words by Lizzy Shramko
photos by Asha Efia
Kamasi Washington is living in the present moment. Perhaps this is from his training as a saxophonist, a discipline where musicians train themselves to reside in their breath, in the moment. What Washington’s debut album, The Epic, reveals through its layers of sound is that the past is the present, and the present is the future; that hip hop is jazz, and jazz is funk. While he is of this moment, Washington seamlessly blurs the boundaries of genre and of time as his 3 disc, 17-track record elegantly traces an arc of Black expression: from funk to soul to hip hop to jazz and back again. Like others who have cultivated the Los Angeles music scene—including his label Brainfeeder and contemporaries like Flying Lotus, Thundercat and even the zeitgeist of Kendrick Lamar—Washington’s sound cannot help but reflect our times. Times wherein we are mourning the tremendous losses of Sandra, Trayvon, Philando, Alton and many more.
Washington grew up in the predominantly black neighborhood of Inglewood in South LA where Reggie Andrews, a local educator, recognized the talent growing in his side of town decades before Brainfeeder or Kendrick Lamar were on the public’s radar. Andrews was the leader of the L.A. Multi-School Jazz Band, an extra-curricular musical group that brought young, mostly black musicians from South L.A together to make music. Without Andrews’ dedication, Washington, who tested out of the neighborhood school, would not have been exposed to the creative genius brewing in his surrounding blocks. Washington explains, “It was [Andrews’] way of combatting that notion that the goal is to make it and get out of the hood.”
As Washington insists, it is because of, not in spite of, his connection to other young black musicians in his community that he has been able to cultivate his artistic growth. This commitment to collaboration lives on in his debut record, The Epic, recorded in partnership with other musicians from the West Coast Get Down, Washington’s collective that features several alumni from Multi-School Jazz Band. And this collaborative spirit extends to Kendrick Lamar’s ambitious To Pimp a Butterfly, in which one of the most significant rappers of the decade called on musicians like Washington and Thundercat to be the life-force behind his third album’s instrumentation.
The Epic and To Pimp a Butterfly are a part of a crucial moment in history, an instance that not only reinforces the powerful continuum of Black expression but also recognizes the political potential of music. Tapping into a popular demand for jazz music that has shocked music critics, The Epic’s musical language is speaking to a generation and they are listening. Nina Simone asked the provocative question, “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” It seems that for more and more musicians the answer is simple: you can’t. Here, Washington reflects on his work with Lamar, the message behind the music, and the uniquely connective energy of jazz.
GR: A lot of your projects seem to be bound by a certain politic. From Kendrick Lamar to your solo album, The Epic. How do you decide which projects to work on and who you bring onto your own projects?
KW: I haven’t done too many random collaborations. I got introduced to Kendrick through Terrace Martin, who I grew up with. I’ve been listening to Kendrick since 2008. Even Snoop, I grew up listening to him. Terrace had a pretty long relationship with Thundercat and that’s how I knew him. Raphael Saadiq used to come down to this club where we used to all play. As a musician there are two worlds, and I am coming into my own as an artist now. As a freelance musician when I was younger it was more like a job. A lot of times I wouldn’t know what it was going to be until it came out. Even with Kendrick I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do until I got there. And then you have collaborations where it's more thought out. And then that process, for me, is a combination of things. It’s the person, it’s the music—the music first—and then the idea behind it. I am pretty good about separating myself. I am very particular about the music that I will call my own, but when I take on the role of a collaborator or even a subordinate, I am supporting you and your music. Music is communal, but it is also very personal.
GR: Related to collaborating, what has your experience been with the music collective West Coast Get Down? Do you think there’s something that has led up to this moment in L.A. where young musicians are gravitating toward jazz?
KW: It’s been happening all along. You know, the group of musicians that played on Kendrick’s album, we’ve played on a lot of albums together. It’s more like the audiences are more aware and more curious about who is behind the music that they’re listening to. The West Coast Get Down, we’ve known each other since we were kids. The time we are in right now, with information being so accessible, it’s so easy to figure out what’s going on in the world. People are trying to open their eyes and take a look at the people behind the scenes, taking a closer look at the music they listen to. That is going to make them appreciate the music more, which is going to inspire and challenge musicians to make music that has a little more depth.
