KAMASI WASHINGTON: I’M REACHING FOR SOMETHING
photography by theo jemison
Raised in a pocket of Black L.A. that carved out a place for forefathers and history, Kamasi Washington was able to channel his universal teenage restlessness into laser-like focus on his instrument. He honed his craft with childhood friends like the Bruner brothers and Terrance Martin and while studying in UCLA was already touring, using his powerful horn to back up Snoop Dogg on his way to performing with Chaka Khan. He has various projects and innumerable live shows to his credit already, but for many his most recent release—the 3-LP The Epic—is an introduction. Large in frame and soft in voice, Washington looks the part of a burgeoning jazz master, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. His jazz acknowledges the rise of hip-hop without catering to it. Washington is religious but his music doesn’t clash with the secular like traditional gospel might. It’s spiritual music, in the purest sense. When I spoke with Washington about the vibrancy in Black L.A. jazz, his own journey in music and the impetus behind his Brainfeeder debut, I’m reminded that masters transcend their instrument. We’re living a moment of transcendence in American music and that gift is irreplaceable. Kamasi Washington performs Saturday at California Plaza. This interview by sweeney kovar.
You’ve always been keenly aware of your place and—now that you’ve come into your own—of your role in the history of L.A. jazz. Do you spend time thinking about being a part of something bigger?
Kamasi Washington: Definitely I’m aware of it—there’s a movement that’s been blooming and cultivating for years. I always knew that one day—I didn’t know when it would happen, or if it would even happen in our time—that the world would recognize. This was back before me, like my dad. I grew up around my dad and his friends. They were all musicians. And it dates back even to what they were doing. It started cultivating before they were even born. I knew how good these musicians were and how amazing and dedicated they were, and how powerful that music was—how beneficial it could be to the world—and I always wondered why why nobody was playing them. As I got a little older and started meeting musicians from around the country, and I realized they didn’t know at all who these people were, I used to wonder, ‘How do you not know?’ Then I realized that in a way it’s a gift. Because the world has overlooked this, no one’s been pushing me one way or the other. The directions I’ve gone in my life and in my music have all been so good. I feel blessed because this has allowed all of us to develop what we’re doing. It was a long learning curve for Miles Mosely to get from that pedal steel to that upright bass, and he needed time and support and kind of a little bit of—a little lack of attention to get it right. And now he has it. It’s like with my work—you have a plan, and then you have the reality of what happens in your life. Musicians mostly start early, and you have to plan for what you want your life to be, but in the end, what happens is what is supposed to happen. You might think that Thundercat came out of nowhere, but he didn’t. He was living with that sound for decades. Whether you like it or not, you’re going to get that sound on your music when you play. So it’s cool to see that people are now—it’s the perfect time. The rest of the world is getting it at its height.
So you must be aware that there is a little bit of building momentum from outside the jazz world.
Kamasi Washington:Oh absolutely. My first West Coast tour was with Snoop Dogg. The second one was with Raphael Saadiq, and I think my third was with Lauryn Hill. So that relationship, and what we do—L.A. is just like that. It’s not a land of specialists. Everyone here, they’re really great and they do everything. You don’t really find too many people that just do one thing. The opportunity is not there to just do that. You’ve got to branch out. Growing up in high school, I was practicing ten hours a day to be this jazz saxophone player and I come out of high school and the first tour I get is with Snoop Dogg. I toured with Snoop for like three years. I learned a lot, actually. That was important. The way I look at music, I look at it with a detail that a lot of jazz musicians—they look at jazz from so wide, so deep, so high, and so far, it’s like sometimes you lose your sense of detail. With hip-hop, it’s like—that detail is what it is. It’s not real hard to play. But you’ve got to play it in an absolutely perfect way and find that groove and feel and all these little nuances have to be there to make it sound exactly right. Like my record—I finished my album last year. And for whatever reason it kept getting pushed back because there were other albums that I was meant to work on first before my album came out. And I was mad at the stars and yelling at the moon, like, ‘Hey man! Why is my album being pushed back?’ But everything happens for a reason. Part of that whole thing of people noticing jazz is because of hip hop. You put these labels on music because it helps organize it, but the reality is that if Jellyroll Morton and John Coltrane are both jazz, then you can say that John Coltrane and James Brown are both jazz. And if John Coltrane and James Brown are both jazz, then James Brown and Snoop Dogg are both jazz, and all this African-American music is related. And we put these dividers up as if they’re not, but they are. And so groups like A Tribe Called Quest and Kendrick and Outkast made super real hip-hop records, and like most of the other super real hip-hop records in history, if you listen to them, there’s a lot of jazz in them. Jazz is an integral part of the African American experience. So of course, if jazz is having a resurgence, it might be related to hip-hop.
I’m glad you said it was part of the African-American musical experience. Something that’s really interesting about this jazz resurgence in L.A. is that it’s young Black musicians. Do you think about your music as an African-American thing? As a Black experience? Or do you not really see labels on art like that?
