From the Artistic Director, Willard Jenkins
Kamasi Washington: Refracted Glory or New Tenor Titan?
From Willard Jenkins, Artistic Director
Last month we chronicled the Revive Big Band, which will play the culminating day of our big “tent pole” weekend at The Yards. Also on that bill is today’s most broadly discussed jazz artist, or phenom if you prefer, tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington. So what’s up with this guy, where’d this seeming comet streaking across – not only the jazz firmament – but the current music scene… period? Who is this physically imposing, tenor man with his distinctive African garments and huge hirsute halo? And why are mainstream media outlets churning out unprecedented word counts on a jazz saxophonist for goodness sakes?
Unlikely outlets like Esquire, GQ, the New York Times Sunday Magazine (thus far theirs is the definitive Kamasi backgrounder; read it here: www.nytimes.com/.../magazine/kamasi-washingtons-g...), and even Entertainment Weekly (People Magazine can’t be far behind!) are churning out some sense of Kamasi Washington as ‘savior of jazz’, a not-his-fault tired canard to be sure, particularly for those of us who’ve witnessed such comets in the past – as if jazz needed “saving” in the first place!
Much of the ink is based upon Kamasi’s essential contributions to the 2015/2016 hip hop album du jour, Kendrick Lamar’s much-lauded, multiple Grammy-winning instant-classic “To Pimp a Butterfly.” Kamasi followed that up with his sweeping debut recording, aptly titled “The Epic,” a sprawling, 3-CD package replete with full string section and vocal choir augmenting his rambunctious nonet.
“The Epic,” also the first documented product of the youthful L.A. musicians’ collective loosely known as the West Coast Get Down, did not occur by happenstance, nor was it some hastily arranged effort at capitalizing on Kamasi’s experience with Kendrick Lamar. So why the audacious 3-CD debut? Seems the West Coast Get Down, endeavoring to document what they’d been talking about and rehearsing together for more than a minute, amassed their coins and booked several weeks of near non-stop recording studio activity; “The Epic” is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg as much more is promised from this forward-motion collective.
Kamasi Washington is clearly no overnight sensation, despite the tone of those breathless mainstream print and electronic media pieces. Raised in Inglewood, he’s the son of a jazz musician who was mentored by many of his dad’s cohorts around L.A., including NEA Jazz Master drummer Billy Higgins. Kamasi matriculated from the Academy of Music of Alexander Hamilton magnet high school, to the Dept. of Ethnomusicology under NEA Jazz Master guitarist Kenny Burrell. Washington was also influenced by the vibrant scene Higgins established at his World Stage venue in the Leimert Park section of L.A. There the tenor aspirant also came under the mentoring influence of renowned poet Kamau Daaood. Before that, Kamasi prepped in the broad harmonic universe of NEA Jazz Master Gerald Wilson’s bold orchestra, recording several times with the master composer-bandleader.
In 1999 Kamasi won the John Coltrane Competition. Since then he has performed with NEA Jazz Masters Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, plus Lauryn Hill, Nas, Snoop Dogg, George Duke, and Chaka Khan. While he may have appeared to some to have arrived literally overnight, Kamasi Washington is actually a seasoned, 35-year old with a clear, unpretentious view of his music and his direction, blessed with an appealing humility. Let’s royally welcome him to our stage on Sunday, June 19.