You may not know Kamasi Washington’s name — but you definitely know his work. Over the past decade, the Los Angeles-based saxophonist has lent his forward-thinking sound to some of the coolest, most progressive records: Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy-winning To Pimp a Butterfly; Thundercat’s The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam; Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead! And with his 2015 triple album The Epic, the 35-year-old has helped bring jazz to a new generation whose understanding of the genre might stop at Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.
Raised in South Central L.A., Washington’s jazz-musician father ignited his love of the genre — but not without some struggle. “I wanted to play saxophone, but my dad wanted me to learn clarinet first,” says Washington, who picked up clarinet as a 9-year-old after giving drums and piano a shot. As a preteen, Washington commandeered his dad’s saxophone after a rehearsal — and launched himself to studying ethnomusicology at UCLA and laying down tracks as a session musician for artists Wayne Shorter to Lauryn Hill.
Washington’s profile skyrocketed last year, and it’ll only continue to grow in 2016: He’s booked for high-profile slots at festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo. The saxophonist recently chatted with EW about growing up on Art Blakey, bringing jazz to a mainstream audience, and collaborating with Lamar on To Pimp A Butterfly.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How do you bring jazz to events like Coachella, which haven’t historically billed lots of jazz artists?
KAMASI WASHINGTON: It’s something that I’ve been doing since my teenage years. We’ve all played to those crowds, we just might’ve played to them with [other artists]. We’re taking that shared energy and we’re bringing some of that freedom that’s in jazz. People tend to gravitate toward that combination of things: something familiar and something new. We try to create an experience that is based off the people we’re playing for. We find their energy level, connect with them, and then go on a journey together.
Jazz stars are few and far between in 2016. Why do you think your music resonates?
I developed a love for jazz when I was about nine. Since then I’ve always wanted to share that experience. When I was a kid I got really into Art Blakey. Then I got all my friends at school to get into Art Blakey, too! The jazz we play, it relates to who I am and who my friends are and how we grew up together playing music since we were little kids. I’m from L.A. which is the musical capital of the world. We really take in that music from all those different people.
Tell me about your involvement with some of those L.A. artists: Flying Lotus, Thundercat, and Kendrick Lamar.
It’s exciting, because they’re all guys who have true genius to their art. Whenever I record a song with Thundercat or Flying Lotus or Kendrick Lamar, I’m being challenged to truly tap in to who I am as an artist and as a person — to bring something to their music that’s worthy of what they’re doing. I open myself and in doing that, it’s like seeing the world through a different perspective that I don’t normally get to see it from.
Your saxophone work added another dimension to To Pimp A Butterfly. What were those sessions like?
Kendrick has a style of creating where he lets the people that he’s collaborating with pour their whole heart and soul into his music. Then you have this guy who’s a real true genius telling these stories on top of it. Kendrick has a way of filling you up with confidence: “I want you to put your thing on this.” It was so lush and so full and had such a beautiful element to it — I was really, really trying not to mess it up. I was looking for something that wasn’t there, to add to it. It was a really fun challenge for me.
After the Grammys you tweeted a broken heart emoji. Was it frustrating for you that Kendrick didn’t win the Album of the Year?
In reflection, he won five Grammys, so it was a beautiful thing. It was nothing to really be brokenhearted about. But all the buildup and that performance — it just felt like the perfect ending to that would’ve been to win Album of the Year. It was like having the perfect chocolate sundae and then the cherry falls off the top. Kendrick made an album that is historic and is I think in a lot of ways changing the culture of music around the world. Regardless of awards or anything like that, just making that piece of art, he’s already won. The future is bright.
The Epic was your first album in 7 years — are we going to have to wait that long for your next one?
I have so much music to record and to create. I’m looking forward to getting back in the studio this year. You never know how long it will take — but I know it won’t take seven years.