GR: You’ve spoken about educational stratification in Inglewood before and how you’ve tested into schools with more resources. But you were also a part of the L.A. Multi School Jazz band, which brought young musicians back to their communities through music. Can you talk about your experience with these two forces?
KW: You look at where I grew up, my teachers called it a “brain drain.” My parents’ generation didn’t have an option. They had to go to school in their communities and the resources were limited, but they did what they had to do within their communities. The thought process was that for my generation, we were going to change that. But the change that happened was that basically if you were bright or talented, you were able to go to a school outside of your community. I’ve never really dug the idea that instead of fixing our schools, we’ll just take all the kids, and I don’t want to say the smart kids, but the kids that tested well, and put them in schools with greater resources.
So what happened when I was coming up, was there was a huge pool of talented musicians that lived in South Central L.A., who got dispersed around the city at a pretty young age and we kind of lost contact with each other. Reggie Andrews saw that and saw the importance of us knowing each other, playing with each other, growing up with each other. And so he took it upon himself to drive around the whole of Los Angeles for hours every Tuesday and pick us all up. And not just kids from South Central, but even kids from the west side. He brought us all back to Watts to rehearse. It was his way of combatting that notion that the goal is to make it out of the hood. That notion is really not cool, to be the first one to get away. Why do you want to get away from where you are from? Why wouldn’t you want to fix where you’re from? Why get away and go somewhere else? Any place that is worth living is because people are actively working on it, people are actively making those communities what they are.
That notion that if you are talented you should use your talent to get away, that starts at a young age. It’s happening even more now. And it’s hard. I can understand how a parent would want their kid to go to the best school they could go to, and I am grateful for it. I got a really good education starting from 7th grade on. But I saw the difference. My brother went to a school in my neighborhood and didn’t have one book to take home in four years of high school. And at no point in my high school career could I actually carry all the books that I had home at once.
GR: Through your music you get at a lot of these issues. The Epic is deeply political in some profound ways. As an instrumental album I wonder if there are challenges to conveying those politics?
KW: I think in the end music serves it’s purpose. When you attach words to music, it streamlines the power of music. But the reality is that if you want to convey a point then you are much better off writing a book than writing a song. Music to me is a more fundamental form of communication. You can attach ideas to music, but what you are really communicating through music are feelings, experiences. And so in that sense, no. Because you get a different kind of healing, a different kind of understanding through music than through words. What Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie did when they created Bebop, they conveyed an understanding and a feeling of equality that their peers had a very difficult time doing with words and ideas. It was done through music.
When you hear it, if you can hear it, then the message just hits you. And you can’t really help but to understand it. I have friends and I can tell that the music affected them when they heard it, and they don’t really know what it did. But they learned something from it that they couldn’t learn from a word. So for me, I attach ideas to my songs but I understand that my music is conveying something else.
GR: People sometimes mystify the accessibility of art. But you’ve said that Kendrick’s album was smart, and more importantly that people would get it, even if they didn’t know they got it, that audiences get complicated sounds on a subconscious level. How did you develop that generous approach as an artist?
KW: Well to me it’s like a language. Having a really large vocabulary in and of itself doesn’t really mean anything, it just means you have more options of things to use. So having Kendrick Lamar create an album that is so lush and full of textures and harmonies and rhythm and form and all of that, those are just tools to use to more eloquently express himself. And people get that. The same reason that using the longest or most esoteric word may not necessarily be the best choice. But having access to more options, you might better describe your thought. Music is the same way. With a small vocabulary you can express yourself more deeply, and you can have a large musical vocabulary and not express anything. Or you can do both. You can have a large musical vocabulary and express yourself in a very profound way, they are just tools. It’s in the hands of the user.
GR: It feels like a lot of people stumble in terms of categorizing your record: is it jazz? Is it hip hop? People really want to identify the category your music belongs to. But you’ve said “Music is all connected—we put different labels on it but hip hop, in a way, already is jazz. Like funk is jazz and jazz is funk, jazz is hip hop. It's all the same thing.” Did you consciously decide to describe your music as “jazz” explicitly? It seems like that’s what people identify.
