Kamasi Washington © Paul Rousteau
Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

What has been dubbed “the second civil rights movement” is unfolding, like the first, against a backdrop of music. Beyoncé hijacked this year’s Super Bowl half-time show with the Black Power-themed performance of her song “Formation”, inspired by the Black Lives Matter campaign against racist violence in the US. Protesters chanted lyrics from the rapper Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly after being pepper-sprayed by police last year during a Cleveland rally. The reclusive soul singer D’Angelo emerged from a 14-year silence in 2014 with Black Messiah, an album that took its name from J Edgar Hoover’s 1968 directive that the FBI must prevent “the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement”.

Amid this infusion of political energy, even jazz, the sleeping giant of African-American culture, shows signs of stirring. It played a role in the original civil rights struggle with albums such as bebop pioneer Max Roach’s 1960 We Insist! and tracks like John Coltrane’s “Alabama”, written by the sax virtuoso in response to the deadly bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. But since then the music’s influence has steadily dwindled. In 2014 jazz languished as the least popular genre by sales in the US, behind classical and children’s music.

Its resurgence takes a number of forms, none more imposing than the majestic figure of Kamasi Washington. The tenor saxophonist, 35, is a key member of a thriving Los Angeles jazz scene that is attracting new crossover audiences to the music. Last year he released a much praised debut album, The Epic, whose political orientation is summed up by a track eulogising Malcolm X, the controversial black nationalist leader. “The whole point of playing this music is to convey a message,” Washington says.

Four years in the making and almost three hours long, The Epic lives up to its name. Influenced by the sweeping visions of Washington’s idol, Coltrane, it is a vast exploration of musical possibilities taking in bebop, modal jazz, fusion and classical music. In March it won the inaugural American Music Prize, the US version of the UK’s Mercury Prize.

Washington is currently touring it around the world with his band, The Next Step, with dates at rock festivals such as Glastonbury, where he is playing this weekend. Somehow the seven musicians on stage must bring to life an album that required a 10-piece jazz band, 32-piece orchestra and 20-strong choir to record in the studio. “Well,” Washington says with a laugh, speaking on a coach transporting him and his bandmates between gigs in Portugal, “we’re pretty active people!”

Jazz idol John Coltrane © Gai Terrell

Born in 1981, Washington recalls two formative musical experiences from his childhood. The first was when he started to fall in love with jazz as an 11-year-old who was learning to play the clarinet. The second came two years later, when he picked up a saxophone, placed lips to reed and blew a strangely familiar series of notes. “I was hearing music in my head and trying to play it on the clarinet, but it didn’t match,” he remembers of his epiphany. “Then, literally the first day, it did with the saxophone. I was like, ‘Oh man, that’s what I’ve been trying to do, this is what it’s supposed to sound like.’ It was almost like meeting the person that you know you want to marry: ‘Oh, this is what I’ve been looking for!’”

As his father is a sax player who separated from Washington’s teacher mother when Kamasi was three, the matrimonial analogy raises an interestingly Oedipal scenario. But my amateur Freudian hopes for a titanic father-son jazz clash are dashed. Washington’s father Rickey has played a vital role in nurturing his son’s career, and performs alongside him in his touring band. The Epic’s first track, “Change of the Guard”, is about filial devotion, not wrestling the patriarch into submission. “I actually wrote that song for my dad and his generation of musicians, who never really got a chance to share their music with the world,” Washington explains. He ascribes their lack of impact to Los Angeles’s reputation as a jazz backwater, overshadowed by meccas such as New York and New Orleans.

“LA is a big city that has a lot of music in it but is not necessarily known for it,” he says. “A lot of musicians got lost in that. You can make a living, you can gig a lot within the city and never get out of it. That was something that me and my friends, our generation, were afraid of happening to us.”

Washington grew up moving between his divorced parents’ homes in South Central Los Angeles and the neighbouring working-class city of Inglewood. It was a violent era. LA’s problems with gangs worsened during his childhood in the 1980s and 1990s. The sound of gunshots was common, and at one point he found a dead body in the backyard. Yet he also stresses the presence of neighbourhoods such as Leimert Park, a cultural hub of black LA life — the sort of place where an aspiring musician, as keen on Bach as gangsta rap, could explore his heritage.

