Thirty-two-year-old tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington has been playing for nearly two decades with 10-piece band West Coast Get Down. A little more than a year ago, they went into a Silver Lake studio and recorded six albums in 30 days.
Washington's contribution to that effort is called The Epic, a 171-minute, three-record set that includes a 32-piece orchestra and a 20-person choir. The orchestration is both written and conducted by Washington, and somehow fuses elements of jazz, soul, classical, hip-hop and even gospel.
Slated for a May release on Brainfeeder — the label of the city's titan underground DJ, Flying Lotus — The Epic cinematically tells the story of the band and their collective mission: to remove jazz from the shelf of relics.
“Jazz musicians of my age, we don't fit into the jazz world,” says Washington, who is large and serene. “What we are doing doesn't fit into their clubs.”
Flying Lotus recalls witnessing one of Washington's gigs at Hollywood's Piano Bar, where the West Coast Get Down has held a residency for three years.
“He just played the craziest shit, man. I mean, everything — the past, present, the future,” Flying Lotus says. “It's hard to find unique voices in this music. Especially in jazz, more so lately, everybody is trying to do the same shit. I don't want to hear 'My Favorite Things' any more.
“What I am hearing is a leader among artists.”
Like Washington, his band is mostly from South Los Angeles, and its members have been congregating in a backyard shack in Inglewood since they were barely teenagers.
“Nothing compares to these guys,” says Barbara Sealy, former West Coast director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, who has championed them since they were high school freshman. “Nobody. I challenge any group to go out onstage with them and see if they can keep up with it.”
The band includes some of the most highly regarded young musicians on the planet, including bassist Thundercat and his brother, drummer Ronald Bruner Jr., as well as bassist Miles Mosley, drummer Tony Austin, keyboard player Brandon Coleman, pianist Cameron Graves and trombonist Ryan Porter. They make their living playing as sidemen for pop, jazz and hip-hop acts ranging from Rihanna to Stanley Clarke to Snoop Dogg.
But this work is a means to an end. Their passion is their own work, and performing in unlikely venues for musicians of their ilk, such as the Viper Room and the Piano Bar.
Washington and his brethren want to remake a genre that was born as an illicit music in New Orleans bordellos and has somehow morphed into something old and safe. They want to make it new, unexpected and dangerous again.
Kamasi Washington spent his childhood in South Central L.A. and Inglewood. It was the late 1980s and the area was engulfed in gang violence. He remembers finding a dead prostitute in his backyard.
“It's weird, when you grow up you don't feel like it's dangerous. It just feels like home,” he recalls. “You hear gunshots, you wouldn't wake up.”
He got drums for his second birthday, and Ronald Bruner was at the party. “I whooped Ronald, the one time we battled on drums,” Washington says. “He was 1.”
Both his parents were teachers and he was always a straight-A student. But Washington aspired to become a gangster, the symbol of power and cool in his neighborhood.
Because of his high test scores, he was sent to a middle school in West L.A. — the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies. Halfway through eighth grade, his cousin gave him a record by Lee Morgan, the hard-bop trumpeter, which changed everything. Somehow, the music reminded him of N.W.A.
Washington dropped the instrument he'd been studying, clarinet, and picked up a saxophone. He was better at it from the first note.
He enrolled at Hamilton High School, a music magnet school, also in West L.A. The school suited him, except for one troubling aspect — it contributed to the “brain drain” from South L.A.
“A lot of the talent, especially the intellectual talent, got pulled out and taken away,” Washington says. “Kids have influence on each other. If one kid is really talented in music, and he starts playing music and starts sounding good, he'll influence five or six other kids to start playing.”
Reggie Andrews, a music teacher at Watts' Locke High School, reunited inner-city kids attending far-flung magnet schools as part of what he called the “Multi-School Jazz Band.” He'd pick kids up after school and drive them home after rehearsal. Almost every member of the West Coast Get Down came together in this way.
“Man, I was just blown away by how talented the kids in that band were,” Washington says. “We lived near each other, but we didn't know each other existed.”
Andrews booked the group at the 1997 Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl. Onstage, Washington suddenly was tapped for a solo, for which he found himself unprepared.
“That night, I said to myself, 'I am not going to be mediocre,' ” Washington says. “ 'I'll put whatever time I need to into this.' It was a major, major moment in my life — in front of 10,000 people.”
That summer, he and Cameron Graves holed up in the shack behind Washington's father's house in Inglewood. His father, Rickey Washington, also was a jazz musician who had converted a garage into a musical shed. The other kids joined in as well, playing so long and so hard they'd stuff wadded-up paper towels into their ears to try to stop the ringing.
By 10th grade the kids were calling themselves The Young Jazz Giants. They would disperse to college music schools, and then became pop-industry sidemen touring worldwide. But collectively they continued to build their own sound.
Thundercat was the first to break through. His Brainfeeder release last year, Apocalypse, topped L.A. Weekly's list of the year's best L.A. albums and earned raves from The New York Times. Part of its success had to do with its crossover sound; it featured elements of pop, soul, EDM and funk, and resisted classification as strictly jazz. This was no accident.
“Every other music you go and listen or dance to,” Washington says. “But for some reason, jazz has become this eating music.” As in, you tend to take it in while dining out.
Flying Lotus believes Washington has the ability to further redefine perceptions of jazz, calling his music “West Coast spiritual.”
“I really hope to shine a light on an inspiring guy who is making jazz feel right again,” Flying Lotus says. “There are not many people who make me feel I'm traveling through the whole universe in a single solo.”
“Kamasi Washington is the next Kamasi Washington … the way somebody says 'That's the next Jimi Hendrix,' ” Sealy says. “There is nobody to compare to these guys. They are a new sound.”
Their three-year, jam-packed residency at Piano Bar has shown that whatever you call it, this is a music that resonates.
“[The audience] doesn't even realize they are listening to jazz,” Washington says. “Well, this is jazz. But this is the jazz of your generation.”
Kamasi Washington and the West Coast Get Down play at Piano Bar every Wednesday and Friday at 11 p.m.