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Kamasi Washington - The Under the Radar Cover Story

The Soul of a Name

Nov 30, 2018 Issue #64 -  Kamasi Washington Photography by Ray Lego (For Under the Radar) Bookmark and Share

Rickey Washington has told the story more times than he can count. He was a young college student, almost completely ignorant of the history and culture of West Africa, the first time he went to Ghana on a school-building mission in 1975. It was there that he heard a story that stuck with him: In West Africa there were two kings who each wanted their respective kingdoms to be seen as the spiritual and cultural center of the region, and so they entered a wager. They would each plant a seed from a kuma tree, and the tree that grew largest would determine which town deserved such a designation. The town of Kumasimeaning “a place where people come together,” he sayswas the winner. From then on, the people met under the branches of the kuma tree that served as a symbol of their town. Taken by this story, Rickey wrote in his journal that he would someday have a son he would name Kamasihis preferred variation on the town’s nameand his son would become for his community what that tree was for the people in the story.

“I prayed that he’d be a person who would bring people together and that he would be able to be a person to unify,” Rickey explains. “And I gave him the name Kamasi, and I told him that. I sent him to cultural school when he was 12, so that he would know that his purpose was to change the world and do positive things. And he listened. That’s in the heart and soul of what he’s doing.”

In 2018, no one else in popular music is doing what Kamasi Washington is doing. No musician is able to draw together hip-hop fans who know him from his work with Kendrick Lamar, indie rock Millennials and Gen Xers who know him from the glowing reviews he gets in nearly every significant music publication, and traditional jazz fans who recognize him as the latest in a continuum spanning the whole history of the genre. No other jazz artist can pack out rock clubs and take the stage at Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Lollapalooza. No composer, jazz or otherwise, is making albums of the scope and ambition of 2015’s The Epic, Washington’s breakthrough triple-LP that brought together choirs, strings, West Coast funk, classic R&B, and experimental jazz. Along the way he was dubbed “the jazz voice of Black Lives Matter” and inspired an untold number of think-pieces that speculated on what it means to be a jazz artist in the 21st century.

Arguably the biggest sensation in jazz in the last 25 years, Washington has now set his ambitions even higher. With his follow-up, Heaven and Earth, he has made an album that is not only designed to expand upon the musical palette of his debut, but also to be a rallying cry for the oppressed and dispossessed of the world, as well as those who would stand alongside them in their struggle. With “Fists of Fury,” a reworking of the theme of the Bruce Lee film of the same name, Washington made his clearest statement yet.

“What this album is about is empowerment, of understanding if you’re waiting for someone to make your world the way you want it to be, it will never be that,” Washington says a few hours before he’ll take the stage in Prague. “It will only be what you make it. So that’s what that song is about, these ideas of ‘I’m waiting for someone to give me justice. I’m waiting for someone to give me human rights.’ You’re waiting for someone to give you something that only you can give yourselfthat was the tone of the whole album. Especially for people who have been oppressed for a long time, at a certain point you have to stop waiting and start doing.”

Soft-spoken and unfailingly polite, the Los Angeles born and raised tenor saxophonist has lived a life illustrative of that idea. Now 37, he is eager to give credit to everyone who has helped him along the wayhis father, his numerous music teachers, the group of collaborators he has played with since his teenage yearsbut there is no false modesty in him. He has the quiet confidence of someone who has spent his life working tirelessly on his craft, struggling to find an audience, and ultimately finding more listeners than anyone could have expected.

Even so, Washington quickly acknowledges that his success is not necessarily typical and his message of changing the world through self-empowerment could come across as trite to those who are suffering. “Fists of Fury,” the album’s first track and first single, was also the first track Washington worked on for the album. Representing the idea of life being “a never-ending struggle,” the track (sung by Patrice Quinn and Dwight Trible) sets the tone for everything that will follow. “Our time as victims is over,” they sing. “We will no longer ask for justice/Instead we will take our retribution.” For an album that often soars with optimism, it starts with a decidedly confrontational tone.

“I realized that it could feel far-fetched or even naïve to have that thought that each of us could control what the world could be,” he admits. “So I wanted to start off with ‘Fists of Fury’ because it’s dealing with a more tangible reality. I know a lot of people are struggling with their world and what’s going on, so I wanted to start off with, ‘I see the struggle. I see the difficulty of this world. I’m not oblivious to that.’ I wanted to start the album with that realization of what the world is.”

