On a late October afternoon in South Central Los Angeles, Kamasi Washington was facing what is for him an increasingly familiar problem: making a lot of big ideas fit into a single space, even one as large as the nearby Club Nokia, a rock-star-size venue where he would be performing in December. His recent triple album, ‘‘The Epic,’’ is a nearly three-hour suite for a 10-piece jazz band, backed by a 32-piece orchestra and a 20-person choir. Washington’s show promised to be a typical swirl of activity, a sprawling procession of dancers, musicians, DJs and singers unified by the magisterial sound of Washington himself, a 34-year-old tenor saxophonist who has emerged as the most-talked-about jazz musician since Wynton Marsalis arrived on the New York scene three decades ago.
At that moment, Washington was at his aunt’s dance studio, trying to figure out where to put all the dancers. Lula Washington — whose troupe would be doing the dancing, at least if her nephew could convince her — knew that there would be a crowd onstage, and she didn’t want her people to get lost in it. Kamasi listened patiently, then got down on the floor and sketched the Nokia stage, insisting that it was more spacious than she imagined. Maybe a riser here? She looked skeptical. They would work it out somehow, she said, but she did not seem persuaded. (As it turned out, Kamasi’s vision exceeded the limits of this particular stage: Lula’s dancers did not perform in the show.)
Near the end of our visit, I asked Lula if she knew what the ‘‘epic’’ in the album title referred to. ‘‘As a matter of fact, I don’t,’’ she said. ‘‘Please, do tell.’’ I was relieved: Washington had been promising to tell me the story for several days. Since the release of ‘‘The Epic’’ last May, Washington has gone from being a well-known local musician to that rarest of musical species: a jazz celebrity, praised by critics and featured on ‘‘The Tavis Smiley Show.’’ The timing of the release was providential: Only months earlier, Washington played saxophone on Kendrick Lamar’s ‘‘To Pimp a Butterfly,’’ for which he also wrote the string arrangements. Lamar’s landmark hip-hop album, a harrowing coming-of-age memoir, featured the contributions of several of Washington’s bandmates, young Los Angeles musicians for whom the boundaries between jazz and more popular genres are so porous as to be nonexistent. On social media, ‘‘The Epic’’ was promoted as a kind of jazz sequel to ‘‘To Pimp a Butterfly.’’
I assumed that ‘‘The Epic’’ referred to some momentous story from the past or, more broadly, to the sweep of the album’s musical ambitions. But as far as I could tell, Washington had never told the story in public before, nor (apparently) had he told his own aunt. We looked at him expectantly.
The answer was more involved than I had guessed. ‘‘After I recorded the music,’’ he began, ‘‘I had this dream about a group of young warriors living in a village beneath a mountain.’’ He went on: ‘‘At the top of that mountain, there’s this gate, protected by a guard. The warriors spend all their time training to kill the guard and seize control of the gate. One by one, they are defeated by the guard. But the last warrior has the power to win, and the guard hesitates for the first time, because he sees that the warrior’s heart is good and that his own time has come.’’
‘‘That was all in one dream?’’ Lula asked.
Kamasi nodded. Actually, he said, he went on to have a series of interrelated dreams, a hall of mirrors in which it turns out that the guard wasn’t really killed by the young warrior. He said it would take him three hours — no, days — to tell us the whole thing. He planned to turn it all into a graphic novel with an illustrator friend.
I asked what all this had to do with jazz. Kamasi again nodded.
‘‘The guard is the person who protects the music and pushes it forward,’’ he said. The hope of the young warrior, he continued, is to take his place and impose his own standards. This explained, perhaps, why the first track of ‘‘The Epic’’ is called ‘‘Change of the Guard.’’ It begins with a bright series of chords laid down by the pianist Cameron Graves, followed by a tidal wave of reeds, choir and strings. A brash and infectiously bombastic wall of sound, the opening stirs memories of the grand, modal style that John Coltrane patented in the 1960s. When I first heard ‘‘Change of the Guard,’’ I was struck by its unabashed evocation of an era that Washington never experienced directly.
Unaware of the manga-style story that inspired the title, many listeners heard it as an allegory of that greatest of American epics, the African-American freedom struggle since slavery. Certainly Washington looked well cast for the part, a bearded, dashiki-clad man with an Afro whose sheer size seemed to convey the magnitude of his ambitions. ‘‘The Epic’’ tapped into an intense nostalgia for an era when, as Washington puts it, ‘‘music was a sword of the civil rights movement.’’ But it has awakened those feelings in listeners who, in most cases, were not alive to know that era. The audiences lining up to see his band have been unusually large (Washington plays in concert halls, not small jazz clubs), unusually multiracial and unusually young. And they do something that people at jazz concerts seldom do anymore: They dance. When I saw him perform in Brooklyn, the audience roared when he came onstage, as if he were a rock star. (He will, in fact, be joining Guns N’ Roses in the lineup at the Coachella festival in April.)
