Kamasi Washington

Hailing from South Central, Kamasi Washington has taken jazz to the next step with his upcoming debut album The Epic, out on Flying Lotus's Brainfeeder label

It is granted through general wisdom that we learn from our mistakes. For a 15-year-old Kamasi Washington, unhappy with his saxophone solo in front of 15,000 people at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Jazz Festival 1997 in Los Angeles, it was not so much in failing that he gained his lesson but the all-consuming feeling of not achieving his best.

Music is bi-polar. When you’re connected it feels really good, when you’re not it really hurts

On stage, having only played tenor saxophone for a tender year and a half, Washington was performing with the Multi-School Jazz Band (MSJB), a collection of the best inner-city high school musicians in Los Angeles, organised by the influential jazz musician and mentor Reggie Andrews.

“Reggie just pointed at me to solo on this song that I'd never soloed on before,” recalls Washington. “I jumped up and I played and I was not happy at all with how I sounded.

“Music, up to that point had always felt so good. That was my first time feeling bad. Music is bi-polar like that. When you're connected and you’re playing and the music is coming out of your spirit and your soul, it feels really good. But when it doesn't, it's the worst feeling in the world.

“And that night it really put a fire on it because I wanted to have my stuff together. It was then that I decided I wanted to be a great musician.”

This desire for greatness is one that has currently been satisfied with a remarkable accomplishment.

With his upcoming debut album as leader The Epic, a three-volume suite recorded with over 60 musicians and set for release on Steven Ellison AKA Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder label, Kamasi Washington has successfully moved the jazz idiom forward to the present day.

“What is missing in jazz today is that sound of searching for more," said Ellison in the LA Weekly, 18 February 2014. And Washington has found it and filled the gap.

But his achievement has not been made independently. To claim it would be to ignore the fertile and creative ground that Washington has developed in as a musician, as well as those close friends and mentors that have helped him to flourish.

Fertile Ground

In 1981, on 74th and Figureoa in South Central, Washington was born into a musical family – “I have three brothers and three sisters, and everyone played an instrument”. His mother Valerie Washington was a flautist and high school chemistry teacher. His father Rickey was also a tenor saxophone player and had grown up on 64th and Figueroa, emerging as a musician during eastside LA’s 1970s jazz scene.

My dad grew up without a father and didn’t want us to grow up without one

“Back then in the 1970s, the eastside, the hood, had a lot of music. My dad was a part of that,” says Washington. “It was after the whole Central Avenue heyday [a vibrant jazz scene that occurred between 1920-1955 along one strip in LA] and even though the eastside was a rough part of town, the whole scene was really busting with musicians.

“The sound of the westside like Hollywood, Culver City and Beverly Hills was more traditional. In the eastside – Watts, Compton and Palm Beach – it was more political and avant-garde. People like Horace Tapscott [pianist] and Reggie Andrews with Karma, were pushing things forward.”

Washington Sr attended Alain Locke High School, along with the likes of vocalist Patrice Rushen and saxophonist Gerald Albright, and was taught by Reggie Andrews – as his son Kamasi would be through the MSJB.

Rickey Washington then went on to form the group the Time Has Come with drummer Ronald Bruner but stopped touring after his first son Sol Washington was born.

Father and Son

“My dad grew up without a father and didn’t want us to grow up without one,” says Kamasi Washington. “He’s from a pretty rough area in LA but realised people would leave him alone because he was a musician.”

In South Central, home to the Crips street gang from 1969, Washington observed how his father had grown up around a vicious cycle of unemployment, poverty and crime.

“My father was in this gang called the Businessmen. That sort of thing was just part of the area that you grow up in. Society is pushing you into those areas that it says you shouldn’t be a part of... Music is one of those things where you get a pass.”

In the 1980s, during the rise of crack cocaine and a huge increase in the number of gangs in South Central, Kamasi Washington was growing up in different times. “It was rough when my dad was coming up but it was a different kind of rough. It was rough like, people fight each other... When I grew up it was like, gunshots, sirens and helicopters flying around every night.”

No one was pressuring me to play music, so music was always just fun for me

At the age of five, Kamasi Washington found a dead prostitute in his backyard. “Me and my brother thought she was asleep but she’d either been strangled or overdosed,” he says. “In hindsight, South Central probably seems bad but when I was growing up I had a good childhood.”

Musical Prodigy

Around the age of two, Washington had started playing the drums. At his third birthday party he was playing the instrument together with a one-year-old Ronald Bruner Jr.

