This week, Ira Sternberg spoke with Kamasi Washington.
Progressive jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington and percussionist Marcus L. Miller, and their respective bands, will be performing with the Lula Washington Dance Theatre (celebrating its 35th anniversary) at The Smith Center September 16.
At the age of 13, Washington started a lifelong quest discovering the many wonders of music. One night, his father left his soprano saxophone lying on the piano. Kamasi, filled with curiosity for all the beauty he heard from the instrument, picked up his father’s horn. Even though he didn’t know anything about the saxophone – in fact, never even touched one – he played Wayne Shorter’s composition “Sleeping Dancer Sleep On,” his favorite song at the time.
At the prestigious Hamilton High School Music Academy, within two years, Washington earned the lead tenor saxophone chair in the top jazz ensemble. At the same time, he joined the Multi School Jazz Band (MSJB) where he reunited with several childhood friends who were pursuing their passion for music. During his senior year of high school, Washington formed his first band, “The Young Jazz Giants,” with childhood friends including Ronald Bruner, Stephen Bruner and Cameron Graves.
After high school, he received a full scholarship to study ethnomusicology at UCLA, where he explored many of the non-western musical cultures around the world. During the summer after his freshman year, Washington recorded his first album with “The Young Jazz Giants” to spread new sounds of jazz all around the country. In his second year at UCLA, he went on his first national tour with the west coast hip-hop legend Snoop Dogg. Later that year, he joined the orchestra of one of his biggest heroes, Gerald Wilson, and later went on his first international tour with R&B legend Raphael Saadiq.
Over the years, Washington has performed and recorded with many of his musical heroes from various genres, including Gerald Wilson, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Kenny Burrell, George Duke, Lauryn Hill, Jeffrey Osborne, Mos Def, Quincy Jones, Stanley Clark, Harvey Mason and Chaka Khan. His own band “The Next Step” is a modern spin on a big band, which includes two drummers, two upright bass players, keyboard players, three horns players, a pianist, and a vocalist. In addition, Washington is part of a west coast musical collective called the “West Coast Get Down.”
Most recently, he worked on Kendrick Lamar’s acclaimed 2015 album “To Pimp A Butterfly.” On May 5, Washington released his groundbreaking solo album “The Epic” on the trend-setting record label Brainfeeder. “The Epic” is a 172-minute, triple-disc masterpiece, featuring his ten-piece band, “The Next Step” along with a full string orchestra and full choir. “The Epic” debuted #1 on several iTunes Jazz charts, including the US, Canada, Australia, Russia and UK.