This kind of feverish response explains the hysteria — and occasional bewilderment — that Washington’s name provokes among jazz people. ‘‘People are talking about this in a way that I haven’t heard them talking about anything in a long time,’’ the jazz pianist Jason Moran told me. ‘‘It’s a moment when black L.A. has something to say, and people are listening.’’ He added: ‘‘Our relationship with this country has always been documented through how the music changes. This is a time when black America is on fire, and Kamasi is adding fuel to the flames.’’
Like the dream that inspired ‘‘The Epic,’’ Washington’s own story is a tale of guards and warriors. Every young jazz musician has had to wrestle with the gatekeepers of tradition; jazz celebrates youthful originality, but it also prizes respect, even reverence, for the music’s founders. Washington is no less sensitive to the spirits of the past than Wynton Marsalis and the so-called Young Lions who burst onto the scene in the early 1980s, playing a somewhat updated version of 1960s-era small-group jazz in Brooks Brothers suits. Marsalis wanted to revive the fundamentals of blues and swing, which he believed jazz musicians had forgotten during the 1970s, an era of avant-garde and fusion experimentation. Washington, by contrast, conjures the ghosts of 1960s and ’70s black-consciousness jazz, of the ecstatic, expressive Coltrane and his successors.
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It would be unfair, and a little silly, to ask whether Washington might be the next Coltrane. In any case, there’s room for only one Coltrane in the theology of jazz. But with his overt spiritualism and his humble bearing, Washington has reawakened the widespread longing for a Coltrane-like figure who might lead jazz out of the desert of obscurity and restore its spiritual purpose. He is not the first such figure — Pharoah Sanders, Albert Ayler and David S. Ware have been cast as prophetic messengers in the wake of Coltrane’s death in 1967 — but he is the first to come along in some time. Stranger still, he comes from a city that few people even associate with jazz.
In fact, Los Angeles has a venerable jazz tradition, going back to the Central Avenue scene of the 1940s and the West Coast ‘‘cool’’ of the 1950s. But most of the city’s better-known players (Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Dexter Gordon) had to head East to make a name for themselves. Washington’s father, Rickey, a saxophonist and flutist, was one of those who stayed behind. In early October, shortly after I arrived in Los Angeles, I had lunch with Rickey and Kamasi at a vegan soul food restaurant in Inglewood, a working-class, predominantly black bedroom community near Los Angeles International Airport. They mostly talked about jazz. Actually, Rickey did most of the talking. He reeled off the names of the great musicians who made Los Angeles, his Los Angeles, such a vibrant jazz scene. Men like the pianist Horace Tapscott, the leader of the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, who used his art to raise the political consciousness of the black community in the 1960s and ’70s, and the drummer Billy Higgins, who came home to build the World Stage, a performing-arts center in South Central. These were the musicians who nurtured him and prepared the way for his son. His pride in Kamasi was obvious, but I thought I also detected a rueful note: Rickey supported his family as a music teacher and never earned more than a local reputation. Kamasi didn’t say much, until a noisy piece of jazz fusion came on the stereo.
‘‘The drummer played in your band. He used to dye his hair blond.’’
‘‘Blond hair and played in my band?’’
‘‘It’s Ronald Bruner Sr.’’
Bruner Sr., who played with the Temptations, is the father of two of Kamasi’s bandmates: Ronald Bruner Jr., also a drummer; and the bassist and singer Stephen Bruner, who makes brooding, ethereal indie-funk under the name Thundercat and whose nimble playing is all over Kendrick Lamar’s latest album. Like the Marsalis brothers, many musicians in the Los Angeles scene come from musical families. Kamasi told me that ‘‘Change of the Guard’’ is a tribute to men like his father and Bruner Sr., musicians who ‘‘had something to say but never had a chance to say it’’ beyond Los Angeles. Throughout the 1980s, Rickey Washington led a Christian jazz band, which Bruner joined after giving up secular music. When Kamasi first expressed a desire to play, his father sent him to church. ‘‘It’s the best place to learn,’’ Rickey said. ‘‘You play every week, and you’ve got to play a groove. It doesn’t come any other way but with a groove. They’re clapping on two and four, and you’re moving to the music. If you listen to Kamasi, you know what the groove is, because it’s right in his body.’’
