- Melina Paris
By Melina Paris, Music Columnist
Kamasi Washington brought Heaven and Earth to Leimert Park on June 21 for a daylong, pre-album release party. The title of the tenor sax player’s album also captured the mood among his fans.
After he released his critically acclaimed Epic in 2015, Washington became a torchbearer for a hybrid of progressive music deeply rooted in jazz. He exposed a younger generation to new sounds, alongside those they were already familiar with in hip-hop, classical and rhythm and blues.
The day opened with a talk at the Barbara Morrison Jazz Museum. The talk was compelling but Washington’s performances are the most compelling. The talk offered the possibility to hear, straight from Washington, intriguing details about his process in creating Heaven and Earth.
Washington addressed a crowd of about 50 people. Kamau Daaood, poet and cofounder of the World Stage, joined him in discussion. Daaood was a teenager when he began his literary journey in the Watts Writers Workshop. Since that time, he grew to become a forceful presence among Los Angeles poets. Daaood, with the legendary jazz drummer Billy Higgins opened the World Stage, a workshop and performance space for poets and musicians in 1989.
The discussion was to focus on tradition, mentorship and passing the torch. That said, Washington displays and verbalizes respect for his musical forbearers and from where he came. Emphasizing this was the fact that during this discussion, Daaood spoke the most. He spoke about Leimert’s oral and musical history with deep regard and abstract expressions. He exuded the feelings of the creative community and of its pupils that have been passed down through generations.
“Leimert was rich with music and everyone was here” Daaood said. “A spiritual thing gets passed on and in it’s the notes.”
Leimert Park is bastion of black creativity in Los Angeles from literature to art, textiles poetry, music and fashion. There’s good reason to celebrate its legacy and Washington, as one of its children is a perfect host to carry this torch. While it was good, even edifying, to hear from Daaood as one of the art centers originators, Washington and his music drew this crowd to Leimert. It would have been fascinating to hear more from him.
He did speak about a few things like how Harmony of Difference, his 2017 extended play came together. The EP contains music Washington wrote for a standalone multimedia installation for New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, 2017 Biennial. The concept was to bring different things together and show how differences can be beautiful.
“Difference is not an issue to be dealt with, it’s a beautiful thing to celebrate,” Washington said.
In that, he wanted to bring different mediums, not just music. So, the first person he approached was his sister Amani Washington, an artist. He wanted to collaborate with her and this was the perfect opportunity. He also wanted to have a film component. So, he collaborated with director, A.G. Rojas to shoot the 14-minute video for Truth on the Harmony of Difference EP. He noted that when he met Rojas, he let him hear the music, told him about the concept and within days they shot the video and it was beautiful.
“It’s a blessing to know that you have kindred spirits all over the world who you are in line with and don’t have to explain what your trying to do,” Washington said.
What style of jazz is your favorite?
To answer this question, Washington’s responded, “That’s like asking what words are your favorite?”
He said there are infinite rhythms, sounds, cords and structures and people like to hone in on certain ones but that’s not the totality of the culture. He gave a considered explanation, elaborating on the idea of infinite.
“When you think of earth maybe you look up, you have space and you think of the ocean,” Washington said. “But it’s (also) butterflies, the bees, trees, the people the fish. It’s not just the ocean. It’s not just…”
He knocked out a beat on the table and said, “That’s just one part of it. And, when you really start to learn all the different aspects of music, you realize that they are all kind of the same. It’s all straight ahead.”
Washington said he talks more about particular artists he listens to, like Gerald Wilson (Sept. 4, 1918 to Sept. 8, 2014), his mentor and close friend. The jazz trumpeter, band leader and educator opened Washington’s access to his musical heritage and made him feel connected to it in a very important way. When he was coming up, Washington would go to Wilson’s home who lives in the area. The elder handed him the music and made him feel connected to his heritage in a way that was vital to him. Wilson is more commonly known because his music is so powerful and beautiful. His music would shape people’s lives and help them get through their day-to-day, to have that connection to an artist.
Institutions and the world or UCLA and Leimert Park?
Asked to compare the exposure gained from the cultural hub of Leimert to that of his formal education at University of California Los Angeles, Washington said, he would rather classify it as “institutions and the world.”
He said education from institutions in general is helpful. To have a place that is dedicated to the storing of information like, UCLA, he could more surgically pinpoint things he wanted to learn and information he wanted to get to.
“Like Kamau said, there is certainly information and understandings that you can’t get in that way, that you only get by being close to someone,” Washington said. “It’s more energetic and a less tangible aspect of music, especially in music and I believe, in life in general.”
At UCLA, Washington could go to the library and find every score imaginable. He could go get the pieces of music he wanted and actually look at them. This was before the internet was big. Having that access was important. He was exposed to things that were not on his radar.
“Like Indonesian Gamelan music,” he said. “How much of a possibility was that to happen just gigging around town? Probably nothing. But the human aspect of music, the heritage, the lineage, the intangibles, (you can’t get).”
The day’s events
From there Washington and posse moved to Ride On Bike Shop for a Streetfighter Tournament, in celebration of the Heaven and Earth track, Street Fighter Mas. Washington previously made a statement about the track explaining when he was younger, children from different hoods would gather at one store to play Street Fighter. It was like an equalizer and only about how good they were at playing Street Fighter. In other places, (they) would be afraid of these children. Washington jokingly said it was his own theme song, like a boxer. After the gaming tournament, Eso Won Books hosted a two-hour-long album signing where Washington chatted with everyone who got their hands on his CD or album.
The next step
Washington and his band, The Next Step performed two one-and-a-half-hour free sets at the World Stage to hundreds of fans. The line to get in, an hour before the first show, circled around the block. The World Stage only has room for 100 guests so, couches and big screens were set up outside to accommodate everyone.
From the early afternoon to nightfall the events drew a multi-ethnic and multi-generational representation of Angelinos and others from elsewhere, fans and artists alike. Washington touches people with his music and moves them. Whether in a huge concert hall, at Coachella or in his own hood, his music is an elixir that brings people together.
Washington will embark on another world tour following his album release.
See him at the Hollywood Bowl, Sept. 25.