The Epic

Kamasi Washington’s brand of ecstatic jazz is bringing a whole new audience to the genre. How’d he do it?

May 30, 2016

Surveying the scene at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York’s Greenwich Village last August, it was clear that something remarkable was afoot. The 200-seat capacity venue was completely sold out for a series of concerts by Los Angeles saxophonist Kamasi Washington and the West Coast Get Down, and the atmosphere thrummed with anticipation. Inside, the club was totally overstuffed, while outside on the street was even more chaotic, with hopeful standing-room purchasers lined up down West 3rd all the way to Sixth Avenue.

This was the kind of reception more befitting an established jazz legend making a rare appearance after several decades away, not a young musician in his first ever New York City gigs as a bandleader. Packed houses also greeted Washington when he returned to the city for his BRIC JazzFest and Le Poisson Rouge sets that October, and at a February show at Webster Hall, over 1600 concertgoers responded to his performance with rapturous delight.

But what really distinguished these concerts wasn’t merely the exponentially expanding size of the audiences but their youthfulness, composed largely of twenty- and thirtysomethings; up front at the Webster Hall show, the crowd was so energetic that moshing even broke out. (In contrast, at a recent free performance by the influential 90-year-old jazz pianist Randy Weston at the Brooklyn Public Library, there were only a handful of audience members under 50.) While Washington’s current tour schedule includes traditional jazz festivals like Rotterdam’s North Sea and Rhode Island’s Newport, he’s been booked for several major spring and summer rock fests, including Coachella, Bonnaroo and Pitchfork.

Kamasi Washington's The Epic in Concert

With a media blizzard of ecstatic reviews and longform feature stories, buttressed by NPR concert broadcasts and TV appearances on Tavis Smiley and Charlie Rose, Washington has been seemingly everywhere at once, helping him become jazz’s biggest crossover success in decades. No new jazz artist has made this large a cultural ripple since Wynton Marsalis in the early ’80s, but Washington’s breakthrough is all the more astonishing because the music he plays isn’t the sleek and stylish buttoned-down post-bop of Marsalis and the “Young Lions,” but a wild and wooly approach that owes more to the sounds of late ’60s and early ’70s cosmically Afrocentric and politically conscious “spiritual jazz.” The Epic — Washington’s aptly titled three-disc, 173 minute, debut studio album — was released on Brainfeeder, the label founded by Los Angeles experimental electronic producer Flying Lotus, but it’s reminiscent of the kind of music that might have been issued during the late ’60s heyday of the Impulse! Records label, home to the most transcendent work of John Coltrane, his wife Alice Coltrane (Flying Lotus’ aunt) and Pharoah Sanders.

I think that he was at the right place at the right time with the right story.

Matthew Jurasek

So how is it that a triple-record debut album by a heretofore little-known musician — leading a 10-member band abetted by a 32-piece orchestra and 20-person choir — could sell thousands upon thousands of copies on an independent label and make the leap from small jazz clubs to big muddy fields? In addition to his Flying Lotus connection, Washington certainly got a boost from the notoriety of writing the string arrangements and playing saxophone on rapper Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, one of 2015’s most critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums. “I think it had to do with the perfect storm here,” says publicist Matthew Jurasek of DL Media, who worked on Washington’s PR campaign with Maureen McFadden. “I think that he was at the right place at the right time with the right story. Coming off the Kendrick Lamar record, coming out with a record that is not only ambitious but momentous in that sense, it was something that no one, for lack of a better term, had the balls to do in the past ten, 15, 20 years.”

The media coverage Washington garnered has certainly been astonishing, although a surprising amount of his press seems inordinately preoccupied with his image. A GQ feature began with the admission, “What first caught our attention about Washington was his Questlove-meets-Sun Ra look,” while a headline in Esquire proclaimed him “The Robe-Wearing, Kendrick-Collaborating Genius Who Might Just Save Jazz.” Even Adam Shatz’s excellent New York Times Magazine feature remarked that Washington possessed “an Afro whose sheer size seemed to convey the magnitude of his ambitions.” It was as if Washington had been sent over by Central Casting to play the role of “jazz revolutionary.”

Kamasi Washington - Change of the Guard

In a refutation of Public Enemy’s maxim, however, not all the hype was unbelievable, at least concerning Washington’s exuberant live performances. At the Blue Note, from the band’s ferocious set-opening rendition of “Change of the Guard” to the finale of “Malcolm’s Theme” with Washington’s dad Rickey joining his son on sax, the West Coast Get Down were an incandescent powerhouse. Since The Epic’s release, Washington and his band have been touring relentlessly — something jazz groups rarely have the luxury of doing — which has also helped grow his following. “I think an excellent live band is always a sort of precious resource and people get very excited about that,” says Ben Ratliff, a New York Times music critic and the author of several books on jazz, “and so as word spreads that Kamasi Washington’s group is something to be experienced, I think young culture vultures get really into that. But also, the fact that this is a black band doing music that brings together new ideas about jazz, old and still valuable ideas about jazz, ideas about hip-hop, ideas about gospel — I just think that is very appealing.”

Indeed, in the post-Ferguson twilight of the Obama era, there’s been a renewed focus on African-American issues, including racial inequality and police brutality. In his NYT Magazine piece, Shatz observed that Washington “tapped into an intense nostalgia for an era, when, as Washington puts it, ‘music was a sword of the civil rights movement.’” Writer Greg Tate has called Kamasi “the jazz voice of Black Lives Matter,” and Washington himself told Shatz, “I think I epitomize Black Lives Matter.” Washington’s activism is a return to the kind of political and racial consciousness that was a staple of the late ’60s jazz scene, including the work of his LA jazz forefathers like Horace Tapscott and his Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra. “It really dramatizes what a lot of younger jazz musicians aren’t doing, which is using music and family histories in making these bigger cultural connections,” says Anthony Burr, a musician and professor of contemporary music performance at the University of California-San Diego. “People actually respond to stuff that has more concrete connections to culture.”