I went to hear Washington play gospel a few days later at a Nigerian evangelical church. The stage was bathed in pink and purple lighting worthy of a Prince show. Hundreds of parishioners, overwhelmingly Nigerian, many in African ceremonial clothes, swayed to gospel songs made faster and funkier by Nigerian highlife beats. Washington’s solos were modest in length, as befit a sideman, but he kept his big, preacherly sound. Whenever he played, the music came into stirring focus, and his flowing African robes gave him the air of a griot or medicine man.
‘‘I always noticed that ’Trane thing, that spirituality, in Kamasi’s playing,’’ said the guitarist Greg Dalton, who performs under the name Gee Mack and who once employed Washington in a band. ‘‘You can have all the technique in the world, but if you can’t connect with an audience, it doesn’t matter. And this man, Kamasi, is a poet.’’ The church’s pastor wasn’t aware that Washington is a rising star of the tenor sax, but as we left the church, a young boy came up to tell us that he had just seen him on television. Washington smiled at the boy. ‘‘Do you play an instrument?’’ he asked.
Washington lives in Inglewood, in the same house where he grew up. He now rents it from his father. The lawn is immaculately manicured, the yellow-stucco front entrance nearly hidden by flowerpots. He works on his music in the garage, which he converted with his father into a home studio furnished with a keyboard, a drum set and recording equipment. There are Christian inspirational illustrations on the wall; a dog-eared copy of the score of ‘‘The Rite of Spring’’ lies on his desk, and stacks of old vinyl cover the floor. Washington moved back to Inglewood a few years ago, after living in Westwood and Culver City, where he felt ‘‘an undercurrent of racism, like you don’t want me here.’’ He added, ‘‘This is home, whereas there, I felt like I was in someone else’s home.’’
That sense of home, of African-American pride and identity, reverberates throughout ‘‘The Epic.’’ It’s not just the tributes to his grandmother and great-grandmother, or the concluding hymn to Malcolm X, which incorporates Ossie Davis’s eulogy as well as one of Malcolm’s speeches. It’s the album’s soaring panorama of black American musical history, from gospel and blues to jazz, doo-wop and funk, offered as a celebration of black beauty in the face of adversity. Its sound is particularly evocative of the early 1970s, when Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder were composing their own epics and jazz musicians like Max Roach were playing spirituals with gospel choirs. The Afro-futurist cover of ‘‘The Epic,’’ too, suggests an early ’70s LP: a picture of Washington in a black dashiki against an interstellar backdrop, saxophone in hand.
That blend of rebellious intent and retro self-fashioning is hardly unique to Washington. It permeates the cultural renaissance spawned by Black Lives Matter, a movement that has combined Black Power nostalgia with an exuberant faith in the revolutionary potential of technology and social media. ‘‘The Epic’’ is arguably the most ambitious expression thus far of this renaissance, whose touchstones also include Claudia Rankine’s prose-poem ‘‘Citizen,’’ Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memoir ‘‘Between the World and Me,’’ D’Angelo’s album ‘‘Black Messiah’’ and Kendrick Lamar’s ‘‘To Pimp a Butterfly,’’ with its indelible refrain, ‘‘We gon’ be alright.’’ Not surprisingly, ‘‘The Epic’’ has found a particularly receptive following among black intellectuals. As Robin Kelley, a historian at U.C.L.A. and a biographer of Thelonious Monk, puts it, ‘‘In a world where you feel like blackness is under assault and you’re looking for a way to express joy, pain and possibility, ‘The Epic’ speaks to what black people feel inside.’’ The writer Greg Tate, who calls Washington the ‘‘jazz voice of Black Lives Matter,’’ told me that his music offers ‘‘a healing force, a place of regeneration when you’re trying to deal with the trauma of being black in America.’’
I mentioned Tate’s assessment to Washington as we stood in the midday heat on Crenshaw, a main boulevard in South Central, in front of a Senegalese shop where he has his dashikis made. At the mosque next door, a small group of men was gathered, and an old man was selling baked chicken and cornbread from a cart. ‘‘Music is an expression of who you are, and — at least in that sense — I think I epitomize Black Lives Matter,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m a big black man, and I’m easily misunderstood. Before I started wearing these African clothes, people would assume that I was a threat and that it was O.K. to be violent toward me.’’ He scratched his beard and paused to reflect. ‘‘The harsh reality in our communities is that the greatest representatives of order, the police, are basically against you, so you feel as if you live in a society without order.’’
