Decoding Jazz Legend Kamasi Washington

Jazz takes on a different persona, one of youth, eccentricity, and vibrancy. Jazz that feels more cosmic and experimental draws in fans of electronic and hip-hop, and artists like saxophonist Kamasi Washington are leading the way.

Washington is LA-bred, having performed with the likes of Raphael Saadiq, Lauryn Hill, and Snoop Dogg, even playing a part in the production of Kendrick Lamar’s ridiculously popular 2015 album, To Pimp A Butterfly. Washington recently released his first full-length entitled ‘The Epic’ via LA’s Brainfeeder, to the delight of young jazz fans everywhere.

Electrify had a chat with Washington about his thoughts on today’s jazz scene in Los Angeles and his hopes for the future of the genre.

What’s it like to be a jazz musician in 2015?

Well now it’s been amazing, people are really open to the music, very open to what myself and my particular music community have been doing, so this year’s been amazing for jazz and in particular myself and our collective of musicians.

Why are your thoughts on jazz music on the west coast and it’s recent resurgence?

LA has been kind of overlooked within jazz for a long time, probably always pretty much overlooked. I think we’ve kind of cultivated a sound that’s pretty unique in the overall jazz scene, that you haven’t seen in other jazz scenes across the world. Being a jazz musician in LA was always a hard thing to be, (with your work with so many different people), you ended up playing all kinds of music that’s made more towards a larger audience.

I think jazz on the west coast, (particularly) the major players in jazz on the west coast have a sound that connects with people. LA’s a big city, and almost every type of person you can think of that lives in the world, lives in LA, or at least a representative of them. You find all different types people at jazz shows in LA, from all walks, all different levels of education, all different levels of involvement in music. I think that the style of jazz that we play here, in some ways, fell victim to being ignored, but in being ignored, it hasn’t fallen into a lot of the pitfalls that jazz has gone to like elitism, it being background music (etc.) In LA, you’ll find jazz in all kinda of clubs, festivals, deep in the hood, everywhere. I think that’s why guys like Kendrick Lamar we’re so inclined to put such a heavy jazz (sound) into the forefront of his album. Because here, the separation isn’t as clear. The jazz club is right next door to the hip-hop club. People go from the hip-hop club to the jazz club, then back to the hip-hop club. You know, we all know each other, and everybody’s all connected.

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Much of the youth of the 50’s and 60’s were completely enamored with jazz music, it was seemingly the sound of their generation for quite some time. What do you think changed over the years that sort of sent jazz to background of popular youth culture?

Terminology. Music, from one artist to the next, is different. I think jazz somehow fell victim to the terminology. In the 60’s you had the split of jazz, which was funk, soul, (etc.) then you had actual jazz, which was the term people used, and it was the kind of music that didn’t go as far. In the 60’s… jazz started to separate itself… it became a sort of elitist kind of term. That sort of made it turn off from the music. That still had a great attachment to the people, but the term didn’t have a great attachment to the people. John Coltrane, people loved him, they’d go see him, they’d go see jazz artists, but the term sort of lost it’s appeal along the way. Jazz has been present in all these different genres, hip-hop, funk, r&b, rock n’ roll, it’s been present in there. I think now, people aren’t so standoffish with the term, and in that they’re embracing even more of the music, embracing even more of the connection that music has with other styles of music.

Concerning jazz in our generation, did you feel personally compelled to bring jazz to the youth of today? Do you think working with artists like Kendrick and FlyLo helped facilitate this regeneration of jazz into youth culture?

Jazz is in me. You listen to my music, and it has that connection to other music that people call jazz. I’m no so hung up on trying to make people like something… I’m just trying to express myself and make my music and I think it relates people because I have a sort of experience and I feel like I’m bringing that experience into my music. I think the ideas that go along with jazz, like improvisation, long-form instrumentation, complex arrangements, playing live… those things are necessary for me to express myself musically, so I’m trying to get people to understand that a song doesn’t have to be 3 minutes long. So in a larger sense I’m just trying to push who I am and my music. I love jazz, and I think it’d be great for people to kind of open themselves up to that music and check out people like John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, and (jazz musicians) around today as well.

As far as Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar, they’re just opening people’s minds to the possibilities of music, jazz or otherwise. Just like me, they’re kind of pushing back on the idea that music people will like has to be put into this very small, very limited box, and that’s not really true. It’s about expression, it’s not about the tools you have, like a crazy music video and a drum machine. It’s not the method that you use, it’s what you use those things to do.