Tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington sits on a couch in the middle of South L.A.'s Central Avenue. Since closing the Central Avenue Jazz Festival 30 minutes earlier with the Ryan Porter Group (one of many billings that features the collective known as the West Coast Get Down), Washington has posed for a dozen photos, signed a painting featuring his likeness and fielded a sales pitch from an aggressive shoemaker/mystic.
Yesterday he played the festival's main stage with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, then hustled to downtown L.A. to lead his own project for more than 1,000 fans at Grand Performances. That one-off show, titled “65-92: The Rhythm Changes but the Struggle Remains,” managed to distill the last 50 years of African-American music into a boiling ball of fuzzed-out bass, pummeling drums and wailing horns, which looked back on our city's racially divided past and pointed hopefully toward our shaky future.
“Music only serves one purpose — to express the essence of a person's experience,” Washington says, catching a rare breather in the Central Avenue Jazz Festival's deserted, makeshift lounge. “If you listen to my music, you will eventually get a feeling for who I am. You don't have to know what I went through. … Music is the deeper level of communication, communication that goes through your understanding of words and history.”
Washington followed his father, Rickey, into jazz. The Inglewood-raised saxophonist first played onstage at the Hollywood Bowl while in high school, graduated from UCLA's jazz department and was a major part of bandleader Gerald Wilson's swinging ensemble in the '00s. He also became fluent in the rhythms and conventions of hip-hop, playing in Snoop Dogg's touring band and, more recently, writing the string arrangements on Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly.
Since the May release of Washington's debut studio album, The Epic, a three-hour tour de force featuring a doubled-up rhythm section, strings and a choir, the rest of the listening world has caught up. The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times featured laudatory coverage of the 34-year-old's ferocious approach, while NPR dedicated numerous hours to his record release show at the Regent Theater.
Coronations of all sorts continue to be heaped upon his head, occasionally tasking him with saving the entire genre of jazz, or at least Los Angeles' part of it. But Washington is still the same humble saxophonist, expressing his hopes and frustrations through a post-Coltrane roar.
He was only 11 years old and living in Inglewood when the 1992 riots broke out. His father was around the same age in 1965 and living in Watts. So when Grand Performances approached Washington more than a year ago with the initial idea for what would become “65-92,” it resonated on a deeply personal level. He dove into the project with even more than his usual passion.
“It was really astounding,” says Leigh Ann Hahn, Grand Performances' director of programming. “I think he conducted what would be the equivalent of a master's thesis … the hours he put in writing the charts, the research, the conversations with elders in the community. It was more than a labor of love.”
Amidst the fighting and frustration of the 1965 and 1992 riots, the radio played on, broadcasting music by black artists, which acquired significant social consciousness following '65 and careened into seething anger by '92. Washington faced the challenge of marrying those two eras. He laid out lists of Los Angeles–raised, mid–20th century jazz musicians such as Eric Dolphy and Dexter Gordon and early-'90s rappers like Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, looking for connections he could weave into his arrangements.
After all his research, Washington looks back at the last 50 years warily, well aware of the roadblocks that have stifled generations. “We were heading in such a good direction in the '60s. We were doing so many things to help make a balanced society. What happened?”
Despite the recent outrages in Ferguson, Baltimore and beyond, Washington remains optimistic. “All of these horrible events are happening on camera for the world to see. People are going to get ignited and we are going to invoke change. And it's going to get better. I already know that.”
He sees a glimpse of the future in a component of his fan base that has blossomed in the last few months — a generation of kids born after the 1992 riots. “There is a certain amount of empowerment to an ignorance of bigotry and racism. It's almost cool,” Washington says. “A lot of kids just think it doesn't exist, or it is so far removed from them living in L.A. Part of me likes that. The other part of me doesn't.”
On the evening of July 25, Washington stood atop the Grand Performances stage at showtime, adorned with flowing white fabrics, looking ready for a baptism in the placid pool that separated the band from the crowd. Visible waves spread across the water from the mountain of speakers stacked on its shore as they thumped out sounds from more than a dozen musicians and MCs, largely from the West Coast Get Down (and including Washington's father in the horn section).
Opening with Watts native Charles Mingus' “Fables of Faubus,” Washington's group dug into the ode to Arkansas' segregationist governor with fire. Upright bassist Miles Mosley introduced himself with a frenetic thump before segueing into Snoop's “Serial Killa” with help from the other nimble bassist onstage, Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner.
“We can't talk about jazz in Los Angeles and hip-hop in Los Angeles without mentioning Leimert Park,” Washington said halfway through the performance. Leimert Park, the African-American cultural hub just east of Crenshaw Boulevard, is home to drummer Billy Higgins' physical legacy, beyond the thousands of albums he contributed to. Higgins' performance space, the World Stage, is an institution for many of the musicians in Washington's group and has served over the years as a color-blind haven from social unrest.
Appropriating Higgins' patented boogaloo swing, drummer Tony Austin presented a display of inventive chops while the horns danced around Eddie Harris' “Freedom Jazz Dance” before the band shifted to Ice Cube's Isley Brothers–sampling “Today Was a Good Day.” The transition from a tricky avant-garde melody to a '70s soul groove is not for the faint of heart, but it didn't faze the tight ensemble. Nor did jumping from Gerald Wilson's “Viva Tirado” to The Pharcyde's “Passin' Me By.” Or Ornette Coleman's “Broken Shadows” into Freestyle Fellowship's “Park Bench People.”
The songs flowed like one radio station bleeding into another, shifting from jazz to hip-hop and back again with intriguing grace. And Washington's swirling collective handled it as it always does — losing neither groove nor audience.
“It seemed effortless,” Grand Performances' Hahn said later of the performance. “It was a love letter to the music, but it was holding all of us accountable for those things that happened [in the past], and our own future as a city. It was medicine wrapped in magic.”