Heaven and Earth is a concept album of sorts, one whose underlying conceit can sound complicated in theory but is actually fairly simple. Our perceptions of the world influence the way we experience it, and the ways we experience the world feed into our perceptions of reality. In short, the world becomes what we imagine it to be, so it’s up to us, as individuals, to imagine the world we want. Heaven and Earth represents those two ideas, from the portents of retribution the opens the album to the rousing affirmations that close it. “With our song one day we’ll change the world” goes the chorus of album finale “Will You Sing,” and it’s clear that Washington aims to do nothing less.

Though they are designed to represent contrast, the two halves of the album tell one story. “The connections are happening horizontally instead of vertically, from one album to the next,” Washington explains, saying that the album is designed with pairs of songs that represent both his sense of hope and despair. “On a musical, technical level, harmonically I was doing some different things. This album is very melodically based. Even the chords are really melodies. The bass lines are melodies. The melodies are melodies, and often there’s a counter-melody on top of the melody, and the strings are playing a melody. On that level, that’s the through-line musically. But conceptually the through-line is happening on each level of it. It’s going on a journey that leads to the idea that we’re each the only person in our universe. Then the other side is what you think, which is, knowing that you’re the single person in your universe, what will you do with that? Will you make your universe a beautiful place?”

Invincible Youth

By his own admission, Rickey Washington is an intense man. A professional musician since his early 20s, by his 30s he had earned a reputation in the Los Angeles jazz scene, had toured with Earth, Wind & Fire, and was becoming a producer and songwriter in his own right. But when faced with the reality that his marriage was ending, he had a difficult decision: he could continue his career as an internationally-touring musician and studio player and largely miss out on the lives of his three sons. Or he could stay home in Inglewood, become an educator, and work on his music when he had time. His father, also a musician, had pursued his dreams and left him without a father figure. Rickey would not do the same.

Rickey had started his first son on piano at two, and he soon became a piano prodigy of sorts before losing interest in early adolescence. With Kamasi, Rickey would take a different approach, starting him on recorder at nine, then transitioning him to alto clarinet with the idea that he would likely be the only kid at his school playing the instrument and, therefore, more likely to stand out. By the time Kamasi decided he wanted to play tenor saxclaiming his dad’s Selmer Mark VI, in factRickey could see he was serious. The lessons would begin, starting with records by Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt and drills on every imaginable musical scale. By the time Kamasi was 12, he had a paying gig alongside Rickey in their church’s worship band, and he and his friends (including Stephen Bruner, the future Thundercat) would be spending hours practicing in the garage-turned-studio they had affectionately renamed “The Shack.” Soon, Kamasi would need no help standing out.

“I was pretty driven already, so he didn’t really have to push too hard,” Kamasi recalls. “When I got into music, I dove in headfirst. I was pretty obsessed when I was a kid. It was almost kind of a reverse; [my dad] had to make us stop,” he laughs. “We’d be in the garage playing until 4:00 in the morning, and he’d say, ‘Okay, okay. Our neighbors are going to call the police. You’ve got to stop.’”

When asked about his son’s devotion to his craft at an age when most kids spend their days playing video games or running the streets, Rickey says he wasn’t surprised; Kamasi was only doing what he saw his father do every day. Though he had given up his career as a touring musician, Rickey never gave up his craft, continuing write, record, and jam with his friends for hours every week. Occasionally, he would have Kamasi sit in with the much-older musicians, challenging him to keep up. At 16, Kamasi was practicing eight hours a day. He was learning his first lesson in self-empowerment.

Rickey remembers the first time he realized that Kamasi had an unusual gift. After one of Rickey’s friends played a complicated original piano piece during one of their home jam sessions, he soon heard Kamasi working out the arrangement, note by note, after only having heard the song once. Rickey asked him how he did it, and Kamasi replied, “I liked the song. I wanted to play it.” Soon Kamasi was writing his own compositions, sophisticated pieces that displayed a mature understanding of arrangement, inflected with echoes of Coltrane. “I realized then that not only was he not average, he was far more than average,” Rickey recalls. “He was gifted. But you don’t say he’s gifted. You say, ‘Well, that’s cool. You’re getting there, son.’ Visionaries, even when they’re great they have to believe they have a long to go.”