This first jam in many ways laid the foundations for a group that they would go on to form in their teenage years, along with Ronald’s younger brother Stephen (now known as Thundercat) who was not yet born at that time.

While going on to play piano and clarinet at the age of seven, Washington did not start out as the musical prodigy in his family.

“My older brother Sol was the one that was really talented when we were kids, he was a super-player with a perfect pitch. Everyone thought he was going to be the musician but there was a lot of pressure on him. It’s a gift and a curse to be talented as a kid... No one was pressuring me to play music, so music was always just fun for me.”

Ultimately, Sol did not go on to pursue music as a career while Kamasi did.

Music is powerful and it was always in me. I felt that spiritual connection

Around 1990, Rickey and Valerie Washington divorced. Rickey moved to Inglewood in southwest LA and Valerie moved to an area in South Central called the 60s. Kamasi, who was also a “maths and science geek”, then began attending a prestigious middle school named the Los Angeles Centre for Enriched Studies (LACES).

The Door Opens

At the age of 13, Kamasi Washington discovered his musical calling when he picked up his father’s saxophone to played it for the first time with a successful rendition of his favourite song, Wayne Shorter’s ‘Sleeping Dancer Sleep On’.

“When I started playing the saxophone, somehow that door opened up,” he recalls. “I just dove in head first and was practicing 10 hours a day, every day. Music is powerful and I think it was always in me. I felt that freedom of expression and a spiritual connection.”

While at LACES and fully immersed in playing his instrument, Washington noticed a difference between himself and some of his neighbourhood friends.

It just turned into a thing where it's like, he's still a homie but he's not into what we're into

“When I was in elementary school I fought a lot. My friends were into stuff, so I was into it too. When I started getting into music, one of my friends started stealing cars, buying guns and going really deep in. At that point in my life, all I wanted to do was play music.”

Washington’s friend Horace Mann was a member of the Bloods, rival to the Crips, while they were still at middle school. Mann would often carry a .22 calibre pistol around with him.

“I kept those friends for a while but after some time, it just turned into a thing where it's like, he's still a homie but he's not into what we're into. Then I had my music friends like Ronald and Stephen and all we wanted to do is talk about jazz.

“My dad had this studio at the back of our house in Inglewood and we'd be back there till four o'clock in the morning sometimes. Just playing as hard, loud and fast as he was could. He'd come out and yell at us because he thought our neighbours were gonna call the cops. Amazingly, they never did because we had no consideration for anyone else.”

Eastside LA

In two years after he’d started playing, Washington had moved from LACES to Alexander Hamilton High, a music magnet school in LA’s westside.

“In the US, there was this thing called the Magnet Program, because schools in the inner-city and African American communities were run down. If you were a smart kid, they would bust you to a school in the westside.”

He was bringing them back to the eastside. He saw the importance of maintaining the community

At Hamilton High School, Washington briefly lost touch with his music friends from South Central but was reunited when Reggie Andrews – who had taught his father Rickey Washington at Locke High School, Watts – selected him to play with them for the MSJB.

In the eastside, Reggie Andrews had played a crucial role in raising musicians in Los Angeles – also working on records with the likes of Rick James and hip hop group the Pharcyde.

“All the musicians coming out of South Central and the eastside from around 1970-2005, when he retired, went to Reggie Andrews,” says Washington. “Because of the Magnet Program, all the talent was being moved to the westside... Reggie was bringing them back to the eastside and to Watts where he taught.

“He’s from the eastside and he had the vision to see that someone had to do it. From the 1930s, Central Avenue, Compton and Watts was busting with music, art and culture. He saw the importance of stepping up and maintaining it.

“He used to drive everyone from the band out to Locke, picking different kids up from each of their schools, we’d rehearse from 5-8pm then he’d drive us all back home.”

The Next Level

At his first rehearsal with the MSJB, Washington soon realised the quality of the musicians in the group. While he had been the lead saxophone in his high school band, MSJB were already on a professional level.

“There was people like Terrace Martin [saxophonist and now a famous hip hop producer], Isaac Smith [trombonist] and Cory Hogan [saxophonist. Those dudes were good. Isaac Smith sounded like Curtis Fuller, Terrace could play like Jackie McLean already and Cory sounded like Sonny Rollins.”

Shortly after joining the group, Washington performed with them that summer at the Playboy Jazz Festival and realised that he also wanted to be a great musician.

Returning that summer at the start of 10th grade, Washington had already raised his skills to a higher level.

“I was asking my dad every day to go up to the piano and show me different harmonics. He’d get annoyed and be like, I already showed you the diminished scales... When I came back after that summer, everybody was pretty surprised because I’d really dug in and studied.”

