Interview: Kamasi Washington
RBMA Radio’s Frosty sits down with the jazz giant for a Fireside Chat
Kamasi Washington is radically reshaping the role of the jazz musician in the 21st century. Growing up in southern Los Angeles, Washington soaked up the gangsta rap of N.W.A. and had a keen ear for Bach, while learning the saxophone at the prestigious Academy of Music at Hamilton High School. Along with his West Coast Get Down collective (which includes Stephen Thundercat Bruner and his brother, Ronald Bruner Jr., among others), Washington is dusting off the tradition of spiritually inclined post-bop and fusion, and bringing it to a new generation by way of Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label.
Fresh off the release of his aptly titled debut album, The Epic, a record so brimming with ideas it combines the small-room immediacy of be-bop with Sun Ra’s cosmic escapism and choir-backed, near-operatic passages, Washington is taking his “New Los Angeles Sound” around the globe.
What are you first memories of music?
I’m a second-generation musician, so music has been in my life since I was born. I know that I got a drum set when I was three years old. That’s when I met the Bruner’s, Ron and Stephen (AKA Thundercat). Their dad and my dad had a band together. The story goes that, at the party, I was playing my drums and everyone was like, “That’s amazing that a three-year old can play a drum set!” Then, there was a rumor going around the party that there was some baby there that could play the drums, too.
They asked me if Ronald could play my drums, and I was like, “No! Those aren’t baby drums, those are kid drums!” Despite my lack of willingness, they ended up letting Ronald play the drums. Accordingly, we had a nice little epic drum battle: a three-year old versus a one-and-a-half year old. I always say that I won, but he probably beat me (even though he was probably still in diapers).
Did you – with Stephen and Ronald, or other friends and family – mess around making music together?
Well, we were more friends than collaborators, but I swear that Ronald was already serious about music at one-years old: watching drum videos, transcribing solos. The rest of us were just kids. Whenever our dads would have rehearsals, we would run around and play while they jammed. I met Brandon Colemen and Tony Austin through Ronald. They all went to the same elementary school. Ron, Stephen and had fallen out of contact somewhere around sixth or seventh grade, until high school, and by that point I’d met people like Ryan Porter, Jazz America, Miles Mosley and Cameron Graves, at Hamilton High School.
My dad’s teacher, Reggie Andrews, had an all-star band called The Multi-School Jazz Band. He would travel all over the city – picking up kids from South Central who got bussed out to magnet schools around the city, along with some of the kids who were actually from the neighborhoods of said magnet schools – and taking us all back to Locke High School. The first time he came to Hamilton to come pick me up, he told me that Ron and Stephen were in the band. I’ll never forget that reunion. It felt as if I hadn’t seen them in forever.
I’ve met musicians who I can tell are talented – they’re just playing the wrong instrument.
When you connected with Reggie Andrews for The Multi-School Jazz Band, was the saxophone your instrument of choice?
I’d started playing the saxophone about a year before then. If I backtrack again: I played drums, then piano; then I switched to clarinet, all while I was in elementary school. When Ron, Stephen and I fell out of contact, I was playing the clarinet and got into jazz. I had a cousin that gave me an Art Blakey mixtape and I was a real big fan of Wayne Shorter, and so I decided that I wanted to play the saxophone. My dad wouldn’t let me, though. He grew up in the ’70s, and if you were a saxophone player then you had to be a doubler: you had to play saxophone, flute and clarinet.
I was playing flute and clarinet while trying to play saxophone, but it doesn’t really translate, you know? One day my dad left his saxophone out at rehearsal, and I was like, “I’m going to learn right now!” While he was in the front room talking to his friends, I figured out how to play Wayne Shorter’s “Sleeping Dancer Sleep On,” ran in there with all his friends, and said, “Look, I already know how to play!” All of his friends were like, “What? You just figured that out?” My dad took me seriously and let me switch over to saxophone after that. The next day, he took me to my uncle’s church and I started playing there. I didn’t even know what the notes were. I was just figuring it out.
I wouldn’t say that I knew I was going to be a professional musician at that point, but I knew that I wanted to be a life-long musician. A big part of being a musician is finding your instrument. It’s like finding your voice. I’ve met musicians who I can tell are talented – they’re just playing the wrong instrument. When I got the saxophone, I found my instrument and my voice.
What was your kind of connection to jazz as music and as a community?
Before jazz, I was sliding towards being a young gangster. I was confused about what I was going to be in life. There’s a lot of pressure for a young African American boys in the neighborhood I grew up in to succumb to this negative self-image. I hadn’t been consumed by it, but I definitely had that negative self-image and aspirations of being “the hardest.” Two things happened. When my cousin gave me that Art Blakey mixtape, all of a sudden I had something that I wanted to do. Then there was a program called Ujima that came to my school. These guys gave us a perspective on our African American history and culture.
