On Saturday, Sept. 5, 2010, the second annual Leimert Park Village African Art & Music Festival’s theme was “Community Counts.” A tent-covered parking lot across from Ackee Bamboo Jamaican Cuisine was converted into a music festival grounds. Bonnaroo with fly juice.
The community was in effect: geles, goatees, dashikis, dreads, open-toed sandals, braids, fades, Afros and Afro picks. They came to be counted among the black culture lovers.
I was there when jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington and his band The Next Step stepped on stage. Washington’s untamed, comb-free Afro hovered above the tenor saxophone hanging from his neck. Washington raised the saxophone to his lips and began to play with bluesy conviction. That’s when people began to stand and shout. Saturday music festival turned Sunday tent revival within 32 bars.
Kamasi Washington believes in community. As a teenager, Washington began hanging in the World Stage jazz scene. (Full disclosure: I am currently a World Stage board member.) The vibrant Leimert Park jazz and literature venue founded in 1989 by master drummer Billy Higgins and acclaimed poet Kamau Daáood has featured workshops, jam sessions and concert performances by Pharoah Sanders, Roy Hargrove and Branford Marsalis, among many other jazz luminaries.
In the 1990s, Washington came of age in this jazz incubator. The experience had a profound effect on him.
“The World Stage was everything,” Washington tells me. “Along with the musicianship training, I learned that musicians were servants of the community. I learned the notion that there is power in being together, playing together as a community of artists with no hidden agendas.”
Along with Higgins, World Stage co-founder Daáood was seminal in shaping the organization’s community-oriented ethos.
“Being a community artist is a noble calling,” Daáood says.
As a teenager, Washington was a member of the Young World Stage All-Stars, an ensemble of emergent young jazz lions that included saxophonist Terrace Martin, who is now more well-known for his work with Kendrick Lamar, YG and Snoop Dogg. Even in an all-star line-up, Washington stood out.
“It was a very vibrant time when Kamasi was coming up in the scene at the World Stage,” Daáood remembers. “Billy Higgins and Horace Tapscott really worked with the young musicians. There were also the jam sessions, the master classes with major players. The Stage was bubbling but people recognized Kamasi as a young light. He had a lot of energy around him. He was young and wide-eyed. We saw a lot of promise in him.”
Washington has developed his collectivist bona fides in the years since. In the new millennium, the saxophonist helped to organize West Coast Get Down, a group of L.A.-based musician friends (including Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, Ronald Bruner, Patrice Quinn, Terrace Martin, Miles Mosley and Ryan Porter among others) who jammed together, played in each other’s bands, and exchanged musical ideas and influences.
“Ryan Porter was the first one to introduce me to Ornette Coleman’s music and I got him into Stravinksy. Ronald Bruner gave me my first Kenny Garrett record,” Washington told Tavis Smiley in a September 2015 interview.
In 2010, Washington won a John Coltrane jazz competition. When Ravi Coltrane came to present the award, Trane’s son brought his cousin Steven Ellison, better known as Flying Lotus.
“When I got the award, me and Steven started talking about music and we eventually started hanging and jamming together,” Washington remembers.
The meeting with Flying Lotus proved fortuitous. Around the same time, the members of West Coast Get Down decided to bundle their resources and rent a music studio for an entire month. Working 30 days straight, they recorded over 120 different songs for the various album projects of their members. Washington recorded 45 songs and chose 17 of them to create his critically acclaimed three-disc album The Epic, which was released on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label.
Now Washington is excited to help usher some of the other musicians in his community to similar heights.
“The musicians in West Coast Get Down are all so different and so unique. That really came across in the musical diversity produced during our month in the studio. Everyone has their own sound,” he says. “The Epic has opened up some doors so I want to help whoever wants to come through those same doors. My experience with Brainfeeder was amazing. They really give you the freedom to do your music your way. But at the same time, each West Coast Get Down artist has their own vision for their career in terms of what type of label they want to roll with. I just want to help be a part of each person fulfilling their vision. Just as they were all a part of helping me fulfill my vision. It’s about the community working together.”
Given the black community’s heightened activism around violence directed at black people, Washington thinks music can play a role in demonstrating the rich, complex beauty of African-American culture. When black humanity is more respected, there is a greater possibility that black life will be perceived as too valuable to take with impunity. Raised in a household steeped in black history and culture, Washington is committed to fulfilling his community responsibility to make sure that black lives matter.
“I understand the responsibility, but true leadership is not something you take or declare. If you’re doing something valuable for the community, the community will follow you. I want to use my music to help people. I want my music to bring people together.”
Kamasi Washington performs as part of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts Jazz Weekend on Saturday, Oct. 8 in Costa Mesa. More info at scfta.org/jazz or call (714) 556-2787.