While Kamasi was, perhaps, growing more quickly than his peers, he was not growing alone. Due to Rickey’s proximity to the Los Angeles jazz scene, he had stayed close to a number of musicians who had also suspended their musical careers to raise their children. As a result, Kamasi grew up with drummer Ronald Bruner, Jr. and bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Brunerthe sons of Rickey’s close friend and former Temptations drummer Ronald Bruner. Some of Kamasi’s friends, such as pianist Cameron Graves and bassist Miles Mosley, were acquaintances from Hamilton High School. Others, such as trombonist Ryan Porter and drummer Tony Austin, were friends Washington made through his participation in jazz camps and competitions. Brandon Coleman wasn’t even a musician prior to joining the friend group, but by some strange musical osmosis became a standout pianist within years. Thick as thieves, Kamasi says, they spent their days jamming in the garage by day and sneaking into jazz clubs by night.

“It was one of those things with music where the more you put into it, the more you get out of it,” he recalls. “We practiced it a lot, and then we’d go play and all this magic would happen. You naturally get addicted to it, like, ‘Oh, man. Let me put more into this, so that when I go to this jam session all this stuff is going to happen.’ That’s what it was. And I had friends who were also really into practicing. Cameron Graves, he and I would call each other, like, ‘Hey, man. How much did you practice today?’”

Though he was quickly becoming one of the most talented young tenor sax players in Los Angeles, Washington was still far from a finished product. Ask him if there was a formative moment that spurred him on to the rapid growth he would soon experience, and he doesn’t hesitate. At the end of ninth grade, while he was playing in the Multi School Jazz Band under the tutelage of renowned band director Reggie Andrews, Washington was given a last minute solo at the Playboy Jazz Festival. In front of 20,000 people, he stumbled.

“I wasn’t happy with how I sounded,” he says flatly. “I remember going home that night and being like, ‘I never want to feel like this again. I want music to feel good. I’m going to practice really hard so it always feels good.’ I remember coming back after that summer and everyone was in shock, like, ‘What have you been doing? What happened?’ [It was] that sensation of what you put into it is what comes out of it.”

Out of the Multi School Jazz Band came Kamasi’s first official jazz combo, the rather immodestly titled Young Jazz Giants. Joined by the Bruner brothers and Cameron Graves, the quartet gigged around Los Angeles and became a local sensation, stunning local audiences that couldn’t believe teenagers could play with such sophistication and poise. Soon, even Rickey was taking notice.

“Me and my friends, we were considered talented kids,” Kamasi recalls. “And then Pops would come along and tell us the truth,” he laughs. “I remember we played a show and being backstage, and normally Pops would come in and tell us all the stuff we messed up on. And he came back and said, ‘That sounded good tonight.’ I remember me and Ronald and Cameron and Thundercat, we were like, ‘That’s it? No ‘but’? Nothing negative?’ We were like, ‘Wow. That’s the first time that has happened.’”

To catalog each of the formative events that followed would take a book-length treatment. There were endless hours spent performing at famed Los Angeles’ cultural enclave Leimert Park. There were his days at UCLA, where he earned a degree in ethnomusicology while studying under legendary jazz artists Gerald Wilson and Kenny Burrell. There were tours in the backing bands of Snoop Dogg, Rafael Saadiq, and Chaka Khan, each expanding his musical toolkit with a kind of articulation and precision that wasn’t typical in jazz. There was an ill-fated Young Jazz Giants album that was delayed so long that the players had already moved on to touring with other artists by the time it was released. There were three self-released and little heard solo albums. He was living the life his father gave up, but he wasn’t exactly satisfied.

Though they all scattered into various projects, most of them far afield of jazzthe Bruner brothers joining thrash metal band Suicidal Tendencies, Graves playing with nu-metal act Wicked Wisdomthey would reconvene at local clubs when they were back in Los Angeles. They were making a decent living, but they were acutely aware that doing so was only postponing their dreams of becoming successful composers themselves. “We would be on tour with someone like Snoop, playing stadiums for 50,000 to 70,000 people, and then we’d rush home and take an early flight so we could get home to play for 20 people,” Washington laughs. “And we’d be all hyped up to get back and go play, because that music meant something to us.”

In late 2011, after a decade of playing in other people’s bands and on other people’s records, he had been struck by a troubling thought. Just like his father and his father’s friends had never gotten proper opportunities to fully pursue their dreams as artists, Kamasi and his friends (now calling themselves The West Coast Get Down) were missing their moment. He proposed an idea: they should all give up their other gigs for December, during which they’d record as much material as they could, playing on each other’s albums. During a month of frenzied productivity, they would do just that, completing eight individual albums and nearly 200 songs. The 17 tracks and 173 minutes of The Epic came out of those sessions, but Washington had no reason to believe that he was on the verge of becoming an international star.