Washington grew up with a constant fear of violence. The middle child of his parents’ three sons, he was born in 1981, at the beginning of an era plagued by crack cocaine, gang warfare and police brutality that culminated a decade later in the Rodney King riots. The first house he lived in, on 74th and Figueroa in South Central, was, he said, ‘‘deep in the hood.’’ (At one point, Rickey found the body of a prostitute in the backyard.) When he was 3, his parents divorced, and his mother, a chemistry teacher, moved to a better part of South Central. Soon Rickey Washington left, too, moving to Inglewood, and Kamasi split his time between the two homes. Both neighborhoods were a considerable step up from 74th and Figueroa, Kamasi said, but still ‘‘there were gunshots and sirens every night.’’
A gifted student in math and science, Washington was at once scared of the gangs and enamored of them. The Bloods and the Crips had emerged after the decline — or destruction, as many in South Central would say — of nationalist organizations like the Black Panther Party and exerted an almost irresistible mystique. Some of Washington’s friends in junior high school carried guns, and he flirted with gangster style and speech. ‘‘I don’t think my parents understood how off I was,’’ he recalled. What dispelled the glamour of the gangs for him was ‘‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X.’’ He was given a copy by a group of men who visited his school; they were from a nationalist organization called Ujima, Swahili for the principle of collective work and responsibility. ‘‘I saw that these ideas weren’t random, that there was a force behind them,’’ Washington said. ‘‘I realized I didn’t want to be a part of our self-destruction. I wanted to be a positive force in the world.’’
His turn to jazz was hardly unexpected. ‘‘Kamasi was hearing ‘A Love Supreme’ before he even knew what he was listening to,’’ his father told me. He started out on drums at 3 and began studying the clarinet at 9. But Kamasi says he mostly listened to hip-hop until he was 11, when a friend of his older brother gave him a mixtape of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers with the trumpeter Lee Morgan. (That friend, Lamar Van Sciver, is now a hip-hop and R&B producer.) ‘‘That’s when I finally got into jazz,’’ he said. ‘‘All of a sudden, I became aware of all this music I had around me at home.’’ He studied his father’s vinyl collection and taught himself to play Wayne Shorter songs on soprano saxophone.
At 13, Washington announced to his father that he wanted to be a jazz musician. To test his seriousness, Rickey asked his son to sing a Charlie Parker solo. (‘‘I knew if you couldn’t sing it, you couldn’t play it,’’ Rickey said.) Kamasi sang the head and solo of Parker’s 1951 bop classic ‘‘Blues for Alice’’ note for note. His father’s reward was a Conn 6M alto saxophone, the same model Parker played. He played the alto in church for nearly a year, then switched to tenor — his father’s. ‘‘He took my tenor!’’ Rickey said. ‘‘A Selmer Mark VI, the best saxophone they make. He didn’t realize how valuable it was.’’ It’s the only tenor Kamasi has ever played.
Coltrane became his obsession. His favorite record was ‘‘Transition,’’ a defining work of Coltrane’s classic quartet. It was avant-garde yet still melodic, exhilaratingly expressive but never chaotic. ‘‘He was just treading a line in a way that was powerful,’’ Kamasi said. ‘‘ ‘Transition’ was like the rarest of the rare steaks without being raw. You could still eat it.’’ He modeled himself on Coltrane, not just his sound but also his legendary practice regimen — as long as 12 hours a day, with sometimes hours spent on a single scale or even a single note. Washington was soon averaging nine hours a day; as if to summon the master’s spirit, he often worked on Coltrane tunes. He and Cameron Graves, who is now his pianist, ‘‘used to compete with each other to see who could practice the most.’’ It was a monkish existence, Washington said. ‘‘Becoming a musician is a strange thing. It’s not all cupcakes and ice cream. You’re trying to master an instrument, and you sometimes can’t tell if you’re getting better. You love it, but you also hate it.’’
It was not long after he took up the tenor sax that Washington met another jazz ‘‘guard’’: Reggie Andrews, a music teacher at Locke High School in Watts. Andrews, whose former students included Rickey Washington, had grown frustrated that the city’s magnet schools had poached the best young musicians — including Kamasi Washington, who was discovering Prokofiev and Stravinsky at Alexander Hamilton High School, a prestigious musical academy near Culver City. Andrews began visiting nearby schools and asking the music teachers to identify their best pupils. His idea was to pick them up in his van after school, drive them to Locke and turn them into a group. He called it the Multi-School Jazz Band, and before long it was performing throughout the city. I drove with Washington to Locke, a squat structure surrounded by a wire fence that made it look more like a prison than a school. ‘‘The amazing thing is that white kids were coming down to Locke to rehearse because the band was so good and they wanted to be in it,’’ he remembered. ‘‘It was kind of ironic, since we were being bused to their schools.’’ Seeing young whites flock to Locke gave Washington a taste of power, an awareness of the cachet he possessed as an African-American musician. In spite of the ‘‘denial of our humanity,’’ he realized, ‘‘everybody wants to dress and talk like us.’’