Young Jazz Giants

A year later as a senior, Washington formed his first group with childhood friends Ronal Bruner Jr and Steven Bruner (who was in his eighth grade), and Cameron Graves – a talented and likeminded pianist.

Jazz has a freedom of expression. They hear the music and I can see it healing them

In 1999, the quartet won the John Coltrane Competition playing a rendition of ‘A Love Supreme’. There they met Ravi Coltrane (John Coltrane’s son) and his cousin Steven Ellison (now known as Flying Lotus).

An article in Variety also provided the group with a name: “Blazing young saxophonist Kamasi Washington and his Young Jazz Giants stirred up a frighteningly good replica of a mid-1960s Coltrane freak-out.”

The Young Jazz Giants were born and went on to play at the World Stage gallery in South Central’s Leimert Park Village.

Founded in 1989 by jazz drummer Billy Higgins and poet and community arts activist Kamau Daáood, the World Stage helped to initiate the Leimert Park arts movement in the 1990s – in the wake of the 1992 LA riots. This period is regarded as LA’s Harlem Renaissance.

When Washington and his group were performing at the centre, the movement had already passed but it played an important role in establishing themselves within the community.

“People in those areas they feel suppressed,” says Washington. “Jazz has a freedom of expression and when they hear it I can see jazz healing them.”

While the Young Jazz Giants existed as a quartet, the group had also started to play with another group of musicians that they were friends with.

“Miles Mosley played stand-up bass and went to Hamilton too. He would come sit with us. Then this trombonist Ryan Porter, who I’d known since Junior High School, would also play with us. Brandon Coleman [keyboardist] went to the same elementary school as Steven and Ronald Jr and also started hanging around us.”

This collection of musicians, while not members of the Young Jazz Giants, would eventually join Washington in a larger group a few years after.

Growing Up

After high school, the Young Jazz Giants started to get pulled in different directions but were still able to stick together.

Washington went to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) to study ethnomusicology, Bruner Jr went to the California Institute of the Arts, while Stephen and Cameron remained at high school. Ronald Jr also started playing with saxophonist and flautist Kenny Garrett, as well as the hardcore/thrash group Suicidal Tendencies with his brother Stephen.

We’d have these super heavy jazz jams but then we’d turn it into this westcoast hip hop band

In 2004, in the summer after Washington’s freshmen year, the quartet recorded their only album The Young Jazz Giants for Birdman Records. And in his second year at UCLA, Washington started performing with Snoop Dogg’s group the Snoopadelics.

“Terrace Martin, who I’d played with for the MSJB, hooked me up. The Snoopadelics were mostly jazz musicians. People like Issac Smith, Terrace, Stephen, Robert Sput Searight [drummer for the Brooklyn-based fusion group Snarky Puppy] and RC [pianist who plays with Erykah Badu].

“The soundchecks would be these super heavy jazz jams but then we’d turn it into this westcoast hip hop band when it was time to play with Snoop,” says Washington. “We’d be playing and all of a sudden he’d be saying, let’s play this Rick James song that none of you knew that I wanted to do. He was a very cool and talented guy.”

Washington then began playing with his hero, the big band leader Gerald Wilson – who also became his tutor at UCLA.

Musical Mentor

“Gerald was an LA legend. When he put me in his band it was a big honour,” says Washington. “I used to play his music in the MSJB and Reggie Andrews even invited him to one of our rehearsals to conduct the band. I learnt a lot from him, just in the way he treated his band and his approach as a leader.”

Before they became acquainted, Wilson had also unknowingly heard Washington play regularly in his own neighbourhood.

After living in the 60s, Valerie Washington had moved to a house near Leimert Park while Washington was at high school. Gerald Wilson lived two blocks around the corner and would hear her son practicing.

Gerald Wilson was in his 90s and was still writing new music and trying to push the envelope

“I went over to his house the first time when I was in college to learn something and I was like, I grew up a few blocks that way,” recalls Washington. “He was like, that was you! I used to hear some kid practicing all the time and wonder who that was.”

Performing and recording with Gerald Wilson’s orchestra would act as a major benefit in Washington’s development as a composer. Something that he would implement in the years that followed.

The Next Step

In 2005, Washington met Steven Ellison again, then known as Flying Lotus. They exchanged details and began to communicate.

After graduating at UCLA, Washington went on to perform with the likes of R&B and hip hop artists such as Raphael Saadiq, Lauryn Hill and Mos Def; and jazz artists such as pianist McCoy Tyner and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard.