They gave us the Malcolm X autobiography and that really changed my perspective: reading about this man who devoted his whole life to the betterment of his people. It was almost impossible for me to live my life according to the destruction of my people after reading that. At the same time, I discovered a place in my neighborhood called Leimert Park. It was one of the biggest cultural and artistic hubs in LA, with some of the greatest musicians, artists and poets in the world at my fingertips. Music opened all these doors for me. I had all these different options. I realized that there was another way for me.
I ended up having a solo in front of 18,000 people, and I didn’t play the way that I wanted to. That lit a fire under me.
Were you going to shows, or were you already moving into bringing your saxophone to 5th Street Dick’s, for the jam sessions upstairs?
I was more observing. I mean, from the jump, because like at Leimert Park, there was some heavy, heavy, heavy cats [at 5th Street Dick’s]. I wasn’t going to just jump up there (even though I jumped in head-first musically). When I started going to the jam sessions I was a fly on the wall. I was pretty bright so I ended up going to LACES, which is a blue ribbon school: really academically challenging, a magnet school. After LACES, I went to Hamilton Music Academy. Even though I’d only been playing for a year, I played lead saxophone in the A Band.
I was pretty happy with myself then, but when I went to Multi School and found Leimert Park, and heard those guys play, it really put my playing in perspective. That same year, The Multi-School Jazz Band played The Playboy Jazz Festival. I ended up having a solo (that I didn’t think I was going to have) in front of 18,000 people, and I didn’t play the way that I wanted to. That lit a fire under me. It made me really obsessed, to the point where I was practicing everyday.
Can you talk about that fire?
You know what? It felt good, but music is both uplifting and heartbreaking. Music is like water: you can’t ever grasp it, you know? Cameron Graves and I would call each other everyday and ask, “How long have you been practicing for today?” “Oh, nine hours,” he’d say. “How long have you been practicing?” “Three hours.” I’d feel obligated to catch up. We were working so hard. Some days I’d sound amazing, and other days I wouldn’t. Music is something that you have to try to capture every day.
I wrote a three-page paper on a Nintendo 64 controller.
You studied ethnomusicology at UCLA, right? Why did you chose that path and what you were looking for in that setting?
I was pretty serious about my studies and I knew what I wanted to do musically, in a sense. I saw studying ethnomusicology as an opportunity to be exposed to more things. I wasn’t already studying like Indonesian music or North Indian classical music. And I really wanted to develop myself as a composer, too. I didn’t need to study a jazz study saxophone major in order to play jazz saxophone. I was already doing that.
With the school under your belt, what was the next step?
My first tour happened when I was like 19-years old – with Snoop Dogg, when I was at UCLA. I was missing four or five weeks of every quarter touring, but I got really good at buddying up with my professors. When I was on tour, it was before people had laptops. Most of the hotels had “business centers,” though, so I would do papers and email them to my professors in there. This one hotel didn’t have a business center, so I was like, “Man, what am I going to do?” They were like, “Well, in your room there’s a little Nintendo 64 controller, and you can use your TV to send an email.”
I was like, “Are you serious?” I sat there and a screen pops up with all the letters, and you have to, “Click, click, click, click, A. Click, click, click, click, click, click, B. Click, click, click, click, click, D.” I wrote a three-page paper like that and emailed it to my professor. I told him how I made it wrote it and was like, “You have to give me an A for doing this paper this way, period.” School was just something to help build me up musically, not necessarily something I had to complete, and then start my music career.
Was there something about that first touring experience that helped elevate what you were doing musically?
I was practicing a lot and cultivating myself to… I don’t know, we were going to “save jazz.” We were going to take jazz to a new level. Coming out of high school, none of us (except Ron) ended up on a jazz gig. I was like, “If I’m not going to be playing jazz, then I’m going to go play with Snoop Dogg. That’s cool.” When I went into that situation, I went in with an open mind and I actually learned a lot musically. It’s not just the note: it’s where you place the note, what kind of frequency it was going to be; what kind of tone you use when you play it, and all that’s relative to how the bass player and the drummer are playing on their own, and together. I took that same kind of mentality to my own music and it opened up all these new avenues for us to play with.
It can be a grind to be on the road. Did you find time to compose?
Yeah, I did! I was touring with Snoop Dogg, going to school and writing a new song nearly every day. Now, I don’t even know how it was possible! One of the things that Snoop Dogg would do while on the road was search out jam sessions in the cities we were in. He had us in our “Straight Outta Compton” uniforms, this straight gangster attire of Dickies and Chucks, and we’d walk to some jam session in Utah and they wouldn’t know what to think of us. Then we’d play “Giant Steps” at 400 BPM and then they really didn’t know what to think of us. We always got a kick out that.
We had aspirations of creating a new sound. We were very presumptuous little kids.