“I didn’t know, because there are so many great musicians who came before me that it never came to them,” Washington recalls. “I let it be open that it was a possibility. When I made The Epic, I was making it from that standpoint. [Flying] Lotus had told me that he was going to put it out on Brainfeeder, but I didn’t know that would happen. People say stuff all the time, and it never comes to fruition. There are musicians who came up in L.A. that are still there that are unbelievably great that people don’t necessarily know about. Their opportunity hasn’t come to them yet. I just knew I was going to make the music anyway. I just didn’t know if I’d ever have the chance to share it outside of L.A.”

In fact, Washington had yet to even play his original music outside of the city limits. When Washington and his old bandmates got together they had the same conversation: They had toured. They had seen the kinds of actsjazz and otherwisethat were selling out clubs and packing out festivals. No one was doing what they were doing, mixing the musical languages they had picked up through a decade of touring. Even if Flying Lotus agreed to release The Epic, that didn’t guarantee anyone would care, however. Then, just as it looked like Washington would release another album that would disappear into the ether, old friend and fellow jazz musician Terrace Martin invited him to play on and arrange strings for an album he was producing, what would become Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Nothing would ever be the same for Kamasi Washington.

“It was a blessing to be a part of that, because it’s a historic record,” Washington says. “I think [Lamar] opened the door not just for me but for music, in general. It dispelled that myth that a mass audience would never be able to get into music that’s complicated. And To Pimp a Butterfly is so lush. There’s so much harmony and rhythmit just has so much in it in so many different ways that I felt like it opened the door for not only the musicians but for the audience, as well. He really challenged people to open their minds, and I felt like if you’re an artist right now, when you look at that you’re like, ‘Well, there’s no more excuses. Kendrick did it.’ You have to put your heart and soul into the music.”

When The Epic was released two months later on Brainfeeder, it was seen as a natural corollary to Lamar’s year-defining release. Almost immediately, it was hailed as a genre-challenging tour-de-force, an album that crystalized a moment and captured a culture in transition. After nearly 20 years in the Los Angeles jazz scene, Kamasi Washington became an overnight sensation. Just as other artists had served as a gateway to his musical expression, he was now an entry point for those wanting to explore jazz for the first time. He was now a part of the conversation.

“It was something I believed in, so when it came out and it seemed like it was resonating with people, it’s hard to say I was surprised,” he says. “It was more like I was pleased that what I thought would happenhow I thought people would respond to itis how people respond to it. I know that jazz is a huge world. I remember it was Art Blakey that introduced me to jazz. That was my first jazz album that I loved personally. Before that it was stuff that my dad was showing me. And when I came across Art Blakey it was like the first thing that was mine and not my dad’s. So to be that for someone else is a good thing. I’m excited for them, because it’s like, ‘Man, you’re going to be on a beautiful journey. I can’t wait for you to hear [John Coltrane’s] In a Silent Way for the first time, or A Love Supreme or [Miles Davis’] Kind of Blue-all of these records that you will get to hear after this,’” he says. “If I get to be the introduction to all of that, that’s cool.”

Community Organizer

Even when promoting his music, Washington often uses “we” instead of “I.” It’s a small point, perhaps, but it provides a telling insight into the way he constructs his creative world, as well as the extent to which he remains unmotivated by demonstrations of his own virtuosity. Though Los Angeles has deep roots in jazz history, it is still a considerable distance from New York City and Chicago in reputation. That distance, Washington says, provided him and his collaborators space to develop in relative isolation, largely outside the machinations of the music industry. The sound of Heaven and Earth might be his vision, but it is the collective product of a group of musicians who have spent their lives learning from and shaping each other, largely free of outside influence.

“More than playing in a band together, we were friends,” Washington explains. “If Stephen got into Stanley Clarke, we all had to get into Stanley Clarke. That’s what he wanted to talk about, what he wanted to listen to, and what he wanted to play in gigs. Ronald was really into Dennis Chambers, so I was really into Dennis Chambers, because he wanted to go to his concerts and we only had one car. Whatever one person wanted to do, we all ended up doing. We were shaping each other, pushing each other, and we were giving to each other.”

