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DODGING BULLETS AND DIVINE PURPOSE

A Conversation With Kamasi Washington

Interview by Keith Murphy

Either the jazz gods have a sense of humor or Kamasi Washington’s timing is divine; he just so happens to be discussing America’s oldest art form and its long history of political activism the same day we’re ending the long national nightmare of 45 and witnessing the swearing-in of President Joe Biden. The acclaimed Los Angeles composer and saxophonist notes the irony of the timing, then says, “It’s now about seeing what we can do for the future—we have to move ahead.”

 Within jazz circles, Washington is a bit of an anomaly, a traditionalist at heart who nonetheless relishes an artistic curveball. He’s led his own, prodigious 10-piece band, The Next Step, and played with such jazz giants as Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. But he’s also backed up Snoop Dogg and Erykah Badu and jumped into the pit with thrash-metal outfit Suicidal Tendencies.

The soft-spoken South L.A. native has become a stalwart of the new wave of jazz that includes pianist Robert Glasper, bassists Thundercat and Esperanza Spalding, saxophonist Nubya Garcia, vocalist Georgia Ann Muldrow, multi-instrumentalist and producer Terrace Martin and the visionary Flying Lotus.

While his soulfully cosmic works (2007’s The Proclamation, 2008’s Light of the World, 2015’s The Epic and 2018’s Heaven and Earth) have earned him well-deserved praise even beyond jazz enthusiasts, it’s the unpretentious social consciousness permeating his music that has elevated him above a simple, if highly sought-after, bandleader.

Indeed, Washington—who first garnered local attention as a standout at the famed Academy of Music and Performing Arts at Hamilton High School—comes from the storied message-in-the-music jazz tradition of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Louis Armstrong’s “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue,” Max Roach’s “Driva’ Man,” Art Blakey’s “The Freedom Rider,” Abbey Lincoln’s “Afro Blue” and Charles Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus.”

 “Jazz is the most expressive music you can play,” says Washington. “Even as a composer, you understand that each person is going to add some of who they are to the music. The spirit of jazz is freedom, love and acceptance. It just has all those elements naturally that we want for society. That’s what makes it so natural to speak on everyday issues in jazz.”

 Yet, in the 1970s, as jazz began to fade in popularity and hip-hop became the voice of resistance, the music was widely, if unfairly, viewed as the soundtrack to traditionalist lectures and museum visits.

 But something cool happened in the early ’90s: Rap acts like A Tribe Called Quest, Nas, Gang Starr and Digable Planets started to sample jazz records. A young and impressionable hip-hop head, Washington noticed that one particular Tribe song he dug (“Excursions,” from 1991’s The Low End Theory) sounded just like “A Chant for Bu,” a composition from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ 1973 outing Buhaina by drummer Blakey, to whom he’d been introduced by a cousin. He instantly became a jazz obsessive.

 I caught up with Kamasi to break down why America’s oldest homegrown musical form is the perfect vehicle for political protest, the imposing responsibility of anchoring the Grammy-nominated soundtrack to Michelle Obama’s 2020 Netflix documentary, Becoming, why Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly was a game-changer for jazz and being part of the two-fisted defiance of jazz supergroup Dinner Party.

You’re nominated for a Grammy for your work on Michelle Obama’s documentary, Becoming. Where were you when you heard that you were up for the award, and how does it feel to have been involved in a project about such a historic figure?
I was home and my manager texted me. It was amazing, because soundtracks to documentaries don’t normally get Grammy nominations. Becoming was one of those projects that just to be a part of it was a huge honor. Michelle Obama is such an important person, an amazing person. Her story is very inspirational. Michelle and Barack Obama’s time in the White House, even beyond the stuff they did, the impact of what they represented is so important.

Was there any nervousness going into the project?
My mind rarely absorbs the pressure—which helps when I’m playing video games too.

On The Epic you included a moving work dedicated to Malcolm X titled “Malcolm’s Theme.” What inspired you to make a statement like that, and why did you sample that particular speech?
I remember there were these speakers, these young brothers who decided to come to my elementary school in a neighborhood you’d call “the hood.” They’d decided they were going to give back. They challenged the pressures being pushed on us, the negative images being fed to us of who we were. And the very first thing they did was give us The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I remember being a kid in fourth grade and having a preconceived notion of who Malcolm was; I had this idea of Malcolm being this racist or something. So I didn’t want that book!

