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.
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.
“I was going to be the coldest gangster,” he says. “I didn't realize what that meant, fully – I didn't have aspirations of killing people,” he says. “But the image of an OG, a real gangster with a lot of stripes, was a very positive one in your head… . Once you get out of it, you can see it but when you are in the middle of it, you can't really tell that this person is not the most positive figure in the community. You just see everyone respects him, girls like him. You just get skewed. I was way into NWA and it there just weren't a lot of other images to aspire to.”
In eighth grade, he found something more hardcore than gangster life: jazz. In the interior of the sound of greats such as John Coltrane, Freddie Hubbard, Miles Davis, and The Jazz Messengers, he found something wilder than anything NWA had done. He picked up the tenor saxophone and it was like something clicked. He'd found his future, and even the rougher elements of his neighborhood seemed to understand that there was something special about this kid.
He had one friend, for example, who was a young member of the Bloods but attended a Crip school, Horace Mann. Washington attended a school for gifted kids on the West side, LACES, but he'd walk with his friend after school.
“He used to carry a .22. – this is in junior high school. I used to go play video games…so we'd meet up and go into this little liquor store and play Street Fighter, and then walk home. And I'd go, 'Ain't you scared somebody is going to do something?' And he's like, 'What! Man, I ain't scared.' And I was so stupid I didn't even think about the fact I was walking with this dude. I don't have a gun, right? What am I going to do?”
“But at that point in my life everybody kind of knew I was going so far the other direction – nobody saw that in me.”
Though he was again bused out of his neighborhood to attend a music magnet school in West LA, Hamilton High School, he would be reunited with other kids from South Central with a similar musically devout bent in the Multi School Jazz band. In the shack his father made for them in his backyard in Inglewood, he and the same guys he plays with today – Ryan Porter, Tony Austin, Ronald and Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, Cameron Graves, Brendan Coleman, and Miles Mosley – holed up for thousands of hours, practicing.
When they formed The Young Jazz Giants as sophomores, there was also a place for them to meet some of their elders: the World Stage, the revered one-room cultural center in Leimert Park founded by jazz great Billy Higgins.
[“We couldn't get to Hollywood,” Washington says. “The World Stage was all we could get to. So if there was no World Stage, I guess we'd have played at the house.”
Leimert Park had enjoyed a cultural flowering in the 1990s, when it was beloved as LA's counterpart to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. By the time Washington was coming up, this period was passing, but the World Stage remained and gave him and his band the chance to connect with some of their musical elders.
Years later, members of the group would play with many of the great living jazz players, including Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, and Freddie Hubbard, among many others. And as the stories were passed down from generation to generation, they'd realize that their initial instinct – that they'd found a way of life that was more deeply gangster than gangsta life – was often affirmed.
“They were wilder than hip-hop,” Washington says. “I've played with Snoop and all those guys. Our heroes were wild.”
Washington relays a story passed on to him by the legendary Stanley Clarke, who told about a gig he played with the drummer Elvin Jones and Charles Mingus. Jones was a free spirit, and he started to play some wild polyrhythms. Mingus was was known to beat up musicians who didn't play the way he liked, and he yelled at Jones, “Hey man, stop doing all that crazy stuff.” Jones played on, and Mingus set down his bass and started walking towards the drummer, who promptly pulled a .38 out of his stick bag, put it on the floor tom drum, all without dropping a beat.
“And Mingus picks up his bass. 'Well I ain't messing with that crazy fool,'” Washington says. “And jazz is still that way when you get to the real, real heart of it – even though we are all educated and now graduated to the good parts of society, most of my band are from what was called the ghetto. I used to find dead prostitutes in my back yard. The World Stage and Liemart Park? Leimert Park was a dangerous, dangerous place. The music cleaned up Leimert Park.”
“People want that feeling. Dangerous areas are dangerous for a reason, it's not like people are just crazy,” he continues. “They need stuff. A lot of times the financial needs are so unstable it's like that pressure will lead to one of three things: work your way out of it, work your way under it, or fester in it and kind of go wild.
“But … in Leimert Park, the gangsters couldn't help but go, 'You know what? This is something sacred. That soul, that underlying feeling, this is something that is good. I'm not going to mess that up.'”
Correction: The original version of this article implied that Tony Bennett was deceased. He is very much alive, and West Coast Sound regrets the error.