When Washington talks about touring, he gets lost in old stories. This is where he seems most comfortable, reliving each step of their improbable rise to becoming the most talked about jazz band in the country. These current tours are like the old days, he says, back when they spent their afternoons talking music and their evenings playing it. They are not competitive, he saysother than in playing video games on the busbut they still push each other. When you hear them play live, you’re hearing the end product of hundreds of hours spent in musical conversation.

“It’s something that because we grew up together, we take for granted,” Washington admits. “And every once in a while when you’re playing with someone you don’t have that level of connection with, you’re like, ‘Oh, wow. I have to explain this to you.’ But when I’m playing with Ryan Porter, I don’t tell him anything. I just play it, and he’s going to think the same thing I’m thinking and be in the same place that I’m at. Or he’ll hear and instantly be there. We don’t have to talk. There’s a certain connection we have. My musical rolodex they all have, and I have theirs.”

While Washington and his collaborators (a core of 10 musicians dubbed The Next Step) didn’t have to talk, conversations dominated the making Heaven and Earth nonetheless. Where The Epic had been made up of songs Washington had been performing and perfecting for years by the time they were recorded, the songs on Heaven and Earth were completely unknown to the band. Coming off a grueling tour where they had played over 200 shows in a single year, Washington convinced the band to forgo their two-week break and instead head into the studio to bang out the album while their chops were still sharp. Because the music was abstract“musical ideas more so than concepts,” Washington saysevery song started with an hour-and-a-half conversation. Illustrating the central idea that was motivating Washington’s writingthat everyone sees the world from their own unique perspectiveno one in the band heard the songs quite the same. When they couldn’t agreeabout chord structures, rhythmsthey simply jumped in and played what felt right.. Washington was more than happy to share the vision.

“He’s definitely a patient person,” says Porter, the trombonist who plays in Washington’s band and whose 2018 release, The Optimist, features Washington extensively. “I think he applies a lot of what the teachers and educators that we worked with thought up, and that’s trying to pull the best out of each musician. Kamasi gives you a lot of freedom to be as creative as you can and bring a lot of yourself into his music. I think that’s what you’re hearing.”

Though Washington and Thundercat (who has become a more peripheral member of the collective due to the demands of his solo career) are clearly the most commercially visible members of the collective, each of the other members have released solo albums or have plans to do so. Given the extent to which ego is often the engine that drives success, they remain a group remarkably free of leaders and followers.

“We’re all on equal terms,” Washington says. “No matter how good or how famous you get, when it’s somebody you’ve known since you were a little kid, it doesn’t matter. No matter how good Ronald gets,” he says with a laugh, “I knew him since before he was potty-trained.”

The Inner Circle

Of all of the forms of popular music, jazz might be the genre that has the highest bar of entry for the novice. Though it’s not difficult to appreciate jazz for its surface features, it’s just about impossible to dissect on a technical or theoretical level without hundreds of hours of close listening. (For evidence, read mainstream reviews of Heaven and Earth and see how many of them offer any detailed commentary on the compositional elements of the music.) For those who do know exactly what they’re hearing when they listen to a Kamasi Washington album, one central question emerges: is he doing anything new?

“He just blows past what’s reasonable,” says The New York Times jazz critic Giovanni Russonello. “He blows past what might fit into a particular structure or set of expectations or formal concerns. The message borne out by the grandiosity of his expression is, I think, on a metaphysical/symbolic level pretty clear: he’s saying, ‘We’re going for broke. We’re going past what people tell us we can do. We’re going past what I might learn in a jazz academy. And we’re going past what I might hear from my peers in jazz or elsewhere.’ And [he’s] just trying to go as enormous as imaginable. And I feel like that comes through in the boldness and resoluteness of the sound. Whether formally he’s doing anything that has never been done before, that’s up for debate. I would probably say yes, just because he’s making music that while it draws heavily on traditional expressions in jazz, definitely mixes influences that didn’t exist decades ago with influences that did.”

There are precursors to what Washington is now doing, Russonello says, citing Charlie Parker’s experiments with string players in the 1950s and Max Roach’s palette-expanding choirs. The sorts of large ensembles that Washington employs are not entirely unique, either, as the more-is-more mentality has been used by jazz visionaries to great effect. Still, while Washington has been widely celebrated in both the jazz scene and the wider musical community, his ascension has not been entirely free of those who prefer to pump the breaks on the canonization of another jazz legend.

