Kamasi Washington on Finding His Voice and Striving to Make Timeless Music

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Kamasi Washington on Finding His Voice and Striving to Make Timeless Music
Searching for Higher Musical Ground

Jul 01, 2022

By Jake Uitti

Photography by Koury Angelo (for Under the Radar)
Issue #69 – 20th Anniversary Issue


Kamasi Washington plays his father’s saxophone. But the Grammy-nominated artist who rose to fame working with legends like Kendrick Lamar and Herbie Hancock didn’t start out on the horn. Nor did he or his musician father ever think he’d play sax at all, the instrument for which he’s now become famous. For at the beginning, young Washington imagined himself a drummer. Today, he remembers seeing pictures of himself playing drums as young as three years old. His father, Rickey Washington, was the sax player in the family. So, the younger Washington tried his hand at piano, then later clarinet. At this point, around the time he was 12 years old, his dad was a little fed up with his son’s musical wanderlust. He kept telling his son that the clarinet was (essentially) the same thing as sax. But that never felt true for the aspiring Washington. The day he picked up his father’s horn and played—that’s when he knew.

“I said, ‘Oh, man, this is it!’” remembers Washington.

His father had left one of his soprano saxophones out and Washington just picked it up and started playing. Something about it felt right. Not long after, as a new student at the Academy of Music of Alexander Hamilton High School in Los Angeles, Washington’s jazz band teacher asked all the kids in music class one day if any of them had a tenor saxophone. Washington raised his hand, knowing his father had several in the house. So, he borrowed one, took it to school the next day and was now an official tenor sax player. The only trouble was, he didn’t tell his dad.

“He thought someone stole it!” Washington says.

To this day, ever since he was 13, Washington has been playing his father’s horn, exclusively. Top tier talent often has long roots. And Washington’s go deep. Ever since he was a “baby,” he’s known some of the world’s best artists, including the mind-melding bassist, Thundercat. He’s also long been close with musicians such as Terrace Martin and instructors like Reggie Andrews in South Central, LA, where Washington was born and raised. He’s worked with these players on all-time records like Kendrick Lamar’s classic, To Pimp a Butterfly, which bridged rap and jazz in a way that no other record did as successfully and as provokingly before. This is the stuff that transpires from a life immersed in song.

“When I switched to saxophone,” Washington says, “I just felt like I found my voice. That’s when I fell in love with music.”

But loving something is different than living with it. Washington says he found his honest-to-goodness work ethic, his reason for musical pursuit, during a concert as a young player. He and his jazz band, conducted by Andrews, were set to play at the Hollywood Bowl, in front of thousands. At that time, he dug music but didn’t quite live and breathe it. But during the performance, Andrews gave Washington a surprise sax solo. The occasion ended up leaving Washington feeling flat.

“At that point,” he says, “I hadn’t become that serious about music. It was something I did but I wasn’t completely obsessed with it, you know? Reggie Andrews gave me a surprise solo at the Hollywood Bowl in front of thousands of people and, honestly, I didn’t like the way I sounded.”

Up until that point, Washington says, music had been fun for him; something to do. But after feeling a sense of incompleteness with a performance, he began to work. He rebelled against ever feeling that feeling again. He began to practice with urgency, earnestly. He realized how deeply he could feel about music and his performance of it and he didn’t want to feel that sense of personal inadequacy again.

“Once I started really practicing,” Washington says. “Music started opening up to me. It became the real, true love of my life.”

Today, other than mortality itself, there is seemingly no end to Washington’s range and possibilities. Within the same calendar year, he’s worked with Michelle Obama scoring her documentary, Becoming, which is based on her best-selling memoir of the same name. For Washington, the effort was surreal, monumental, and an honor. It was life-changing to write music to how the former First Lady’s life changed so dramatically under the spotlight.

“Regardless of how you feel politically,” Washington says, “it’s undeniable that that’s an important story, an important historical milestone, what she and Barack and her whole family went through. To be able to be a part of telling that story was a great honor for me. I learned a lot just from listening to her words and listening to her talk. She’s such a down-to-earth and wise person.”

