A month ago, I watched what should’ve been a weird, anachronistic scene. In the heart of the Hollywood bottle-service swamp, a snaking line of 20- and 30-somethings waited in biting cold for up to three hours to see a jazz show. In 2016.
The Piano Bar was closing with a dazzling, funereal requiem from its most famed residents, The West Coast Get Down, spearheaded by saxophonist Kamasi Washington, who had made the sweaty, dimly lit space their unofficial basement for most of this decade. During that span, the group recorded Washington’s debut, last April’s The Epic, a modern jazz classic that sparked the most interest in the genre since De La Soul recruited Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley for 1993’s Buhloone Mindstate.
The Epic didn’t single-handedly bring about the jazz revival. Washington’s Brainfeeder collaborators and labelmates Thundercat and Flying Lotus deserve credit. So does Kendrick Lamar, whose jazz-buoyed To Pimp a Butterfly helped bring Washington’s tenor sax ascensions to mainstream attention.
But among his gifted peers, the Inglewood native might be the biggest crossover success, bridging the chasm between the staid contemporary jazz world and popular music. He’s the only one on KJAZZ and at Coachella, hailed as jazz’s future in The New York Times, Pitchfork and even the cover of Downbeat. To cap this unprecedented 18-month levitation, he’s headlining Walt Disney Concert Hall on Sunday, Nov. 6.
“I always felt like jazz had this looming, bad reputation as something people didn’t like, and I thought, ‘That’s not true,” Washington, 35, says at a vegetarian restaurant in downtown Inglewood. As if to prove his point, the waitress smiles and lets him know that she’ll be taking her mom to his Disney Hall concert.
“I wanted to dispel the myth that non–jazz fans couldn’t grasp jazz,” Washington continues, wearing a brown tribally patterned overcoat and woolen cap. An ornate walking stick idles beside him. “This was never about ‘bringing jazz back.’ It was about music I love that has a healing effect on people. I didn’t want people to close themselves off.”
The son of a saxophonist father and flautist mother, Washington’s “overnight success” was anything but. He spent most of the 2000s backing Snoop Dogg, Gerald Wilson, Lauryn Hill and Raphael Saadiq. The Epic was his first real opportunity to transmit his personal visions; its success enabled him to bring his music to the world, playing everywhere from Glastonbury to obscure villages in Italy.
Amidst the Up in the Air itinerary, Washington began recording a new album, inspired by his travels, recent discoveries ranging from Vince Staples to old Pharoah Sanders records, and the decades of explorations that went into developing his singular sound.
“I was never one to try to sound like someone else, but I learned about parts of myself from studying other people,” Washington says. “I’ll hear the cadences of someone like Vince Staples or Kendrick and hear how they’re doing it, but combine it to what I’ve done previously.”
In conversation, Washington has the air of a quiet visionary, a soft-spoken mystic far too self-effacing for any pretensions. If he’s assumed the mantle as the new face of jazz, he’s earned it — a worthy successor to a still-evolving tradition.
“Money isn’t real, fame isn’t real. The only thing that’s real is hearing a song in your head and making it come to life,” Washington says. “Music is alive; it has its own agenda. When you’re playing a song, something pushes the music. You have to go with it by getting rid of your intentions and what you want to have happen. The jazz I love most is the kind that captures that momentum — that’s when you really feel free.”