It was something we had been revving up to for a long time. You know, Los Angeles is kind of a microcosm of the world. We played for all these different types of people and it seemed like our music fit into all these places people said jazz couldn’t fit into.
“We’d hear all this stuff like ‘jazz is dead’ and ‘regular people don’t like jazz,’ but we knew that wasn’t true. Because when we played at home people loved our music, they were hype. It was just a matter of getting it out of L.A.
“Being a musician can be a very unstable lifestyle. When you have a good gig or more than one, it’s kind of scary to put that in jeopardy and tell someone you’re not going on tour. It’s kind of easy to get replaced sometimes. But it was a situation where the music meant too much to us.
“And I grew up hearing stories about my dad and his friends — how they played out with all these people and how good they were, but they never really made that record that defined their music. So for me it was like, ‘If I do nothing else, I’m going to make the record so it at least exists in the world.’ And whatever happens to me happens.
“The thing that really tipped the cart over was when Thundercat put out his record and it got received so well by the world. We were kind of like, ‘See, I told you! We knew it! Now we all got to do it!’”
And that is precisely what they did. Last winter saw the release of Ronald Bruner Jr.’s Triumph, Cameron Graves’ Planetary Prince, Miles Mosley’s Uprising and a new Thundercat record, Drunk.
This September, Kamasi released Harmony of Difference, a fascinating — albeit shorter — follow-up to his debut opus.
The Harmony of Difference EP was originally commissioned for the prestigious Whitney Biennial in New York City. The exhibit featured paintings by Kamasi’s sister Amani and a film by Barcelona-born director A.G. Royas.
“To be honest, we were working so hard to get it finished that I actually saw the exhibit in its completion for the first time at the opening. We finished the masters maybe one or two days before. It was a lot of work and really fun collaborating with other mediums of art. I’ve been wanting to do something with my sister; she’s super talented.”
Amani Washington’s paintings are featured in the EP’s album artwork, perched on a large tree.
“The cover art speaks on the idea of searching for the meaning of life. All people seem to have an interest in that, but the thing is that no one culture has it.
“We’re all a part of the tree and only when we come together can we start to understand different approaches to life, and then we can start to understand the meaning of life.”
Ten years to life
Earlier in November, Kamasi brought his message of unity to Milwaukee, the first stop on his North American tour. It began with an intimate, members-only studio session at 88Nine Radio Milwaukee. During the Q & A, Kamasi expounded on the inspiration behind Harmony of Difference.
“We’ve come to a point where it feels like we’re forgetting just how beautiful we all are. The real beauty of this planet is all the different people and all the different places and cultures that make it. So what I did was I wrote five pieces of music that make up five parts of a suite. And then for the sixth part, ‘Truth,’ we played all five pieces at the same time, kind of as a metaphor for how all the cultures of the world are beautiful on their own, but when we come together the flower of humanity really blossoms.”
Kamasi echoed this sentiment at his Turner Hall performance later that evening.
“People want to talk about the difficulties of our differences, but the reality is that our diversity is beautiful. Our differences are not something to be tolerated, they’re something to be celebrated.”
The Turner Hall show was billed as an experience “you will be telling your friends you were at” in ten years. What transpired that cold, Tuesday night lived up to the hype. The audience turnout was particularly impressive — a packed house as testament to Kamasi’s growing celebrity.
Twenty minutes into the set, Kamasi brought his father Rickey out, who had accompanied the band at 88Nine. (At Turner Hall they added an additional drummer.)
An especially beautiful moment came on the heels of a solo by Rickey, to which his son added a few delicate notes before the band brought the song home. It felt like a passing of the torch, an interplay linking the two generations.
On the next song, after the band got the groove going, Rickey walked to the side of the stage to give his son room to solo. Kamasi took off like a freight train. His powers were on full display throughout the 100-minute set, which was composed of electrifying reinterpretations of his catalog and thrilling solos by each member of the band.
With an energized crowd gathered in front of the stage, it was nearly impossible to get close to Kamasi at Turner Hall. But at the 88Nine studio session I was sitting only a few feet from the saxophonist.
As he blew his horn that afternoon, it felt as if everything inside of Kamasi was coming out — friends lost to the streets of L.A., his parents' divorce, the Javanese Gamelan music he discovered while at UCLA, his love of Japanese anime, late night jams on the road, intense studio sessions with Kendrick Lamar, the weight of being labeled a “jazz savior,” coming to grips with fame — all of it bursting forth in a cavalcade of notes.
That feeling of pure expression defines the genius of Kamasi Washington. I can only imagine what it will look, sound, and feel like in ten years — and beyond.
Towards the end of our phone conversation, I mention to Kamasi that I recently saw the Sun Ra Arkestra open for Solange at the Kennedy Center. One of the members of the Arkestra is Marshall Allen, who is 93.
“It’s a testament to the power of music. I think that when you fill yourself up with so much music like he has over his life, it will extend you,” says Kamasi.
“One of my elders is Gerald Wilson and he was a similar way, 96 years old. I would call him and he’d say ‘Hey Kamasi, I got this new thing, nobody ever did something like this before.’ I’m like, ‘Wow, you’re in your nineties and you’re pushing to innovate?’
“I hope I can maintain that spirit my whole life.”