Kamasi Washington:I think music is a form of communication. Jazz is Black music in the way that English is a white language. It has origins in the culture, but the spirit behind it—the feel, the groove— originates from the experiences that we’ve had. Anyone who wants to really play this music has to be aware of that, and be aware of those experiences because that’s the language of the music. That’s what it speaks from. It speaks from the blues and the pain the came from slavery. That’s where this music originates. The whole African American experience is so rooted in slavery. Not only slavery, but the reason why there are African-Americans is because of slavery. So if you’re talking about African-American music, you’re talking about music that comes from this really dark history, and the music is the light that allowed us to make it through the darkness. That’s what the real point of it was. We’re further out of that darkness—we’re not out of it, by any stretch of the imagination—but we’re further out of that darkness. But just like anything else, there are other people who are involved in the darkness and in the light. There are white people who are involved in shining a light to help us get out of the dark, and there are white people involved in trying to keep us in the dark. So that energy, that communication that this music has, it has all over different types of cultures—not just white and Black. Historically, slavery wasn’t just a Black thing—it was a world thing. There were other people involved in slavery, not just white people and Black people. I don’t look at jazz like a music that’s only for African Americans, but I do look at it as a music that represents the experiences that African Americans had. And I love it and I think it’s great for everyone. I don’t deny its origins or the history that it represents and that it speaks to. I also don’t think that I should somehow not be included and partaking of this art—or speaking this language or being involved in this music—because I’m not a part of that history. The origins don’t come from that culture, you know what I mean? So in a sense … I don’t think it excludes anyone, but I definitely think if you’re going to play this music you have to understand the origins. Just like if you’re going to play Cuban music, you have to understand the origins. Or you could just play it and have fun with it. Music is also light—it could be just for fun. So if you really want to play it, you have to understand the origins—the culture—or you could say, ‘I’m really not playing that; I’m playing something else.’ Which is fine. The term ‘jazz’ to me speaks to that. But jazz has styled off into so many different places that sure, you could play improvised music with saxophone and bass and drums and call it jazz and it could be great. And you could say, ‘I have no connection to the African American experience but I’m playing this music,’ and you can. There’s nothing wrong with it. But to me, the history of the music comes from that place. That’s the origin.
Something that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is that in the last several years we’ve also seen a resurgence of Black and brown activism on a large scale. The other night I was thinking of the parallel between the two and how we’re seeing a resurgence of the kind of improvised music that was more popular in the mainstream in the 60s and 70s—and we’re also seeing the same kind of social consciousness and action, more importantly, that was also around in that time. That’s kind of a long way of asking … when you compose and you write, do you feel like you’re responding to the present times? Or is it an internal conversation?
Kamasi Washington:My take on that is that music—people may disagree—but music comes from a place outside of us. When I’m writing a song, I’m reaching for something. I don’t really know what I’m reaching on, but in my reaching, over the years, I learned where to go with my subconscious mind to get to it. And it comes to me, and then it’s pretty ambiguous and it’s pretty unformed, and then I form it into what I want it to be. So when I write music and the form is in the inception phase, I can’t really control the inception of the music that I write. It is what it is. Sometimes it just comes. I can try to direct it, I can say ‘I want to write something dark’, and maybe I will or I won’t, and maybe something bright and happy is going to come out, and that’s just what it is. So then other times, once I have it in me, then I direct it into the direction I want to go. And then yeah—there are things that I want to speak to and music is almost like an attempt to make it this one thing, but that doesn’t meant that’s what it’s going to be. If you’re talking to someone … you have ideas in your head that you’re trying to convey, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to hear or believe it. If I want to communicate to someone, I may or may not have a choice as to how they’re going to hear it. Once I get the music inside me, that’s when I make something that I put out to the world. A lot of the songs are actually from 2011. A different time period, actually. And a lot of my current music is definitely much more influenced by what’s happening in the world. Even the music I hear now—it’s not like these things that are happening now are new. They were happening back then as well. People weren’t as conscious of them or speaking about them as much, but we all knew it and we all felt it. So it’s in there as well. But music is pure in and of itself—it’s something that you just give to people and you don’t get to control what it is. You can just add what you want to add to it. So to answer that question … what I add to it is always something going on in my life, either because of the society I’m living in or … if I’m going through a tribulation with my family, my history, different parts of myself—sometimes the song itself will inspire what I put into the song, if that makes sense. Like take ‘Change of the Guard.’ I heard these chord changes and it just felt—it felt moving. That song is really a tribute to my dad and his generation. I always felt like they didn’t get the chance to be the guard. They were ready, but somehow the torch passed over them.
Why do you think that happened?