Washington has also recently worked with famed heavy metal band Metallica on a recent anniversary tribute collection to their popular release The Black Album, covering the band’s song “My Friend of Misery.” He also played with some of Metallica’s members at the Hollywood Bowl this past summer. But these achievements, while of rare air, for Washington, aren’t the driving force for his efforts. Finding new creative ground is.

“It’s a journey I’m hoping I get to stay on for the rest of my life,” Washington says. “I’m always studying, always searching, always trying to find something new to inspire me.”

The artist’s 2018 double-album, Heaven and Earth, exemplifies his prowess. At times, Washington is less a musician and more of a painter of imaginations. His peers are Van Gogh and Monet as much as they are Coltrane and Davis. The double-LP unveils worlds that only appear as song. Washington’s prior release, 2015’s The Epic, showcased both an understanding of traditional jazz sensibilities and forward-thinking composition. Even a random YouTube search of the musician’s live or recorded music can lead to a rabbit hole of melodic revelation.

Washington is a student of his instrument. The way he explains it, the saxophone was originally an instrument composers tried to use to take the place of strings in marching bands in the late 19th century. It was also used sparingly in classical music. But Washington likes the instrument, in part, because it found its voice in jazz. So too has Washington, who recently turned 40 years old. With the new temporal milestone, Washington says he’s thought a bit about mortality of late. It’s not that he worries about it, per sé. Rather, for him, it’s a motivator.

“When you get to a certain point,” he says, “you start to get to see the horizon of your mortality, you can kind of feel the reality of the temporary nature of life. And it definitely has given me a better focus. That’s the biggest thing it’s given me—it’s brought me more to the present.”

Another thing Washington doesn’t stress much over is the conversation—or, confrontation—between folks aspiring to define exactly what “jazz” is. For many, it’s about the tradition. For others, it’s about experimentation and growth. For Washington, the conversation is moot, so he mutes it in his mind. Instead, he cares much more about making moving music.

“I don’t think about it,” he says. “To me, the goal of most musicians is to make music that’s timeless. As far as all the different bickering people do over the word ‘jazz,’ I’m definitely not one that’s so interested in that. I understand certain arguments and I understand why people feel the need to have them, but for me, I’m more concerned with making beautiful music.”

When Washington explores new ground, that often means he does so internally. Everything is a universe, philosophically speaking, and that’s especially true with the human consciousness. Washington says he takes advantage of this and glides within his own thoughts often.

“I spend a lot of time,” he says, “just kind of surfing around in my own consciousness, my own imagination, searching for a place to go.”

During the pandemic lockdown, Washington spent a lot of time writing music. He indulged his ideas and began to explore his many goals. He’s “deep into creating” a new ballet. He’s working on a new graphic novel. He has new concepts for an album in the works, too.

“There’s all types of stuff in the works,” Washington explains. “That’s what I’m saying. As you get a little older, you have all these things you want to do, so you better start doing them.”

For Washington, who today is known for his innovative solo and collaborative work (like that in the super group Dinner Party, as well as his many records and collaborations with artists like Snoop Dogg and Flying Lotus), music provides a way for people to exchange their ideas, personalities, and stories at a “higher level.” Either on recording or simply jamming. By being a student of and participant in song, Washington says, he’s received something more, beyond the notes, measures, and rhythms. Music, as an art form, transmits something else entirely, through time, over generations.

“Even though,” Washington says, “I’ve never met John Coltrane, I feel like I know him. In a certain way, I feel like I’ve learned from him. Part of him has guided me in my own life. And that ability for music to connect people through time and space, through anything, it’s really beautiful and really powerful.”

www.kamasiwashington.com

[Note: This article originally appeared in Issue 69 of Under the Radar’s print magazine, our 20th Anniversary Issue, which is out now. It was one of 11 cover stories in the issue. This is its debut online.]

Also read our 2018 cover story interview with Kamasi Washington.

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