The Multi-School Jazz Band reunited Washington with the Bruner brothers and introduced all three to the musicians with whom they would eventually form the Los Angeles jazz underground, including the alto saxophonist Terrace Martin (who wrote and produced much of the music on Kendrick Lamar’s latest album), the pianist Cameron Graves, the bassist Miles Mosley and the trombonist Ryan Porter. ‘‘Reggie Andrews realized that there was a brain drain from the community and that we were losing the advantages of being connected to one another,’’ Washington told me. After band practice, Washington would go home with Ronald Bruner Jr. and jam in his father’s shed. Like Washington, Bruner was driven partly by a sense that his own father hadn’t achieved his potential as a musician. ‘‘My father was on the way to becoming the guy, and then he gave it up to play Christian music,’’ he told me.
Music was not the only thing Andrews’s students had in common: Most of them were growing up black, male and at risk in Los Angeles. ‘‘We could have gone into gangbanging,’’ Bruner told me. ‘‘That model was available to us. I was in a situation that got out of control, and a friend of mine died. But that difficulty made everyone stronger. The threat of being caught up in that makes you push harder.’’
They had Andrews to keep them on track. A tall, solidly built man now in his late 60s who wears a mustache and a Tuskegee baseball cap, Andrews radiates self-confidence, drive and impatience with excuses. Over breakfast one morning at a local soul-food restaurant, he told me how he made sure his players kept their grades up and emphasized the importance of craftsmanship and professionalism. ‘‘Kamasi can do the Archie Shepp thing or the ’Trane thing and ride that note,’’ he said, ‘‘but he knows how to take it back.’’
Washington received a different kind of mentoring in Leimert Park, where he and his friends went to after-hours jam sessions. Leimert Park was designed by the Olmsted firm in the late 1920s as a whites-only planned community, but by the 1960s it had become an African-American neighborhood. After the 1965 Watts riots, Leimert Park became a center of the Black Arts movement, a cultural offshoot of the Black Power movement. Lined with fig trees and exuding community pride, Leimert Park was as close to an oasis as you could find in South Central. Even during the crack epidemic, it remained a home to black-owned art galleries, bookstores and clothing shops.
When Washington began going there in the mid-1990s, it was in the middle of a revival. Its mecca was the World Stage, the nonprofit performing-arts gallery established by Billy Higgins and the poet Kamau Daáood, a leader of the Black Arts movement. Higgins and Daáood envisioned the World Stage as an extension of the ’60s jazz activism pioneered by Daáood’s mentor, Horace Tapscott. It could barely seat 50 people, but it attracted some of the greatest musicians in jazz and helped inspire a scene that cut across divisions of generation and genre. ‘‘We were in Leimert Park every night,’’ Washington says. ‘‘We’d get in everywhere without money. I still don’t know how we did it.’’
In 1999, Washington began studying at U.C.L.A. with the composer Gerald Wilson, who had written charts for Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. But in his first year, Marlon Williams, Snoop Dogg’s musical director, invited Washington to go on tour with the rapper. A former guitarist in the black rock band Fishbone, Williams had already recruited Washington’s friend Terrace Martin to put together Snoop’s horn section, and Martin immediately called Washington. ‘‘I was a big Snoop Dogg fan, and I knew the repertoire — I mean, this was dope,’’ Washington recalled. Although ‘‘it was cool to make money,’’ financial considerations were far less compelling than the promise of adventure. ‘‘I had never been on the road,’’ he said. ‘‘I’d been to New York and D.C. once, so it was a chance to go on tour. I was young and on a full scholarship, so I hadn’t even gotten to the point of thinking about the economics of the music business.’’ Washington continued his studies with Wilson, but he received an equally important education with Professor Snoop.
At the point when Washington got the call, he had been spending most of his time trying to master harmonically demanding songs like Coltrane’s ‘‘Giant Steps.’’ Now his job was to play apparently simple riffs to ‘‘line up with the groove.’’ Playing those riffs, however, was tougher than it looked: Hip-hop was a miniaturist art of deceptive simplicity. ‘‘When you play jazz in school, you talk about articulation, but it’s a very light conversation,’’ he said. ‘‘The question was about what you were playing, not how you were playing it. But when I was playing with Snoop, what I was playing was pretty obvious — anyone with ears could figure it out. The question was how to play it, with the right articulation and timing and tone.’’ Snoop didn’t come to rehearsals or even really explain what he wanted. ‘‘It was all very unspoken. You had to use your intuition to figure out why it didn’t sound right. We had to have it right before he got there, because if it was wrong, he’d veto it, and we’d have to just sit there.’’