Kamasi Washington:I wish I could tell you. I don’t know. From a social-historical perspective, Los Angeles has always been known as a film town. But it’s also a big city and you can make a living. It’s not like living in a little small town, where if you want to play music at all, you have to leave. You don’t have to leave L.A.. And so for whatever reason, people just overlooked it. And that overlooking process is what caused them to not necessarily take their right places as musicians who could have an impact on the world. There’s a lot of music that was lost between the ‘70s and now. Not lost … but it just wasn’t experienced by people that could have been able to help them. Because music changed my life—my cousin giving me an Art Blakey tape in sixth grade was life changing. Art Blakey changed my life. He didn’t mean to do it, but because his music was so powerful, and he did what he did, it changed my life. Whereas my dad gave me John Coltrane, but before I heard Art Blakey, I couldn’t relate to the jazz my dad tried to play me. But when my cousin gave me that tape, I was able to understand and hear that other jazz. You never know what power or what change happens from one album or one song. So it’s a shame that so much brilliant brilliant music has been passed over because it could have had an effect on the world.
You have a very specific presence on stage, with the clothes that you choose to wear and how you present yourself. Is there an intention behind besides aesthetics? That long flowing tunic with the top piece at the release party—is that a little bit of a throwback, or is that just you?
Kamasi Washington:It’s both! I’m a big fan of African culture. The clothes that I wear, I just like the way they look. I enjoy my culture, and I enjoy African culture as well—and I like those clothes, yeah! I do feel a sense of responsibility because I understand that there’s pressure on African-Americans to not like their culture and be ashamed of being Black—to be ashamed of being connected to Africa, and to feel like it’s at very best a sad story, that these kings and philosophers who invented all these amazing technologies, who did a lot for the world … we don’t really get taught to be proud of that. If I can be an example, hey—I’m proud of it. I’m very honestly proud of it, and actually I do honestly really like the way the clothes look! I just think they look cool. It saddens me when I see my niece or like my little cousins and they’re ashamed of their hair. They think that their culture is ugly or stupid or inferior or primitive and the clothes are weird. And it’s like, ‘Why do you think about it like that? They’re cool!’ And when I wear them, people look at me and are like, ‘Wow, that’s really cool!’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I know it’s cool!’ So it’s more that. It’s not like I’m trying to make a statement with it. I think it’s cool! And why shouldn’t I wear it, and you’ll think it’s cool too. Nothing wrong with a suit or jeans. I wear all kind of clothes. Clothes are just clothes. But there is a sensation of … if I can be a bit of a force against that mentality that somehow there’s something wrong with what we do, then well … I hate the way that if African-American people do something, it’s immediately turned ‘ghetto.’ Like this or that thing is ‘ghetto.’ You’ll never hear me say that in my life. It’s like—what does that mean? If we do something in our neighborhood, it’s somehow bad, you know? And it’s like no—the clothes we wear and the clothes people wore in Africa or what they wear now, or even what I’m wearing, it’s coming from a different place. And I think it’s cool and I like it and that’s why I wear it.
What’s your vision for the future of yourself as a musician? What ambitions do you hold?
Kamasi Washington:It’s been so beautiful, the response that I’m having to the album. There’s such an excitement for it. I’ve always felt like people have been needing this music and it has the power to change people and blow people’s minds because there’s so much beautiful music out there. When I heard that Art Blakey record, that’s what opened my mind to John Coltrane and Eric Dalton—Art Blakey. And if my record can somehow open people’s minds to that, that would be dope. I want my music to do something like that, and that’s always what I wanted. Even when I was young I was always going to my friends, like ‘Check this out!’ and giving them tapes of this person or that person. They’d look at me crazy when I gave them avant-garde records, but it opened their mind. Music is powerful like that—you can’t help it, but when you hear music, it’s going to communicate with you and whether or not you decide to act on that information is up to you. So I think that’s important, and I think people are looking for music to do that too, and I want to do it, and I want to express it. Music isn’t something that I want to horde or keep secret or buried somewhere—I want to get it out for everyone.
Based on the way that you were mentored and encouraged, do you feel a sense of responsibility to encourage that for the next generation?
Kamasi Washington:Absolutely. I know what it means to have someone to look up to for encouragement and support and I know what it means to look up and not have encouragement and support. I never want to do that. And I think that—not that I’m old, but I’m not young, and there’s a whole younger generation of musicians who have a perspective that I don’t have. They were born with it and I didn’t get it til I was older. Everyone has an obligation to help those that come after them. And that will make the world a better place. The only way to do that is to help people.
65-92: THE RHYTHM CHANGES BUT THE STRUGGLE REMAINS FEATURING KAMASI WASHINGTON ON SAT., JULY 25, AT CALIFORNIA PLAZA, 350 S. GRAND, DOWNTOWN. 8 PM / FREE / ALL AGES. GRANDPERFORMANCES.ORG. KAMASI WASHINGTON’S THE EPIC IS OUT NOW ON BRAINFEEDER. VISIT KAMASI WASHINGTON AT KAMASIWASHINGTON.COM.