Around the same time, Washington’s group the Young Jazz Giants had begun to change its dynamic, something that became recognised in a particular incident.

“If there was ever a gig where Steven, Cameron and Ronald [original band members] were gone, I would use Miles Mosley, Ryan Porter and Brandon Coleman [school friends], and also this drummer Tony Austin,” explains Washington.

“One gig, there was supposed to be the original members but they all said on the same day that they couldn’t make it. So I called Brandon, Miles and Tony and was like can you come do this gig we’ve got at Fifth Street Dicks [a jazz coffeehouse in Leimert Park, founded by Richard Fulton].

“Something happened where Ronald, Steven and Cameron, who thought they couldn’t make it, showed up and then we all played together, with a double rhythm section [two drummers, two bassists] and two piano players.”

Thus, the Young Jazz Giants were renamed the Next Step. After they formed, the group began holding a regular spot at the Piano Bar in Hollywood. There, they began performing each other’s music, which was compiled into a thick book that contained around 500 songs. In 2009, they decided to change the group’s name again.

“We started calling it the West Coast because that’s the collective,” says Washington. “That’s where we all play everybody’s music.”

Around this time, having been in contact with Steven Ellison AKA Flying Lotus for a few years, Washington had started to make plans to release an album on Brainfeeder but hadn’t fully realised the project. His mentor Gerald Wilson was able to provide him with some guidance.

“I went over to Gerald’s house and he had a record he was doing there. He was in his 90s and was still writing new music and trying to push the envelope,” says Washington.

“He was really into what my band was doing because we were playing odd time signatures and he thought it was crazy that I had two drums. I played him a live recording of what we were doing at Fifth Street Dicks where Brandon was doing some keyboard, string stuff.

I wanted to display all these really cool people that I grew up with and love and respect

“Gerald was like, oh that's cool man, let me show you some stuff I’m doing with strings. He played me this stuff and it opened my mind. I was like, I should really do some stuff with strings.”

The Epic

With Wilson’s inspiration, Washington had realised his album. He got back in contact with Flying Lotus and told him he was ready to do the record.

He told him that he would compose string and choir arrangements around their music and record the album with the West Coast Get Down, an orchestra and a choir. In December 2012, 60 musicians were brought into a studio to record The Epic.

Music to me is a communal thing, it’s all about communication and togetherness

“Those were like marathon days because I wanted all the energy,” says Washington. “The sound of that record is all of their energy and I was pushing for it.

“Most people with jazz are trying to prove what they can do with their instrument... I was just trying to pour people’s spirit into it. I wanted to display all these really cool people that I grew up with and love and respect.”

Another key asset to the album is the vocalist Patrice Quinn. Washington had met Quinn backstage at a gig, after finishing at Hamilton High School.

“She was super sweet and was like, I just started singing,” recalls Washington. “At this time, I was at the height of my serious jazz phase but when she got up there and sang 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow', I just melted me like ice cream on a hot day...”

Quinn joined Washington and the rest of his group at their gig at Fifth Street Dicks, and became an important member of the band.

“Music to me is a communal thing, it’s all about communication and togetherness” says Washington. “In society, there’s always a big push for the star and a lot of singers want to be that star... Patrice just wanted to sing with the group. She’s not a separate thing, she’s an instrument just like the rest of us.”

Jazz Today

With the album completed, Washington continued working various musicians, such as Stanley Clarke, Harvey Mason, Chaka Khan and Kendrick Lamar.

At the end of August 2014, Washington’s mentor Gerald Wilson was 95 and had fallen sick with pneumonia.

There’s a jazz of today, there’s an energy that exists now that is just as relevant

On the 4 September, Wilson celebrated his birthday with a special gig in his home, around the block from Valerie Washington’s.

A few members of the West Coast Get Down – many of which had been raised on his music through the Multi-School Jazz Band – performed various Gerald Wilson compositions in his living room.

“He was like, I wanna hear ‘Love for Sale, I wanna hear ‘Blues for Yna Yna’!” recalls Washington. “It was a cool party.”

Four days after, Washington got a phone call from Wilson’s daughter saying that he had passed away.

While Kamasi Washington has lost his mentor, he now finds himself in a significant place as a musician and composer.

“There’s a definite pressure when you play jazz to conform and to perpetuate the greatness of the past,” says Washington. “I believe in that but I also see the importance of the music that I have to play.

“There’s a jazz of today, there’s an energy that exists now that is just as relevant. We don’t need jazz from the 1950s, we need jazz from 2015 because there’s different issues now and people need healing.”