Snoop was particularly demanding when it came to the placement of notes in relation to the beat, and Washington struggled at first to hear the beat the way Snoop did. After a while, though, he began to discern what he calls ‘‘the little subtleties,’’ the way, for example, ‘‘the drummer D-Loc would lock into the bass line.’’ He continued: ‘‘It wasn’t like the compositional elements in Stravinsky. It wasn’t about counterpoint or thick harmonies. It was more about the relationships and the timing, the one little cool thing you could play in that little space. It might just be one little thing in a four-minute song, but it was the perfect thing you could play in it. I started to hear music in a different way, and it changed the way I played jazz. Just playing the notes didn’t do it for me anymore.’’ He came to see hip-hop as a relative of jazz. ‘‘All forms are complex once you get to a really high level, and jazz and hip-hop are so connected,’’ he said. ‘‘In hip-hop you sample, while in jazz you take Broadway tunes and turn them into something different. They’re both forms that repurpose other forms of music.’’
Washington often skips in conversation from Kendrick Lamar to Coltrane, and from Charlie Parker to Stravinsky. The reason that we don’t see these connections, he says, is that we’re captives of ‘‘preconceived notions,’’ the most confining being the very idea of ‘‘jazz.’’ Some musicians complain that even the word ‘‘jazz’’ deprives them of a popular audience; others see it as an insult. As the trumpeter Nicholas Payton recently put it, ‘‘ ‘Jazz’ is an oppressive, colonialist slave term.’’ For musicians like Payton, ‘‘jazz’’ is a white establishment label that cuts their music off from other black musical forms; they prefer terms like ‘‘black art music,’’ ‘‘black classical music,’’ ‘‘black creative music’’ or simply ‘‘black music.’’
But Washington’s criticism of musical categories is at once more expansive and more subtle than Payton’s. For Washington, the problem is not merely that categories ghettoize forms of music, but that they prevent us from fully listening. All music, he believes, deserves a fair hearing — even much ridiculed forms like ‘‘smooth jazz.’’ I had brunch one morning with Washington and his girlfriend, Tiffany Wright, an earnest young woman with long braids who established a private elementary school in Wilshire under her own name, the Wright Academy. An insidiously saccharine ballad by the smooth-jazz saxophonist Najee came on. I asked Washington if it bothered him that some people mistook this sort of jazz for the real thing.
‘‘I don’t have an aversion to it,’’ he said. In fact, he went on, he liked some smooth jazz, notably the saxophone player Grover Washington Jr. (no relation). Gently taking me to task for my snobbery, he noted that Najee, like many smooth-jazz players, had roots in gospel — and that in any case, no musical genre is entirely devoid of value.
‘‘You want my layman’s interpretation?’’ Wright volunteered. ‘‘Kamasi is totally nonjudgmental, in all areas. It makes life a lot less stressful.’’
That mellow, West Coast inclusiveness is another pointed contrast between Washington and the young Wynton Marsalis, who once declared, ‘‘There is nothing sadder than a jazz musician playing funk.’’ When Washington and his trombonist, Ryan Porter, trade riffs, they make no secret of their love of Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley, two of the horn men in the James Brown band. ‘‘It wasn’t a mistake to call James Brown’s music funk, but I’m not sure it was good for jazz,’’ Washington told me. Jazz, as he sees it, is not so much a genre as a way of styling music. Which means that if he is playing Debussy’s ‘‘Clair de Lune’’ — as he does in a languorous, brazenly sentimental arrangement on ‘‘The Epic’’ — it’s jazz.
Surprisingly, given that Washington toured with Snoop and later Lauryn Hill, one genre you don’t hear on ‘‘The Epic’’ is hip-hop. ‘‘I was already playing all that,’’ he explains. ‘‘When I got to do my music, I wanted to play like me.’’
As it happened, his friends from the Multi-School Jazz Band felt the same way, and in 2009 they did what independently minded jazz musicians have done since the 1960s: They organized themselves into a collective, the West Coast Get Down. They started out playing at a Hollywood cocktail lounge called Piano Bar, developing a repertoire in front of crowds of 20-somethings who had no interest — or at least no prior interest — in jazz. (Eventually the crowds grew so large that the fire marshal was called in.) The collective’s founder was Miles Mosley, who plays an upright bass through a wah-wah pedal, but Washington soon established himself as the charismatic leader. He was playing jazz, but it was jazz imbued with the vibrations of the church and the ‘‘little subtleties’’ of pulse and timbre that he picked up from Snoop Dogg. It was, in other words, a groove-based jazz, adjacent to the Afro-futurist psychedelia of his friend and collaborator Steven Ellison, a musician who records under the name Flying Lotus. (Ellison is the grandnephew of Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane’s second wife and a major pianist and composer in her own right.) You didn’t have to be a jazz geek to appreciate it; in fact, it was easier to appreciate if you weren’t.