Can you tell me about the genesis of Young Jazz Giants?
Young Jazz Giants was the first group that came together within the West Coast Get Down. That was myself, Ron and Stephen Bruner and Cameron Graves. The first gig we did – and the reason we put the band together – was a John Coltrane competition. When we won it, Ravi Coltrane gave the award and he brought Flying Lotus with him. He was like a young Stephen back then.
I was the first one to get a car, so we’d go to concerts until we ran out of gas. Kenny Garrett would come to town and we’d sneak in, with no money, literally six nights in a row. I don’t even know how I rationalized it in my mind. Then we’d be practicing all day, between Leimert Park and the jam sessions.
Luckily, my parents were pretty cool. They didn’t give me a curfew, so I would be there all night. Then we’d go back to my house and jam until my dad came outside screaming at the top of his lungs: “What are you doing? It’s four o’clock in the morning!” The genesis of Young Jazz Giants was that we were kindred spirits. We had aspirations of creating a new sound. We were very presumptuous little kids.
There are defining periods in jazz – bop, be-bop, the very cosmic and spiritual jazz of Coltrane and so on. What were you all aiming for as a new sound?
That’s what we’re doing, I mean, it’s our sound. Even “The Young Jazz Giants”: we didn’t make that name. When we won the competition, there was an article that was written about us and they called us “these young jazz giants.” They said something like, “These young jazz giants are about to make... “ We just kind of kept it. We have something to say. We have an experience. We’re relevant. We acknowledge what happened before us, but we’re here now and we try to be in the present.
Is performing the ultimate kind of “being in the present” for you?
Absolutely. That’s why when we do play live, people notice that it doesn’t sound like the album. It just sounds like whatever we’re going through on that particular day. And the audience add to what we do. The city adds to what we do. I’ve learned through experience that you can’t create yesterday, you just can’t. I don’t really try to recreate even what we’ve recorded. I try to just move on.
Music is about connecting people: even if you’re singing by yourself, you’re singing by yourself for someone.
Can you talk about your feelings of improvisation versus playing composed music? Is The Epic not an exact copy of your transcription arrangement – more an expression of the arrangement through the musicians involved?
It’s both. Sometimes they start out playing exactly what I wrote, and then by the end of the song they’re playing something different. That’s cool; I want them to do that, because I want them to infuse who they are into the music. I sometimes feel that music has got to this place where people look at it as a singular endeavor, when it’s really a communal act. Music is about connecting people: even if you’re singing by yourself, you’re singing by yourself for someone. You’re multiplying yourself, in a sense.
Can you explain where the idea for The Epic came from?
In 2010, Flying Lotus asked me to make a record for Brainfeeder. My first thought was, “I have this collective of musicians that I’ve grown up playing with, but we’ve never really recorded our sound on that higher level.” I also had a mentor, Gerald Wilson, who heard my band while I was a composition major at school. He told me that I should start adding more of my compositional elements to that band, because I always left it pretty open for them to be free.
We all got in the studio and ended up not just working on my album, but working on albums for eight other musicians from that collective. We locked ourselves away for a whole month, in December of 2011, and ended up with a staggering amount of music: 190 songs that I cut down to 45 for my personal project, then to 17 songs for The Epic.
On The Epic, the choral arrangements really struck me. What can you tell me about them?
I’ve always loved the power of the human voice. It’s something that, ironically enough, has been missing in jazz quite often. One of my favorite pieces of music is Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. I’ve always wanted to be invited by some orchestra to play on top of Symphony of Psalms. When I was thinking of adding some large ensemble through composed elements to my music, that sound was what came to me. As I started writing string and choir arrangements around the music, it was like taking a guitar and adding amplification to it. It was like the music started to pop out. That’s why, when you hear it with the strings and choir, it sounds like, “Oh, man, this stuff is going all over the place!”
Can you reflect on playing with your dad: that bond, that experience?
It’s amazing, I think it’s the way it should be: the connection between the generations. My dad has gone through things that I’ve yet to go through, and so he has something to teach me. And I’ve gone through things that he hasn’t gone through, so I have something to teach him, too. The common practice of separation between the generations – when you turn 18 and you leave the house – I get the necessary of it, but there’s wisdom in holding onto that connection.
When I have my dad come play with me, or come out on the road with me, it’s because I see the value in that connection. I wrote the song “Change of the Guard” for my dad and his friends because when I was a kid, LA was a gift and a curse. The world jazz community has always kind of ignored LA’s scene, so growing up as a second generation musician I would see how brilliant my dad and his friends were as musicians and never understand why they weren’t more well known.
Is there anything else that you’d like to share with the world?
There are a lot of cool things happening out here on planet Earth. Keep your eyes open. The lights are on now. If we all become more aware, more conscious, the world will be a very amazing place. Let’s all do it. Let’s open up.