What changed your mind?
I started reading the book—it just captured my whole heart; it really inspired me. It took the veil off of everything. I could see all the manipulation that was happening around me. Malcolm X taught me that I had a choice to make my life a force for good or to fall into those traps that were being set for me. That’s why I decided to do “Malcolm’s Theme,” as a way of giving back. We used some of the words from Ossie Davis’ eulogy of Malcolm. I chose that particular speech because I felt that, in a very concise way, it debunked all the negative myths about him and conveyed a clear message of what Malcolm X was trying to teach us.

It seems like the newer generation of jazz artists has brought a social consciousness back to the art form. When did you first notice protest music re-emerging in contemporary jazz?
Well, that’s the thing—it never left. You had people like Horace Tapscott, Gerald Wilson and Billy Higgins who were all about using the music to better the world, to lift up their community and help the people. We all grew up on their music. Social consciousness was always part of my musical upbringing.

The artistic process has always been about expressing who you are, and if you grew up in South Central, you dodged some bullets, literally and figuratively. As people within this realm of sound who have a voice, I think it has a divine purpose.

What’s your earliest memory of hearing jazz with a political message?
Listening to my dad’s music collection. Again, I grew up with it, so it was always just there for me, but back then, I viewed it as my dad’s music. It wasn’t that I disliked it; I just saw it as his music. But I’ll never forget, I had a cousin who gave me this tape. It had a bunch of Art Blakey songs on it, and I recognized one of them as a sample from A Tribe Called Quest. There was something about Art Blakey’s playing that was so raw. Later on, I found out that’s how he wanted his music to come across. Art Blakey wanted his music to sound Black; he wanted it to sound African.

That had to be a powerful moment.
It really was. I remember feeling it as soon as I heard the song. I remember taking that tape to school and playing it for all my friends. All of a sudden, we all became jazz fans. We were listening to Art Blakey at 74th Street Elementary School! That’s when I went home and started looking through my dad’s jazz collection. A whole new universe opened up to me.

Mainstream music fans discovered you through your work on Kendrick Lamar’s landmark To Pimp a Butterfly, which was, of course, an immense critical and commercial success. What role did that record play in reestablishing jazz as an avenue for speaking out among young people?
Kendrick took the jazz element that was always kind of in the background and put it out front. The musicians who played on To Pimp a Butterfly had appeared on tons of records together, and both Terrace and [producer/songwriter] Sounwave wanted us to really go in—that was the green light we all got. Kendrick is such a genius that he was able to take in all that information and the jazz musicality that someone like Art Blakey would have loved. There was some real intricate stuff happening on To Pimp a Butterfly. I remember listening to it and thinking, “Wow, this is an im-
portant album.” It challenged the notion that if something is too complicated or dense it won’t sell.

I had the pleasure of interviewing your Dinner Party brothers Terrace and [producer] 9th Wonder last summer. Terrace said of Dinner Party’s response to the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor: “When you’re born Black, these topics are embedded in you at a young age—‘I got a homie that was killed by the cops.’ I don’t care who you are or where you’re from; these are real topics that continuously come up if you’re Black.” What comes to mind when you hear this?
That’s just the reality of where we grew up. It’s a very heartbreaking reality of life that we were taught to fear the police, because they are dangerous. For people who’ve never had to live in that environment, it’s probably hard to understand. But imagine being a 10-year-old kid and the people you’re most afraid of—even more so than the gangsters and thugs that live in your community—are the police; you know how wrong something like the murder of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor really is.

I could hear the heaviness of that summer of protests following Floyd’s murder throughout the Dinner Party EP. What was in your mind as you were composing “Freeze Tag,” which captures the harrowing experience of being Black and pulled over by cops?
All I could think was, “That wasn’t the first time that cop has done this.” And that’s the problem: That police officer had 19 cases of violence against him. That power should have been stripped from him long before George Floyd’s death. And those times when they take it to the place where they kill someone and we’re told to be patient—“just give it time”—it makes my skin crawl.

You definitely took some chances with that album. Yet listeners, even people who would not ordinarily listen to jazz, really seem to have embraced it.
When Terrace first came to me about doing the record, I was excited to work with him again. I’d played live with Robert [Glasper], but we’d never written together. And I’d never worked with 9th Wonder, though I was big fan of his. It was just one of those opportunities to purposefully go in a different direction, for all of us. That album came from a place of brotherhood, and it’s ingrained in all of us to express our experiences in life. So it was truly gratifying how it was received.

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