afropunk interview: kamasi washington

February 18, 2019
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The first time that acclaimed Los Angeles-born and -raised saxophonist Kamasi Washington stepped onto the stage of Harlem’s world famous Apollo Theater, a stage from which he’ll be headlining AFROPUNK’s Race Music program on Saturday, February 23rd, it was thanks to one of his hometown’s greatest-of-all-time rappers.

“I played there once for Snoop, about 15 years ago,” Washington says in a laidback baritone. His voice sometimes makes him sound a little shy and reserved, and yet its commanding richness also possesses a kind of outsized power. “I was obviously pretty young at that point, and it felt amazing, kind of surreal to be playing a show at such an iconic, legendary venue. That was the only time I have ever been there, so I’m excited to come back on my own. It’s another one of those surreal moments: you grow up as a kid practicing every day, wanting to make music; and to be able to play the Apollo Theater… That’s a landmark.”

It feels like a perfect time in Washington’s career for a moment like this to come along. The saxophonist who turns 38 today (“Happy Birthday Kamasi!”) is among the musicians most associated with jazz’s current resurgence beyond its traditionally restricted borders. His achievements have come along in the best way possible, by putting in the work to develop a style and a community, and updating a tradition that pushes all of music forward.

Washington’s two albums as bandleader — 2015’s The Epic (released on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label) and 2018’s Heaven and Earth — have brought spiritual, improvisational music out of collector’s crates, and onto mainstream festival stages. The Epic followed close on the heels of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which Kamasi played on and created string arrangements for; and both albums featured West Coast Get Down, a collaborative group of South Central, Leimert Park, Compton and Inglewood musicians who’ve been playing together for years, an association that confirmed the creative power of LA’s new generation, and has stirred the culture. Since 2015, Thundercat, keyboardist Brandon Coleman, bassist Miles Mosley, drummer Ronald Bruner, to name just a few, have both followed their own directions, and regularly re-assembled with Kamasi and Get Down.

Meanwhile, Kamasi too has new muses. In 2017, he and director AG Rojas collaborated on a music-film installation, Harmony of Difference, for the Biennial at New York’s Whitney Museum. And just last month, his newest film, As Told To G/D Thyself, directed by an all-star collective calling itself Ummah Chroma (Washington, along with film-makers Terence Nance, Jenn Nkiru, Marc Thomas and Bradford Young), debuted at Sundance, and will be screened at the Apollo. So you can see how the evening is shaping up to be a coronation of sorts.

When AFROPUNK got on the phone with Washington in early February, we talked about that Los Angeles community and the evolution of their work, the music Kamasi’s music occupies in the world now, and what he’s got in store for the Apollo. (The interview was edited for clarity and flow. Thanks to our partner AT&T #itsa212thing.)

Talk a little bit about Los Angeles and the music community that you grew up in, all these folks who you play with who were doing different kinds of music. Together, you seemed to have come up with your own shared musical perspective, doing away with genres and styles. How did this notion for a spiritual, improvisational, funky music come about?  

Los Angeles is an interesting city, in that it’s like a big city in its size and square footage but feels like a small town. (Kind of like the reverse of New York, which is actually really small but it feels really big, you know?) And so it always felt like all the musicians from all the different scenes were very much intertwined with one another. So like you might go to the jazz jam session at the World Stage [a Leimert Park club] and there’ll only be gospel musicians. When I first started playing with Snoop, his whole band, everybody in there, if they didn’t call themselves jazz musicians, it definitely felt like they were connected to jazz. We just grew up with these kind of musicians that we looked up to, people like James Mahone and Donald Hayes, who were born in similar places and playing different types of music.

So my generation coming up, we would go and play this jazz music and it was like because R&B and gospel musicians are musicians who consider themselves more orientated towards R&B and gospel, and you want to play jazz, but you couldn’t show up to play R&B and gospel and then just play jazz over it. When you played with them, you had to show an understanding of the music they were playing. And the same thing would happen with them.

So, the thing with these divides in music that people normally think of, they weren’t really there for us. There wasn’t a divide — you played both. And the reason why you played this way on this style of music but not on that style of music is because that’s what made that music sound good. It wasn’t a limitation. So that’s what the music you play starts to become. It wasn’t like I’m going to switch the way I play. It was more like no matter what music I’m playing, it doesn’t matter what you call it. I’m going to try to play what sounds good.

And then at Leimert Park, we started playing our own music in these places. And our own music takes pieces of all these different kinds of music and creates something different. So that became kind of like the sound of my generation in LA. You can hear it with Brandon Coleman and with Terrace {Martin], Ronald Bruner, Thundercat, Miles Mosley. You can hear this sound all throughout.

There also seems to be a bond in your community that goes beyond music. Most of you are successful enough that, if you didn’t enjoy the company of the people you came up with, you would have probably got different musicians to play with. So is there another layer to the bond that’s developed? Are there shared interests and shared beliefs?

