Kamasi Washington draws inspiration from former jazz icons

This biographical article is part of JAZZ.FM91’s supplementary research component to expand on The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights documentary podcast series. Click here to find out more.


Kamasi Washington was born on February 18, 1981 in Los Angeles, California. Both of Washington’s parents were talented musicians and teachers, and were a big influence on their son’s passion for music. In his early years, Washington’s family moved from L.A. to Inglewood where he attended the Academy of Music of Alexander Hamilton High. His obvious talent playing instruments such as the saxophone became apparent during his time in high school, and Washington soon applied to study at UCLA’s Department of Ethnomusicology. Here, Washington began playing with some of his faculty members such as Billy Higgins, Kenny Burrell and trumpeter/band leader Gerald Wilson.  Soon after, Washington established his own quartet with Cameron Graves and brothers Ronald Bruner, Jr. and Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner. In 2004, they released their self-titled album, Young Jazz Giants. 

By 2005, Washington ventured into big band music when he joined the Gerald Wilson Orchestra for their 2005 album In My Time. Between 2005 and 2008, Washington released a handful of his own albums, and played with a number of talented musicians such as  Snoop DoggRaphael SaadiqGerald WilsonMcCoy TynerGeorge Duke, and PJ Morton.

2015 was a pivotal moment in Washington’s career when he was asked to contribute to Kendrick Lamar’s acclaimed album To Pimp a Butterfly. In it, Washington shows off his incredible talent at the tenor-saxophone. In the same year, he released the hit LP The Epic the Brainfeeder Label. The album “instantly set him on a path as our generation’s torchbearer for progressive, improvisational music that would open the door for young audiences to experience music unlike anything they had heard before.” The 172-minute odyssey featuring his 10-piece band, is littered with “elements of hip-hop, classical and R&B music, all major influences on the young saxophonist and bandleader, who exceeds any notions of what “jazz” music is.” Released to critical acclaim, The Epic won numerous awards, including the inaugural American Music Prize and the Gilles Peterson Worldwide album of the year. Since 2015, Washington has released two hit albums Harmony of Difference (2017) and Heaven & Earth (2018).

Street Fighter Mas (2018)

The song “Street Fighter Mas” was released on Washington’s 2018 album, Heaven & Earth. In an interview with National Public Radio, Washington explained that the song was a tribute to his favourite video game from his youth titled Street Fighter. As stated in the interview, “the video games and cartoons of his childhood make up a big part of his imagination today…The Heaven side of his new album Heaven and Earth, which includes “Street Fighter Mas,” is a dive into that imagination.”

Washington expressed that he struggled to make his last album – feeling confined by the concept of what the album should be. “I have to always check back in with my imagination just to remember that I have this infinite potential, and I can do anything and anything is possible.”

References:

Andy Kellman. “Kamasi Washington: Biography.” Allmusic.com, 2020, https://www.allmusic.com/artist/kamasi-washington-mn0000772447/biography.

Emily Abshire. “Watch Kamasi Washington Beat A Professional Gamer in ‘Street Fighter Mas.'” National Public Radio, June 22, 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/allsongs/2018/06/22/622556999/watch-kamasi-washington-beat-a-professional-gamer-in-street-fighter-mas.

Kamasiwashington.com. “Kamasi Washington: Bio” February, 2020, https://www.kamasiwashington.com/bio.