Written by on July 2, 2019

In a few short years, we have seen the rise to prominence of tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington. The curve of his career isn’t altogether surprising, but he has perhaps arrived at a place that’s uncommon for 21st century players.  Washington has become one of the most talked-about Jazz personalities of recent years, including his upcoming Newport appearance at the festival in August.  He figures into the Jazz sub-genre that’s referred to as “Spiritual Jazz”—a splinter kindled in the Sixties, sparked by John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. Kamasi Washington’s music emphasizes the textural directions of Spiritual Jazz—a floating, atmospheric ensemble sound, against which his own forthright tenor saxophone playing leads a call to meditation, exaltation, and of course swing.

Washington comes from Los Angeles, born in 1981. High school saxophone training led him to UCLA for Ethnomusicology.  (That may sound unusual, but in the present realm of Jazz education, there has seemed to be as much room (or more) to study the Jazz avant-garde under the umbrella of World Music as in the field of “Jazz Studies”.) On his way out of high school, Washington entered and won the John Coltrane Music Competition in 1999 in the same band with which he would make his first recordings; they called themselves the Young Jazz Giants. These players had a literal garage band committed to developing their jazz instrumentalism, even though they valued equally the contemporary directions of popular music.

In his twenties, Washington soaked up the choicest elements of what Los Angeles’s Jazz scene had to offer: He partook in the large ensembles led by veterans Gerald Wilson and Horace Tapscott, both in the very active latter stages of their careers.  Washington appeared on several of Wilson’s recordings in the early 20th Century.

But by 2007, we had the first clear statement from Kamasi Washington’s own musical personality, as the sole leader on The Proclamation.

What exactly was he proclaiming? In that initial effort, Washington shows the inspiration from Ornette Coleman and the music of the Sixties in general. He carried the torch that passed from John to Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Kenny Garrett, and others—but that had not recently been invigorated by a person as young as Kamasi Washington.

His artistry really came into focus and into the national spotlight with 2015’s The Epic. With this celebrity, Washington was regularly pursued for further explanation of the story or philosophy behind the sounds he was making. He makes clear links between the motivations for his art and the continuing struggles of Black citizens for equal treatment in American society.

The Epic turned heads. As a 3-LP set, It was a magnum opus in every way and was timed just right to put Kamasi Washington right where his now, as one of the most visible Jazz performers on the scene.

Now, there’s a major element of Kamasi Washington’s profile that isn’t captured by any of the above: He’s a pop star.  Even with all the attention to his ongoing career as a leader, far more people will have heard his musical contributions to recordings by Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, Teena Marie, Thundercat, Run the Jewels, and more pop artists all the time; Washington’s working life has included touring in accompanying many of these artists on tour.

Exposure via these collaborations has helped ensure the success of Kamasi Washington—in the ears of a diverse and widening audience.

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