In 2011, after two years of testing their ideas at Piano Bar, Washington and his friends decided that it was time to go into the studio. They all pitched in to rent the Kingsize Soundlabs in Echo Park, canceled all their gigs for December and barely left except to sleep. The musicians weren’t paid for their work, because they were all playing on one another’s records. By the end of the month, they had 192 songs; 45 were under Washington’s leadership. He chose 17 for ‘‘The Epic,’’ 14 of them his own compositions. The album came out on Brainfeeder, an independent label run by Ellison.
Ellison didn’t blink when Washington told him that his album for Brainfeeder was going to be three hours of music. ‘‘Kamasi is a murderer on the saxophone,’’ Ellison said when I ran into him at a concert in downtown Los Angeles.
The music on ‘‘The Epic’’ was already quite dense, with three people on horns, two drummers, two bassists, two keyboardists and a singer, but Washington wasn’t done tinkering. While touring with Chaka Khan, he began to write choir and string parts. Washington told me that he wanted to evoke Stravinsky’s ‘‘Symphony of Psalms’’ in the choir and string arrangements, but they’re equally reminiscent of Marvin Gaye’s ‘‘What’s Going On’’ and Curtis Mayfield’s ‘‘Superfly.’’ Above all, ‘‘The Epic’’ breathes new life into the black consciousness or ‘‘spiritual’’ jazz of the early 1970s, when saxophonists like Pharoah Sanders, Gary Bartz, Joe Henderson and Billy Harper grafted free jazz sonorities onto hard-bop melodies and danceable grooves, often embroidering them with African percussion as well. An expression of the cultural nationalism that spread across urban black communities in the 1970s, spiritual jazz has often been dismissed as Afrocentric kitsch in histories of jazz, but it was popular in black America, and it was the jazz that Rickey Washington played on the stereo at home. It aimed to move the audience but also instruct them. If they didn’t get the message, the album titles spelled it out: ‘‘Black Unity,’’ ‘‘Black Saint,’’ ‘‘In Pursuit of Blackness,’’ ‘‘Power to the People.’’
In a 1966 essay, ‘‘The Changing Same (R&B and New Black Music),’’ Amiri Baraka called for a new ‘‘unity music,’’ a synthesis of jazz and black vernacular styles that would ‘‘include all the resources, all the rhythms, all the yells and cries, all that information about the world, the Black ommmmmmmmmmmmmmm, opening and entering.’’ Kamasi Washington is far from being the first musician of his generation to set off in search of that om. Jason Moran, Robert Glasper, Steve Coleman and other East Coast musicians have been working toward such a synthesis for years. But Washington and the West Coast Get Down have managed to strike a chord with audiences in a way that has eluded most of their peers on the East Coast.
Serendipity, of course, has been an important ingredient in their success. As Greg Tate told me, ‘‘You have to go to mysticism to explain how these things come together at the same time: the best heroic jazz origin story since the Marsalis brothers, being on Kendrick Lamar’s record and Flying Lotus’s label, and Black Lives Matter.’’ But the Los Angeles scene would not have had the same impact without Washington’s personal charisma, his deeply spiritual sound and his welcoming, Buddha-like aura. He may not be a major innovator, but he is a remarkably forceful communicator: in the words of Kamau Daáood, ‘‘a perfect vessel for the coming together of generations in his music.’’
In October, a couple of weeks before Washington would fly to Tokyo on his first world tour, his father organized a dinner with a group of distinguished older jazz musicians. ‘‘When you are chosen,’’ Rickey explained to me, ‘‘you need the blessings of your elders.’’ (Reggie Andrews had a more down-to-earth explanation: ‘‘Kamasi’s about to step into the fast lane, so Rickey wanted him to receive some advice from people who’ve been there.’’) This ‘‘change of the guard’’ ceremony took place at the Ladera Heights home of Curtis Jenkins, who runs a business that provides care for disabled children in South Central. In a flight of enthusiasm, Rickey had invited me to attend the dinner. The next day, Kamasi’s manager, Banch Abegaze, disinvited me; she said it was for only close friends and family. But she suggested that I stop by later in the evening.
