How South Central Birthed the Next Great Jazz Movement

Comments (1)


Tue, Feb 18, 2014 at 9:10 AM
click to enlarge Kamasi Washington at the World Stage in Leimert Park - PHOTO BY LEROY HAMILTON
  • Photo by Leroy Hamilton
  • Kamasi Washington at the World Stage in Leimert Park
The West Coast Get Down are eight young master musicians from South L.A.. Though only in their early 30s, they have already put in nearly two decades perfecting a sound many herald as the future of jazz. Their ranks include tenor saxophonist Kasami Washington, profiled in our music feature this week.

See also: Kamasi Washington Intends to Make Jazz New Again 

Jazz is in serious need of something, and somebody, a little more present. Last week, four three of Billboard's top ten jazz albums were Frank Sinatra records. Two other artists in the top ten, Michael Buble and Harry Connick Jr., are essentially imitating dead people.

"What is missing in jazz today is that sound of searching for more," says Flying Lotus, who heads the Brainfeeder label, which will release Washington's album The Epic in May.

In this way, it makes complete sense that the future of jazz would emanate from South Central Los Angeles. 

"The reality is music, it comes to people who need it the most," Washington says. "That notion is that music is this grand thing, and it does deserve reverence, but it's like the biggest tree grows of the dirt. The roots of most things come from down below."

Washington and his crew are steeped in jazz history, but the tony, two-drink-per-set jazz clubs the music these days is most associated with are not venues where you are likely to find members of the West Coast Get Down.

"I had a friend playing one of those clubs, and afterwards the person who'd invited him to play said, 'That was kind of rowdy, wasn't it?'" Washington says. "The perception of jazz is of an 80-year-old guy playing clarinet."

It's hard to imagine jazz ever found itself in such a polite state. No music born on American soil has roots more deeply planted in outcast culture. The music's origin story goes back to the 1820s, when slaves congregated on Sundays - "free day" - at Congo Square in New Orleans and made wildly percussive, communally improvised songs that were built for dance. By the end of that century, descendants of these folks, sharecroppers and peasants, technically free but poor as dirt, started making what was often described as "hot" music. They were largely untrained but could take any piece of music, from most any genre, and make it sound new. The music was frequently played in bordellos, and the name itself, originally jass, meant sex. 

Jazz pioneer Sydney Bechet later recalled a clarinet teacher trying to teach him music but utterly lacking the soul and freedom that'd he'd already learned ins the streets, bars, and bordellos. "There wasn't none of those growls and buzzes... which is the way the musicianeer has of replacing different feelings he has inside the music and inside himself," he later wrote. His brother Leonard Bechet described the technique: "You have to play real hard... ."

Kamasi Washington plays real hard. His tenor saxophone often emerges high above a large band sound, careening, pushing the instrument make sounds you never knew it was capable of. But as a 21st century jazzman, he's also got a classical grounding. A few years ago, unable to play for six weeks due to injury - the first time since age 12 he wasn't practicing daily - he lay in bed and listened to one of the most complex pieces in the Western canon, Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier," and transcribed it by ear, note for note. Similarly, for The Epic, he listened to every part by every player on the record and composed music around it.

Washington spent the first seven years of his life in the heart of South Central, at 74th and Figueroa, and later split his childhood between a neighborhood known as "the 60s" and Inglewood. His early goal in life was to be a gangster.

Related Content


Now Trending

  • Check Out This Biggie Smalls Butane Torch

    In the past few years, a lot of serious potheads have switched from smoking marijuana to vaping concentrates like wax, which require the kind of heat that only can come from a butane torch. Unlike regular lighters, butane torches are fairly large and awkward. So a company called Errlybird is...
  • Henry Rollins: American Bigotry Is Alive in Ferguson

    While most of America gets on with its business, Ferguson, Missouri, burns in archaic flames of exasperating, unresolved anger, for all to see. Once again, the world watches America roil in the mortifying echo of Jim Crow law brutality. Meanwhile, U.S. firepower explodes bodies of ISIS militia thousands of miles...
  • Henry Rollins: Fuck Suicide

    Days after Robin Williams died, I kept seeing his face on the Internet. His death seemed to have a momentum of its own. It went from a sad death of a famous person to “a nation mourns” pitch, which I didn’t quite understand. Sites such as Huffington Post swim in...
Los Angeles Concert Tickets