Definitely. There’s a family feel to it. In a lot of ways, people don’t realize that the music coming from the forefront right now, from Los Angeles, has been around for years. And for years the only people that really knew about it or talked about it — or, in a lot of ways, cared about it — were us. We were the people in LA. But at the same time, we were doing a lot of things that were really big, that were nationally and internationally recognized. But this other thing — the improvisational, kind of free jazz music that was happening — that sound was coming from the heart. It was kind of contained in a lot of ways.

There were all these musicians there, and we all believed in each other. And we definitely learned a lot from each other, and shared with each other our thoughts and our understanding of music, and just life. And a belief in what we were doing, that we had something special, and that we didn’t get caught up in it. We were out playing for these big artists, in front of thousands and thousands of people. And then we would come back to Leimert and play the music that we kind of really believed the most in.

You have to understand the mentality you need to do that. Like, you’re making money, you’re traveling around the world, and you’re doing really big things. But you come back and you pour most of what you are into this thing that feels small, that’s in the shadow. But we did that because we believed in it. It was something that was sacred to us and it was passed down to us by other musicians that came before us.

And it wasn’t like it just happened with us. It was something that had been happening. It was almost like we knew that about our city, that we had great music that wasn’t always recognized. But we still believed in it. And so when people like Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Kendrick got put on, people who were a part of that same tree, all of a sudden, there was this light and the sound was right. We could see the light, we could see the sky turn orange, you know? And it was like, okay, maybe it’s time. And all of a sudden, all the music we’ve been making for a long time had a place among people’s consciousness.

There’s a lot of positive energy towards the concept of jazz right now. How do you feel about that, and about the fact that this music that you guys held on to and made in front of ten people, now you’re now playing it at pop festivals. How do you feel about the energy that jazz is attracting around the world?

I think that music at its core is meant to bring us together. So it’s almost like people are drawn to it. That’s the beautiful thing. There’s nothing wrong with that. The reservations come when music becomes too much of a commodity, too much a source of making money. But in our particular case, it wasn’t like we were unsuccessful in music. Most of us were pretty successful even before our own voices got heard, which puts a little different perspective on it. What you’re asking me about is the underground or something niche that’s kept in a small circle, when it’s easier to keep pure. And then, once it gets out in the world and the world starts pulling and tugging on it, it can fall apart.

But I don’t think what we’re doing is going to fall apart in that way, because we were all doing a lot of big things before that, before the spotlight was on us making our own music, but we knew that the real blessing of music is making the music. That understanding will protect what we’re doing from falling on its own success. I feel like myself and my friends we all understand the fact that those other things, they come and go. But music is what stays.

Once you’ve been on one really big gig and you go on tour playing for all these people, you come back home and you play little gigs at Leimert. Then one day that big gig is gone. But that little gig you had before is still there. Then another big gig comes along and now you’re back out on the road and you’re playing these venues — but you still come home. And what we’re doing right now, that’s that sense of home. So right now, the world is just a big home. It got a little bit bigger but we still understand that it’s home. And that home will be there with all the accolades, or without.

I look at it more like music and society kind of mirror each other. So the fact that the world is searching for music that is free and open and expansive, that means society is trying to be free and open and expansive. And that’s a good thing. You look through history and you see it, and you realize what’s happening in society at that point. The fact of the matter is that this music is always happening. Society at times will change and shift, but musicians, people who are really connected to music, always have that energy. And so the fact that the world is searching for that and wanting that, and pushing for that, is only a good thing to be talking about at this time.

So talk a little bit about the gig at the Apollo. I understand that it might be an orchestral gig? Or it may just be your band.

This particular group that I’m bringing to the Apollo will be a 17-piece band — this group is going to have a lot of rhythm. There’ll be two percussionists and three drummers. And then I have DJ BattleCat coming as well, who also brings a lot of rhythm and feel to the band. And from there, we just build on top of that. And you know, we have [pianist] Cameron Graves and Brandon Coleman for this. And then a bigger horn section, so there’ll be myself, Ryan Porter, my dad on soprano, saxophone and flute, Terrace Martin on alto saxophone, and Marc Thomas on trumpet. It’s the size of a traditional big band but it’s not a traditional big band. It’s just a big free-moving, blues ensemble. And each one of those players, they bring so much creativity to the plate that I’m excited to see what the music turns into.

How much do gigs when the band fills out to that degree are a surprise to you?

Oh it’s always a complete surprise. But it’s a surprise even when it’s a smaller group. Every night is different you know? And I really try to leave the music wide open and there’s so much energy in New York. And we’re going to be in Harlem, too, at the Apollo Theater. So that’s a lot energy flowing. I know that I couldn’t even tell you what’s going to happen.