When I arrived, the shades were fully drawn, as if a séance were in session, but inside I found a group of nine older men nibbling on plates of Ethiopian vegetarian food. (The only women there were Kamasi’s manager and his girlfriend.) There were paintings of Miles Davis, African-themed artworks and framed photographs of Jenkins with the Obamas and the Clintons. Jenkins, a small, excitable man who grew up in Compton at the time of the Watts riots and studied filmmaking at U.C.L.A., told me that when he first heard ‘‘The Epic,’’ it struck him as ‘‘an announcement.’’ Not since the days of Davis and Coltrane had he been so moved by a work of jazz. When he read in The Los Angeles Times that Kamasi Washington was the son of his old acquaintance Rickey Washington, he contacted Rickey, who asked him to document Kamasi’s concerts on video. He has been traveling with the band off and on ever since. ‘‘Kamasi is a messenger, and his message speaks to something deep within me.’’ I asked him what the message was. ‘‘Freedom of thought and action,’’ he replied.
After dinner, the men gathered on sofas around Kamasi, who sat in a chair in front of a fireplace. He was wearing a dashiki and a knitted Jamaican cap; he seemed to be deep in thought, his eyes in some far-off place. The first speaker was Bennie Maupin, who played bass clarinet on Davis’s ‘‘Bitches Brew’’ and a variety of reed instruments in Herbie Hancock’s fusion band Headhunters. He began by asking Kamasi to explain the meaning of his name.
‘‘It was intended to be Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti tribes in Ghana,’’ he said. ‘‘To be under the kuma tree is to bring people together, to bring peace.’’ Rickey Washington and a friend had gotten lost one night in Kumasi while they were on tour in Ghana in the late 1970s. ‘‘A guy came out of his house and gave them a place to stay for the night,’’ Kamasi said. ‘‘The hospitality was higher than anything he’d experienced in Watts, where you might just get robbed. He wanted to name me after that city, but since this was before Yahoo and Google, he misremembered what it was called.’’
‘‘Yeah, I was into that whole consciousness thing when I named him,’’ Rickey said. ‘‘The kuma tree brings shade, and I prayed that Kamasi would be a person who brings people together.’’
‘‘The energy in this music is a healing energy,’’ Maupin continued, praising Kamasi’s wisdom and kindness, promising to stand behind him and urging him to choose his friends carefully and be mindful of his health. Coltrane, he recalled, had regretted ‘‘wasting so much time’’ at the end of his short life.
The composer and flutist James Newton, a burly man with long, graying dreadlocks, was next. ‘‘To have this group of men here for you: Do you realize how heavy that is? And do you realize that Art Tatum, Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Stravinsky and Schoenberg were all once living in a 20-mile radius, here in Los Angeles? Most of these things you know already, but now you’ve been put in the position of being a great hope. Don’t let your children become a casualty of your career or the industry. As Bennie said, we’d all go to war for you.’’
Reggie Andrews spoke briefly, reminding Washington that his most successful students had always taken care of their bodies. It was one of several pointed warnings about health: The one white man at dinner was Washington’s nutritionist, whom Rickey hired to help Kamasi lose weight. (Two months later, while on tour in Stavanger, Norway, Kamasi would slip on a snow-covered cobblestone road and fracture his fibula, making these warnings seem even more urgent.) Kamau Daáood, a soft-spoken and contemplative man with a white goatee and light-brown eyes, remembered his own mentor, Horace Tapscott, who had ‘‘brought together all the outcasts, all the renegades’’ in the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra. He paid elegiac tribute to Tapscott’s project, but he also alluded to the failures of his own generation and spoke of the importance of family and responsibility. ‘‘In Horace’s band, one section was vegetarian and meditating, but the other was nodding off’’ on heroin.
The speeches went on for more than an hour. They were stories of the jazz life, pitched somewhere between sermon and self-admonishment. These elder statesmen were welcoming their friend’s son into a very exclusive fraternity, but also warning of the dangers in store. ‘‘This really felt like being down South,’’ Newton said. ‘‘Yeah, South L.A.,’’ another guest corrected him.
Kamasi listened attentively, speaking only when spoken to: If the young jazz warrior was carrying a weapon, he kept it well hidden. ‘‘It takes some of the pressure off to hear from these men who have been down this road before,’’ he told me later, ‘‘since I’m on this journey and I don’t know where I’m going.’’ But as I watched him that evening, I was struck by how small he suddenly looked, surrounded by the guardians of Los Angeles jazz. At the end of the ceremony, Rickey Washington faced his son and said: ‘‘You have now received the wisdom of your elders. What you do with it is on you.’’
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