KW: I think that the labels and names we use for music is for the individual. If you hear my music and call it jazz, that’s fine. Labels don’t bother me in and of themselves. What bothers me more are the limitations that people put on you because of that. The assumption that if you are a jazz musician, that you have to do this, this and this because you play jazz. I play music. You can call it what you want to call it, but the word you use to describe my music doesn’t affect how I play, what I play or what I’m gonna do in any way shape or form. It’s just a thing you use to identify it, it’s just a word. The music happens outside of that. My problems are more with attachments to the words and not the words themselves.
GR: You’ve self-released albums in the past but The Epic is released by Brainfeeder. How does this position your work differently than in the past—especially considering the marketability of jazz?
KW: What’s cool is that they let me do what I wanted to do. When people outside of the music-making process become involved in the decision-making process, it can be a lot like having backseat drivers. [Flying] Lotus’s approach is really not like that, I asked him what he wanted me to do and he said to do whatever I wanted to do -- just do you. And for me, that was the coolest thing about it. It takes away the barriers. A lot of times when you are making music, because of the business of the music and the industry of the music, you have to cross all these barriers just to make the music.
Labels get in the way when they don’t know how to just step back and let you make your music. Once you have [label] people in there making decisions and trying to get you to do something to the music –– to make their post-production jobs easier, like making it easier to get the music on the radio –– then that’s not part of the music. The music is you expressing yourself, expressing an idea, in a moment in time and you are creating something new. You are creating something that represents you. Once you start to do things that aren’t a part of that then you are automatically diluting the music.
A lot of times it’s egos. People want to feel like what they do is important. And what you do is important. A lot of times it’s for naught. People come into studios telling us to change this thing, and it’s like—is this even going to matter? Is that really going to affect if you can get it on the radio or not? But at the same time, even if it’s not important to the creative side, it is a part of sharing and getting the music to the people, which is important. That’s not my strong suit. There are different jobs to do. You might make a great steak but if you don’t have a plate to put it on to get it to people, or a waiter to get it out, it doesn’t really work.
GR: What was the process of making The Epic?
KW: It was very grassroots. We weren’t in a studio that had bells and whistles, it didn’t have pool tables or flat screen TVs. We’ve always just made music for the sake of making music so the process of us making music now, it’s something we’ve been doing for years. You know, the songs that ended up being on the album were old. And that just happens. As a musician you know you’re always working, you’re always doing stuff, it doesn’t always get used or put out there.
GR: Jazz as a genre has always been forward-thinking but also deeply rooted in specific historical moments. Considering how well your record is doing and how much jazz is a part of conversations around Kendrick, do you think there is something specific to this historical moment that makes people more receptive to jazz?
KW: Music is a very fundamental building block of humanity. People need music. They need to play it, they need to hear it. It’s just a part of who we are, and we have neglected it in recent times. I think that jazz music is also very communal. Of any style of music, jazz has maintained that aspect of itself. With a lot of other genres, something that has been lost is that sense of community; it’s all about the star, that one person who everyone looks at as being the everything. Music isn’t really like that. Even if you’re playing a solo guitar thing, you’re interacting with people, or you’re interacting with the memory of people. It’s not about the single person.
For us, it’s not new - we’ve taken our music to every place you can think of and every time people hear it they have the same reaction. They are like, “Oh man, what a refreshing sound.”
It’s like you were only drinking Kool-Aid and then someone gave you an ice cold glass of water - you wouldn’t have known you were thirsty if you weren’t given that thing that made your body and spirit feel good. Part of it is Kendrick Lamar coming out, Flying Lotus coming out and Thundercat coming out. All these people coming out with this music that kind of had that feel to it; it started opening people up. And they had this feeling like “oh, this is something that I’ve been missing.” When my album came out, it was a heavy, heavy dose of that. Three hours of it. I think people gravitate towards it because it’s not something that they have been given. And even in jazz, jazz has gotten so wrapped up into what the term means. Either people are trying to make it what it was in the past, or people trying to combat that, focusing so much on part of the future instead of just dealing with it as something that is happening now. I think what people need now is that communal, connective energy that jazz has. They need a version of it that really felt like now, today. And that’s why when some people hear my album they don’t just hear the future and they don’t just hear the past, but it really is very now—even though it’s four years old. It’s a perfect storm.