“I think older jazz fans look at him a little bit suspiciously,” admits Howard Mandel, veteran music critic and author of Miles Ornette Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz. “I would think they would have similar reactions to me: ‘That’s a lot of hype’ was the first response. Then, ‘Okay, I’ll listen to it. Yeah, it sounds okay.’ It’s not blowing me away. I’ve heard Pharoah Sanders. I’ve heard Grover Washington. I’ve heard Coltrane. This is along those lines.”

Of course, even those comments hardly count as criticism, as the artists named are three of the most influential saxophonists in jazz history. Washington, himself, hesitates to even refer to himself as a jazz musician, citing the form as only one ofand perhaps the most prominentelement in his mix. Though it’s possible to read too much into this statement, it reveals something significant about Washington’s mindset. As much as he has labored under the media’s assertion that he’s jazz’s “next big thing” or, worse, “jazz’s savior,” he remains uninterested in living up to such designations. Though he is steeped in jazz traditions, he is not slavishly devoted to them.

“He’s one of a number of jazz musicians who is starting to get renown who are not playing by the rules of the inside track, academic aligned, academic sprouted, academic born jazz world, as we know it,” Russonello explains. “And part of that means saying, ‘To hell with the idea that the next great tenor player will be the guy who learns every last sophistication of the language and brings his own thing to bear as a virtuoso after having learned everything that came before and mastering it technically.’ There are other values that people are looking to jazz for, other than meritocratic virtuosity within the inner circle.”

Russonello describes what he calls the “closed circuit of history,” which includes the reverence with which the gatekeepers of jazz history view a fairly proscriptive series of steps that each artist must complete to achieve legitimacy. Successful jazz artists typically emerge as prodigies in high school, after which they are siphoned into cost-prohibitive jazz programs in college. Upon graduation, they move to New York City, attempt to prove their chops in small jam sessions, and then (if they’re lucky) get a spot at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola for an 11:00 weeknight show. Aside from being a high school prodigy who ended up studying jazz in college, Washington did none of these things. But because his trajectory has entirely bypassed that system, it’s difficult to know where his future path might lead.

“It’s interesting to me to think about what he might be doing in the future, because he’s starting so big, not just in popularity but in concept,” Mandel says. “Can he add even more musicians? How do you top a three-record or a two-record set with a choir and strings and an orchestra? Typically, when we think of jazz musicians like Coltrane or Miles or Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor, they are working to refine their instrumental messages and skills. And it’s the development of what they do with their instrument that jazz aficionados or connoisseurs are fascinated by. Now Kamasi, to my ear, he’s not doing anything radically new or unusual or even challenging. But he’s doing stuff that’s very embraceable. And that works for him now. Will he keep it up? Will he develop something of a leadership role in opening new doors in music? I think he’s fulfilling what he’s doing really well.”

With that, Mandel offers a caveat: historically, instrumental musicians have had a difficult time maintaining mass popularity, as the power of the word carries so much of the weight in cultivating the ongoing relationship between artist and audience. All of this begs the question of just why Washington is breaking through in a way that no jazz artist has in a generation and with an audience so large that the majority of them, by definition, belong to the neophyte category. Perhaps what Washington representsan outsider emphasizing the community spirit of his music over the conventions of the formis every bit as essential as the music he makes.

“Jazz music is now coming out of an experience that is richer and more human and more emblematic of, and connected to, part of something we are all hungering for, which I think is a kind of community,” Russonello concludes. “All of those things sound super abstract and dreamy, but they are really real and they come through in the music.”

Final Thought

Kamasi Washington remembers the first time he started thinking about the ideas and themes that would come into focus on Heaven and Earth. He was 12 years old and traveling in a car with his older brother when the two of them were pulled over by a police officer. Within minutes, they were both face down on the pavement, handcuffed with cars whizzing by their heads. “And it was like ‘Well, this is not what the world thinks this country is,’” he recalls thinking. Even then, he says, he recognized the disconnect between what the United States thought it was and what it seemed to be.

This was the early 1990s, only a few years after N.W.A.‘s landmark Straight Outta Compton, an album that left a deep impression on Washington and every other kid in his neighborhood. It was two years after Los Angeles was torn in half by the Rodney King riots, the moment many young African American males saw just how little value was placed on their lives. This was Compton, a place where a kid like Kamasi was far more likely to end up joining a gang than becoming a jazz prodigy. When he was writing the songs that would become Heaven and Earth, Washington says all of these thoughts were going through is mind.

