Fresh heirs: how Kamasi Washington gave jazz back to the kids


Leimert Park in the early 90s was a unique place to be. South Central LA: the birthplace of west-coast hip-hop, jam centre for the now middle-aged instrumentalists of spiritual jazz, historical home to Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald, the outskirts of so-called Black Beverly Hills. An area also recently infamous for its street crime and gang affiliations, it was here that young saxophonist Kamasi Washington first became versed in jazz.

At the age of 11, he was taken by his jazz musician father Rickey to see acts in the many clubs dotted around the area’s backstreets: artists such as saxophonist Pharoah Sanders at the 100-capacity World Stage club and pianist Horace Tapscott, who would perform with his Pan-Afrikan Peoples Arkestra. Tapscott’s work was particularly influential for Washington. He viewed the music he played not as spiritual jazz, nor even jazz, but simply “black music”, and pioneered the use of spoken-word artists who would chant sociopolitically charged lyrics over his compositions. On Why Don’t You Listen?, vocalist Dwight Trible lists jazz musicians from Billie Holiday to Duke Ellington to Dizzy Gillespie, interspersed with the titular refrain. Tapscott felt his work had a responsibility to its history and an ultimate emphasis on imparting this culture to younger generations. In his hands, this lineage would never die.

Read the essay in the Guardian.

[This piece was published on 21/11/19]