The pundits have told us for a generation that jazz is dead. It's the music of an aging, middle-class audience, they've said, best curated for and conserved in staid, artificial cathedrals, like Jazz at Lincoln Center.
But when an 11-year-old Kamasi Washington explored a mixtape of Lee Morgan and Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, he had little idea who Wynton Marsalis was. What Washington knew, though, was that the music spoke to him, just as the sounds of Snoop Dogg later would when he began touring as the iconic rapper's saxophonist. To him, it felt alive.
Now in his early 30s, Washington is a key part of a Los Angeles vanguard that includes Thundercat, Flying Lotus and, most famously, the rapper Kendrick Lamar, whose To Pimp a Butterfly Washington lent a significant hand. Washington parlayed those experiences and friendships into the three-volume, 17-song album The Epic. It's the by-product of a truly epic session with his crew, West Coast Get Down, which yielded nearly 200 songs.
The Epic appears during what feels like a renaissance for commercial black music. Perhaps it began with the R&B crossover success of jazz pianist Robert Glasper's Black Radio or Janelle Monáe's genre-bending work, even Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Washington spoke about this moment and his music from a west coast tour stop.
INDY: It's been a long time since a straight-ahead jazz album has generated the kind of excitement The Epic has. The generation before you—Hargrove, Branford, Glasper, even Jason Moran—made concessions to R&B and hip-hop audiences. But with The Epic, people seem excited by the sheer musicality. Why?
KAMASI WASHINGTON: We have these terms in music where we over-exaggerate the importance. There's one music that's called hip-hop, and there's one music that's called jazz. Most of my career, most of the tours I've done, most of the albums I've played on, most of the stuff I've done has been in hip-hop and R&B. In doing that, the elements of those musics really embedded themselves in me.
But my passion was jazz. Whenever I wasn't on tour with Snoop or Chaka Khan, I was always back playing jazz. Inevitably, I ended up bringing some of those elements. They came in a form that's a little less obvious. I didn't necessarily start bringing rappers on to my music or putting a DJ on it or playing with an MPC. But the way Snoop phrases and the way cats will hear frequencies and the relationships between how the bass plays, the drums, the keys, it definitely imprinted me.
When people hear us playing jazz, it feels familiar. What they're feeling is that this experience we've had has included them. They've probably been to other concerts I've played, or they've heard records I was playing on. They've already experienced us in a way. It's like all of a sudden, this jazz that they've always looked at as sometimes foreign feels familiar.
One of the things I appreciate about your work is it's really not just a celebration of your own genius, but it's a celebration of a community of artists working together.
I've been touring and playing so much with other people. To have this group of really brilliant, genius musicians right in my backyard waiting, it's important. If you're going to be a good sideman, you have to immerse yourself in that person's musical philosophy to really bring to life their musical vision. That's what you're doing as a supporting contributor to a musical project. It's easy to lose yourself in supporting other people's musical dreams.
We didn't lose ourselves. We love the music that we make. Call it jazz. Call it whatever you want to call it. My version of it definitely has more jazz aesthetic. Thundercat really inspired me. When he put himself out there, it really lit a fire under the rest of us: "We need to get our stuff out there and stop sitting on it." We always knew it was important, but we took it for granted. It was always there, but we were making a living with other people.
How important was it to have a community of folks that you could communicate with?
I don't have to explain anything. We rarely actually talk about music. When we were younger, we talked about it a lot more often. We talk about other music that we're listening to, but when it's time to play, it's like tossing the papers in the wind. They come back into a very neat pile. That's what happens with us every time we play.
A lot of old heads talk about what the music isn't right now, and what it's not doing. But I listen to The Epic, To Pimp a Butterfly, Black Messiah, Jill Scott's new joint. How do we get folks who don't think there's great music being produced connected to the genius of this moment?
It's ironic. As hard as technology is making the financial viability of music a reality with all that streaming, it's helping music to reach people in a way it's never been able to reach people before. It used to be you had to have a label that could get your records on shelves in stores around the world for people to know who you were. Now, information in general is so accessible, it's changing.
People didn't lose sight of the great healing nature of music overnight, and they're now getting back to that. It's not happening overnight, but I see it slowly happening. The best way to make it happen more quickly is for musicians to keep making records, even if you're not making a million dollars. The more you make them, the information is more accessible. As cool as Brainfeeder is, they're not a huge label. Still, people from all over have access to my music. I'm not sure that would have been true 20 years ago.
How many people knew, for instance, about any of the great stuff on the Black Jazz label back in the '70s?
As great as all that music was, there was no way for you to know about it, unless there was a really effective person putting it out. Now, you don't have to put that much effort in. Real music heads have always known about everything because they just go out and look. That's not everyone's reality. Now, it's going to reach the masses—slowly but surely, because you can easily stumble into some cool stuff.
That happened to me when I was 11. I had a cousin who I looked up to, a little older. He gave me an Art Blakey and Lee Morgan mixtape. Even though my dad had all these jazz records and was trying to push it, I wasn't catching until I got that tape. Once I got into that tape, my mind was open. My life changed.
All it takes is one opportunity. Once their mind is open, it's going to stay open. Once you expose that transcendent style of music, you can't help but to go search out more. You won't be satisfied with run-of-the-mill music anymore.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Epic proportions."