For decades, jazz's influence has been waning, and that style of music is tough to crack for those who weren't raised on it.
But Kamasi Washington is trying to change that by bringing jazz to new genres. He's exposing people to the artform that otherwise would never have listened to it. And he's pushing some of the most prominent artists of our time to experiment with new sounds.
In the past year alone, The New York Times called the Los Angeles prodigy “the most-talked-about jazz musician since Wynton Marsalis arrived on the New York scene three decades ago.” Rolling Stone compared him to Pharaoh Sanders and The Weather Report, and Pitchfork said he is a “worthy ambassador for jazz in the 21st century.”
Washington has collaborated with legendary jazz greats like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Sanders over the past decade and a half, but he's also worked with Snoop Dogg, Lauryn Hill, Kendrick Lamar, and Flying Lotus — the latter of whom he met after winning the John Coltrane Music Competition in 1999, only to reconnect years later. If you were a fan of Kendrick's To Pimp a Butterfly or FlyLo's 2014 release You're Dead!, you have Washington to thank for the jazz bits. (Washington's 2015 debut, The Epic, a triple album that has a running time of almost three hours, was also released on Flying Lotus' mainly hip-hop and electronic label, Brainfeeder — an anomaly for a jazz artist.)
“Music is actually more connected and more unified than people kind of realize,” Washington tells me. “Genres are just words that describe certain aspects of music. The way Snoop creates music is very different to how Herbie Hancock creates music. But the general skill set and abilities you need are very similar.”
Jazz has commonly been referred to as the most inaccessible genre for those not familiar with it, but Washington, through his solo work and collaborations, has made a new generation of fans, pushing the boundaries of jazz farther than most have in recent years.
The Epic quickly became a critical darling, making its way onto many year-end lists, and earned him a spot on some of the country's most important stages, including Central Park Summerstage in New York, Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado, and Outside Lands this Sunday. And it reached more people than Washington could have ever imagined.
“I didn't know … if anyone would ever hear it,” he says. “[But] I did have confidence that if we were able to get it out there, we'd be able to reach a lot of people.”