Kamasi Washington - The Rhythm Changes

Washington also possesses what Tate has described as “the best heroic jazz origin story since the Marsalis Brothers.” As a child he was weaned on Coltrane masterpieces like A Love Supreme and Transition by his father Rickey, a horn player who worked as a music teacher. As a teen, Kamasi was chosen to be part of teacher Reggie Andrews’ Multi-School Jazz Band, a sort of all-star squad featuring the best musicians from local public high schools. There he began playing with several of the musicians who would later constitute the West Coast Get Down collective, including bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, drummer Ronald Bruner, Jr. and trombonist Ryan Porter. Following after-hours jam sessions at the World Stage in Leinert Park he’d catch rides with saxophonist Terrace Martin, who would years later help Washington get a gig touring with Snoop Dogg (as well as bringing him into Lamar’s Butterfly sessions). In December 2011, after two years of woodshedding at a Hollywood cocktail lounge, the musicians pooled their money and booked a month’s worth of studio time, resulting in 192 songs, enough for eight albums, with 45 of them featuring Washington as bandleader. Seventeen of these tunes comprise The Epic; the album appears to have been ready to go for three years, with Washington and Brainfeeder waiting for just the right moment to release it in order to create maximum impact.

To Pimp a Butterfly ultimately provided just such a branding opportunity. Of course, it’s not only Washington and his West Coast Get Down colleagues that have forged a connection between hip-hop and spiritual jazz. Producers like J Dilla and Madlib masterfully mined beats from old jazz records, and the decade since Dilla’s Donuts has seen the evolution of an entire generation of crate-diggers exploring the “rare groove” aesthetic whose loose boundaries are marked by tastemakers like Chicago’s Dusty Groove record store and mail order, reissues and compilations on Britain’s Soul Jazz Records, Brooklyn’s Wax Poetics magazine and DJs like Gilles Peterson. “The Pharoah/Alice Coltrane kind of thing has always been a big part of the sort of canon of rare groove and hip-hop crate-digging,” says Burr, “much more so than it was ever canonical in terms of ‘Jazz’ with a capital J. In a weird way within jazz, it quickly came to seem dated, but the hip-hop guys were often digging pretty explicitly in those areas of jazz which jazz didn't necessarily want to own, things like this stuff and jazz-funk.”

Kamasi Washington - Final Thought

A renewed interest in jazz has been bubbling within underground electronic circles for the last few years as well. In 2013, Detroit house producer Theo Parrish compiled Black Jazz Signature, a mix culled from material on the early ’70s Oakland, CA, label Black Jazz Records, while his Motor City colleague Mike Huckaby released a series of 12-inch edits of Sun Ra’s work; Ra was also the subject of two compilations on the UK dance music label Strut, 2014’s In the Orbit of Ra and 2015’s Gilles Peterson-curated To Those Of Earth...And Other Worlds. Spiritual jazz has been a distinct influence on the work of electronic artists like Four Tet (especially his work with the late drummer Steve Reid) and Floating Points, whose 2015 album Elaenia was a milestone in the cross-pollination of electronic music and jazz that moved away from the dance floor entirely.

Meanwhile, over the last decade, the jazz community itself has been slowly expanding its demographic base, primarily via the concert experience. Following the initial ’90s forays of jazz-funk trio Medeski Martin & Wood, New Orleans musicians like Galactic and Christian Scott have toured on the jam band circuit, while the Bad Plus, Snarky Puppy and Robert Glasper have all had varying degrees of crossover success – though none fared quite as well as New Orleans keyboardist Jon Batiste, whose group Stay Human became the house band for CBS’s Late Night with Stephen Colbert. The crowds themselves have become somewhat younger, perhaps a result of the acorns planted by projects like New York’s Winter Jazzfest, whose annual January marathons have become a treasured jewel in the city’s cultural calendar. “We’ve always had a generally young crowd,” says Winter Jazzfest founder Brice Rosenbloom, who presented Washington’s Webster Hall show. “We don’t target the conventional traditional jazz audience. We’re really promoting it as a festival for young folks, for the uninitiated. They don’t feel like they’re walking into a stuffy jazz club.”

Washington has been seemingly everywhere at once, helping him become jazz’s biggest crossover success in decades.

Indeed, it’s that perception of stuffiness, whether real or just really expensive, that has kept jazz at arm’s length from the masses. “I really do feel that there’s so much anxiety among casual music fans around jazz, around the idea of jazz, and it’s not always the fault of jazz musicians,” says Ratliff. “It’s just that there’s this idea that’s formed that jazz is complicated and alienating and somehow hard to connect with and self-absorbed. For whatever reason, Kamasi seems to be like an exception to that, and when people who are into music but are scared of jazz, when they finally see something that is identified with jazz and they like it, I think they feel so happy and relieved and excited: ‘Ah, so I do like jazz after all!’ It makes them feel really, really good.”

If Washington’s music is, as Ratliff puts it, "jazz for people who don't like jazz," he manages to pull it off without being overly intentional or calculating. While Washington may not be a radical improviser, his band’s energy and fluidity are exhilaratingly physical, connecting the music not only to hip-hop and funk, but also to jazz’s dance music origins. Winter Jazzfest’s Rosenbloom even sees Washington as a “gateway drug,” a potential entry point for listeners to discover and embrace other jazz artists. Which is a nice way to ultimately accept Washington’s spiritual offerings: if not giant steps towards the shape of jazz to come, then at least an affordable ticket to travel the spaceways to Other Planes of There.

Header image: Drew Gurian

Header image © Drew Gurian

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