“I feel like we’re at a crossroads in history,” he says. “It’s something that happens periodically. You see society go one way or the other. You saw it in the ‘60s and the ‘70s, and we were pushing toward a more fair and just society. But then you see the ‘80s come along, and all of a sudden you see all these drugs are pushed into the community, and the influence went the wrong way. I don’t like to say it, but it did. I feel like we’re in that same place again. For those of us who want the world to be a place full of beauty and love, we have to make it that, because there are people who don’t want that. There are less of them than there are of us, but they are pushing hard. We have to push just as hard.”

Just as his music is produced in community, these themes also came out of hours of conversations with his bandmates, where they’d wrestle with the idea that “there’s nothing we can do about it, and the idea that we have to do something about it.” Washington says he often finds himself in the middle, caught between sinking into pessimism as he reads the newspaper and losing himself in optimistic daydreams where everything works out. Heaven and Earth is not, however, a reaction to the presidency of Donald Trump or the all-too-frequent killings of young black men that have made headlines for the last decade.

“The things that have happened over the past couple years have been happening for the past couple centuries,” he says. “For me, what’s different about the past couple years is the clear, present, obvious evidence of the things that have been happening for hundreds of years. So the notion that maybe it’s due to ignorance or misinformation, the reality is that that’s not it. There’s a video of a person taking another person’s life unjustly, and the court system basically says that that person is innocent, that he didn’t do anything wrong. That’s the only real difference, because these things have been happening for my whole life, my father’s whole life, my grandfather’s whole life, and before him.”

Given the facts, Washington says he can only conclude that injustice continues not because of ignorance but because of indifference. Faced with that truth, he says those who want change can become embittered and resigned to society’s neglect. Or, knowing that those in power aren’t going to seriously address these issues, they can take it upon themselves to do the hard work of making change. That is the thread of the empowerment that runs throughout Heaven and Earth, the place Washington created to bring people together to start the process.

“I’ve also met so many incredibly kind and beautiful peoplemany more beautiful and kind and loving people [than those] who would take a child and handcuff him and put him face down on the freeway,” he concludes. “For everyone I’ve met like that, I’ve met a hundred beautiful, loving people. So the problem is the complacency. If everyone who wants the world to be a beautiful place was doing what they can do to make it that, it would be that.”

Beyond that, Washington does not offer specific recommendations. “Beautiful”that’s the word that he uses most often when describing his goals for what he wants his music to be, and it’s clear that he intends to inspire his listener largely through the positive and transcendent energy in his work. This is the life he has always wanted, he says, something that was an “unreachable fruit for so long that it still feels brand new.” Ask him where he wants to go in the future, and he isn’t sure. He’d like to make a graphic novel to tell the story of The Epic, but he is mostly focused on long slate of tour dates ahead of him. When he looks out into the mix of people in his audience, he is fond of announcing, “The diversity we have is not something to be tolerated. It’s something to be celebrated”itself a line from “Truth” from his 2017 Harmony of Difference EP. More than anything, he plans to continue the celebration.

There’s something else, something more personal, that remains a priority. Washington says as a kid he used to wish his father could have more opportunities to play his music in front of an audience, that even then he realized the sacrifice his father was making. Now, every night on tour, Kamasi brings out the elder Washington to take a turn sitting in with the band. Even though they’ve been playing together for the past 25 years, no matter how many times this happens it’s always special, Kamasi says. When I suggest to Rickey that he must be very proud of all that his son has accomplished-how he has been able to bring together so many different kinds of listeners, musicians, and styles-he offers a glimpse of the intensity that shaped his son into the artist he has become.

“Well, no,” he replies. “To whom much is given, much is required. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in this world, a lot of work. What I say is that life is a marathon. I think Kamasi is getting started with this, and he’s making a difference. And I just hope he can continue. So I never say, ‘Yeah, man. I want to give props.’ I say, ‘You’ve got a long way to go. Keep going. See how far you go. You’ll know when you need to rest. You’re getting there,’” he says before pausing. “I am proud. Yes, I am proud,” he allows, his tone softening. “I prayed that he would become what he has become, and I told him that a thousand times. He has taken on the soul of his name.”

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar’s Issue 64 (August/September/October 2018), which is out now. This is its debut online.]


Clothing by Tiffany Wright/Alice and Louie

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The Netline
December 3rd 2018

wow, what a content