“South Central LA definitely had gangs and drugs and violence,” he says. “But it also had areas like Leimert Park, where all the best musicians, poets and artists come. And that’s right in the heart of it, among all the gangs — art and history.”

The Autobiography of Malcolm X was another force pulling him away from what he calls the “negative self-image” of South Central life, in which “everyone is seen as a gangster, a drug addict or a killer”. Copies of the book, published in 1965, the year of Malcolm X’s assassination, were handed out at Washington’s school during a visit by activists from a black nationalist organisation. It made a lasting impression on him.

“Self-discipline, self-understanding and self-love, that’s what it was really about,” he says. “Just love yourself, you are beautiful, your history, your culture, you come from someone who is beautiful, you’re not just the descendant of a slave, you should have pride in who you are, knowing who you are.”

Kamasi Washington © John Lamparski

A gifted student, he won a scholarship to study ethnomusicology at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he learnt about north Indian classical music, Indonesian gamelan and Ghanaian gospel choirs. His music is the product of an elite formal education as well as street life. “I was exposed to stuff which I wouldn’t have learnt just by playing at clubs,” he says. “I think both are definitely necessary.”

He has a close-knit set of peers, many also the children of LA jazz musicians. They formed a musical collective, the West Coast Get Down, playing weekly at a club in Hollywood. A collaborative month-long session of recording in 2011 provided the basis for The Epic.

Washington and his contemporaries are versatile, a function of working at the heart of the US pop-music industry. Washington has done session work for musicians ranging from roots-rocker Ryan Adams to soul singer Chaka Khan. In 2000, one year into his UCLA course, he joined the West Coast rap star Snoop Dogg on tour.

“There were two things I discovered when I toured with Snoop. One was that the band was all jazz musicians. The second was to instil in me a respect for other styles of music. From then on, whenever I played a new kind of music, I came with the same kind of open mind. What are they trying to do? What are they hearing? How do they see music?”

Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly emerged last year from the overlap between LA’s jazz and rap worlds. Washington scored the string arrangements and played sax on the album, a tour de force about black identity that won five Grammy awards in February.

“I think that album has changed the world,” he says. “What Kendrick did with that record has opened the audience’s mind and even more so the mind of musicians. Young musicians are going to come up today with a feeling of possibility. It is dispelling the idea you have to make simple, bland music to appeal to the masses. It has proved them wrong.”

When jazz became more complex in the 1940s and 1950s, the move was partly a response to racist notions of white supremacy. “It goes back to bebop,” Washington says. “That was one of the earliest protests against the notion of supremacy and superiority that you found in the US. All of a sudden you had these people who were playing music that was so advanced you couldn’t deny it.”

Collaborator Kendrick Lamar © Getty

But jazz’s embrace of dissonance and intellectualism also had the effect of exiling it from mainstream popularity. At the same time, separatist arguments were being made by the likes of Malcolm X that African-Americans could not live alongside white people. The barriers that jazz erected against mass appeal had an echo in a radical black politics that denied the possibility of racial assimilation.

“Malcolm X’s separatist ideas were situational,” Washington responds. “If you think about where African-Americans were in the 1940s and 1950s, we needed to step away because that force, which is still present but more subdued, was very in your face and we needed to take a step back, just to get some clarity. It’s hard to have the mentality I have now, but it was even harder then — when people are telling you that you are not a human being, that you are not worthy of your basic right of being a human being.”

He feels his music is “universal, something anyone can connect with”. It is the product of an open-minded consciousness, a hard-won space carved out by the struggles of previous generations for racial equality, in life and art.

“People like myself are the beneficiaries of that,” Washington says. “I get to go to the next step, which is exploration. I can enter the world.”

Kamasi Washington plays at Glastonbury on Sunday June 26; British Summer Time Festival in Hyde Park, July 2; Love Supreme Jazz Festival at Glynde Place, Sussex, July 1-3; and Sunfall Festival in Brockwell Park, London, July 9. He will also appear at this year’s BBC Proms in a special late-night prom, August 30.

Photographs: Paul Rousteau; Gai Terrell; Getty; John Lamparski

Get alerts on Kamasi Washington when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article